Demetrius Santreel Ballinger knew he had done wrong and wanted to spare his many victims the pain of going to trial by pleading guilty to charges of murder and rape, his attorney said Monday after the 26-year-old Stillwater man was sentenced to 36 years in prison.
“He just really wanted to man up,” Ahren Johnson said of Ballinger’s crime spree, when he held 11 people hostage and 19-year-old Mark Eric Henderson Jr. was mortally wounded after a motel room party went sour at a Red Roof Inn in Woodbury in August 2012.
Ballinger apologized to his many victims, and to his family, and called himself a coward for the harm he inflicted at gunpoint, said prosecutor Siv Yurichuk of the Washington County attorney’s office. She read statements from mothers of five victims, including four underage girls who were raped. One was 15 and three were 16.
“They talked about how hard it was for their daughters to overcome the horrendous ordeal,” Yurichuk said. “I’m glad it’s over for these girls.”
District Judge Ellen Maas sentenced Ballinger to 36 years in prison on one count of attempted second-degree intentional murder and four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Ballinger admitted he fired a handgun at Henderson, who was trying to escape, with the intention of hitting him.
In the confusion during an hours-long standoff, Henderson was shot by three Woodbury police officers who thought he posed a threat to them or others as he tried to flee Ballinger. He died later that day at Regions Hospital. A grand jury issued a “no bill” after reviewing the case, meaning there was no evidence officers broke the law.
Under the guilty pleas entered in June, 22 other felony counts were dismissed. Ballinger will be eligible for release after 24 years but he also was sentenced to lifetime conditional release. “Fair and just” was how Johnson described the sentence.
“This is something he’s trying to take responsibility for,” Johnson said Monday of the 45-minute hearing. “He’s trying to save his victims a trial.” Ballinger at one point in the sentencing asked Maas to give him life in prison, Johnson said.
Steve Smith, one of the attorneys for the Henderson family, described Monday’s sentencing as an “emotionally draining atmosphere” punctuated with “extremely heartfelt statements.”
The sentencing clears the way for a possible lawsuit over Henderson’s death, Smith said. “I think there’s more accountability to go around,” he said.
County Attorney Pete Orput said he was dismayed at the extent of Ballinger’s crime spree and its fallout.
“Very seldom do we see a case where so many innocents are victimized in such a cruel manner,” Orput said. “The severity of this sentence recognizes that and we are pleased to finally be able to bring closure to the victims of these heinous acts.”
Woodbury police detective Chris Rheault, a member of the Washington County hostage negotiation team, had talked with Ballinger by phone several times the night of the siege. Rheault said after the June hearing that Ballinger was “up and down” emotionally that night and said, “I know I’m going to jail, so I might as well take them with me.”
Rheault said he kept Ballinger distracted from shooting other hostages by talking about Ballinger’s son and his role as a father and otherwise trying to calm him.
“I attributed his behavior to drugs, alcohol, the length of the night, the severity of it,” Rheault said.