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2012: Top SD Criminal Justice Stories

December 28, 2012, 10:00 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

2012: Top SD Criminal Justice Stories

It was a punishment that was carried out more than 20 years after the crime. Donald Moeller's execution was one of the top criminal justice stories of 2012 in South Dakota.

In October, Tina Curl visited the crime scene in Lincoln County where her nine-year-old daughter, Becky O'Connell, was killed by Moeller in 1990.

Curl stopped by the site near Lake Alvin just hours before Moeller was executed.

After decades of appeals, Moeller was finally punished on October 30 when he was put to death by lethal injection as Curl and several former investigators watched from the witness rooms surrounding the death chamber.

"She didn't deserve what happened to her.  She was right, full of life and that dirtbag took it out of her for his own sick satisfaction," Curl said shortly after Moeller’s execution in October.

Moeller was executed just a few weeks after Eric Robert was put to death. It was the first time in more than 100 years that South Dakota put multiple inmates to death.

Robert was executed for killing Correctional Officer Ronald 'RJ' Johnson during a failed prison escape in 2011.

Robert did not appeal his death sentence so he was put to death 18 months after he committed the crime.

The widow of RJ Johnson said this year that Robert's death sentence was more about protecting other correctional officers than it was about giving her family closure.

"The focus has to stay on keeping our correctional officers throughout the state at all the facilities to keep them safe. My mission is that, that we have to move forward, things have to change," Lynette Johnson said on October 15 before Robert was executed.

One of the other big stories in South Dakota criminal justice in 2012 came when the South Dakota legislature voted to ban synthetic drugs.

"It's not pot. These are dangerous chemicals and the legislature correctly identified that and included them in the list of controlled substances," Minnehaha County State's Attorney Aaron McGowan said earlier this year.

Following the passage of the state law to ban synthetic drugs in South Dakota, a federal raid called 'Operation Log Jam' was carried out in July.

The 'Roll With It' stores in Sioux Falls were shut down for several days as part of the operation and the owner of the stores was charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. Following the raid, South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson had this warning for anyone in the state who was selling synthetic drugs.

"What you are doing is not only wrong, what you are doing is illegal and together from a state as well as a federal perspective, all of us are going to do everything in our power to shut you down," Johnson said on August 1.

The problem of meth on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation was also brought to light this year when two-year-old RieLee Lovell was found dead and wrapped in a blanket in a closet of a home outside of Wagner on the Fourth of July.

An 11-year-old boy was arrested in connection with the death, but 29-year-old Laurie Cournoyer and 21-year-old Taylor Cournoyer were also arrested for not reporting the death and using meth instead of watching after the six children in their care. At Taylor Cournoyer's sentencing in November, prosecutors said the drug use and the unsupervised home led to Lovell's death.

"It shows you the victims of drug use and unfortunately in this case, it is graphic and it is directly related to what happened in that house," South Dakota Assistant Attorney General Bill Golden argued in the Charles Mix County courthouse.

The manager of a Sioux Falls hair salon was hailed as a hero this year after she tried to warn a co-worker that an abusive boyfriend was about to enter the Cost Cutters on 41st Street. Instead, 24-year-old Amanda Connors was shot killed in the parking lot before the gunman took his own life inside. Connors' mother remembered her just weeks after the shooting.

"Hero is a pretty strong word, but I'm so proud of her.  I'm so proud of the person she was, the way she acted that day and I know she was doing what she felt was right because she always did," Cathy Connors said in September.

Finally, the remarkable recovery of South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Andrew Steen was one of the feel-good stories of the year. In October, investigators say Steen was run over in the parking lot of a Sioux Falls strip mall by 25-year-old suspected drunk driver Rachel Coleman. Steen suffered a traumatic brain injury and a severely broken ankle.

But after numerous fundraisers and eight weeks in the hospital, Steen walked out on his own to a standing ovation from fellow troopers and hospital staff members. He thanked everyone for their support.

"Everybody here that came to see me go home, I can't say enough, so I just want to say thank you," Steen said earlier this month as he left the hospital. "I've gotten thousands of people praying for me, so that saved my life." 

A life saved during a historical year in South Dakota.

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