An imprisoned drug felon has been charged with hiring a man to kill Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and Dakota County Judge Rex Stacey, and to maim a witness who helped convict him.
John Stephen Woodward, 47, formerly of Inver Grove Heights, allegedly began the plot while he was in the state prison in Faribault. A criminal complaint filed Wednesday says that Woodward made a down payment on the $10,000 murder-for-hire conspiracy, with the prosecutor's slaying scheduled for December as Backstrom drove in his car near his home.
The crimes were allegedly planned in three segments, with a payment for each. The judge was to be killed in Sturgis, S.D., next summer, and if the killings went well, then the witness would be attacked, with her arms broken and other injuries inflicted, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in Rice County District Court.
Woodward, who once was Backstrom's neighbor on a woodsy Inver Grove Heights cul-de-sac, even drew a map for the inmate he planned to hire for the killing, court papers say. But that inmate, Thomas Jackson, went to authorities and agreed to wear a wire to collect evidence against Woodward, according to court papers.
On Wednesday, Backstrom called the case upsetting but expressed his gratitude for the work of investigators from several agencies and the Rice County attorney.
Woodward has been imprisoned since November 2007, serving a sentence of nearly eight years for felony drug convictions, including for methamphetamine sales. He was charged Wednesday in Rice County with two counts of conspiracy to commit premeditated first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault.
Court papers say that Woodward had gone so far as to make a $2,500 down payment through Woodward's wife to an attorney who represented both men.
Woodward had told his wife and the attorney that the money was for a truck that he was going to buy from Jackson.
Woodward's wife owned a catering service, and Woodward once catered for Backstrom, with whom he was then on good terms, according to the court papers.
Believed he was 'set up'
Narcotics officers believed that Woodward was a large supplier of methamphetamine in the area, and he was charged with felony drug crimes in 2006.
A drug associate who later testified against Woodward became a target in the murder-for-hire conspiracy, the complaint says.
"We have had information on Woodward using and dealing narcotics for many years, through tips, informants and anonymous phone calls," said Dakota County Sheriff's Cmdr. John Grant, formerly head of the Dakota County Drug Task Force, who investigated the drug cases that sent Woodward to prison.
Backstrom released a statement to his employees Wednesday:
"This prior case was prosecuted at my request by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest due to my prior social contacts with Mr. Woodward and his family ... and because I was a potential witness due to my observations of repeated short-term automobile traffic in and out of the Woodward house, both day and night, over an extended period of time. Ultimately, my testimony was determined to be unnecessary in this case."
Later, Woodward came to believe that he'd been "set up" by Backstrom through the county Drug Task Force, court papers say. Jackson helped Woodward file various ethics complaints about Backstrom while the two inmates were incarcerated together in Faribault.
They included Woodward's unsubstantiated allegations that Backstrom had used his authority to get Woodward in trouble.
'Our plans are still on track'
The details of the alleged plot, which came together over the summer, according to the complaint:
The murder of Backstrom was to be in December, when Jackson was to be released. On June 5, Woodward gave Jackson a sealed and dated envelope containing a detailed map, which Woodward drew, showing the area of Backstrom's residence, the route he routinely travels to work and where the murder was to take place.
He also sent several messages about the plot through other inmates to Jackson, including "our plans are still on track."
Woodward told Jackson in detail how he could shoot Backstrom through the rear window of the prosecutor's vehicle and where the weapons could be dumped.
But in June, Jackson went to prison officials, saying that once he learned that Woodward was serious, he needed to take action to prevent the murder.
"If I don't do it, will he get someone else to do it?" Jackson said to investigators.
Woodward also promised to pay thousands more to Jackson to kill the judge the following August and to seriously injure the former drug associate, who testified against Woodward during his 2007 trial.
Investigators from several law enforcement agencies teamed up for the investigation. Jackson wore a device that recorded them discussing the conspiracy, and video was shot surreptitiously, the complaint says.
Prison investigators, Faribault police, the Dakota County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigated the plot.
The prison in Faribault is a medium-security facility, and on Aug. 10, Woodward was moved to the maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights, said Shari Burt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He had been scheduled for release on his drug convictions in May 2013.
Star Tribune researcher John Wareham contributed to this story. Joy Powell • 952-882-9017