It seems unbelievable to Kenneth Miller that his friend the Bison King, Ron Michaels, was ever charged with the murder of a man he did not know.
Not only was Michaels charged with killing Jeffrey Hammill, the charges against Michaels were filed more than a quarter of a century after the 1979 death in Wright County.
"This never should have happened to him or anyone," said Miller, a former Wright County resident who recently published a book about the arrest and trial of Michaels.
Called "The Bison King," the book details how Michaels was arrested and ultimately was acquitted within 30 minutes by a Wright County jury.
The title comes from the fact that Michaels was the 1974 homecoming king at Buffalo High School, where the team nickname is the Bisons.
Hammill, 21, was killed on Aug. 11, 1979, about 3 a.m. while hitchhiking near Montrose in Wright County. He suffered severe head trauma, which the Wright County Sheriff's Department surmised was caused by being hit by a vehicle.
Despite this evidence, Michaels and two other men, Dale Todd and Terry Olson, were arrested in 2005 and charged with murder in the death of Hammill.
Miller, a Chicago businessman, was so outraged about what happened to his former Buffalo High School classmate that he devoted much of the past three years to researching and writing his book.
"I hope to expose the injustice and the improprieties that occurred during the investigation and prosecution," Miller said in an interview. "Wright County officials were more concerned with obtaining a conviction than in learning the truth."
The book doesn't break any new ground, and it doesn't go into why Olson was later convicted of the same killing -- despite the same evidence being presented at his trial.
But it does outline in detail the drama in the courtroom and the nature of the evidence against Michaels that was presented, especially the recanting of a key witness.
The most damaging evidence against Michaels was from Todd, who cut a deal to testify against him. But once he got on the stand, he recanted the story completely.
"Their case was the testimony from Dale Todd and once he recanted it was over," Miller said. "Right there on the stand he told the truth to God and everybody."
Hot to close cold case
Miller and Michaels' lawyer, Jim Fleming, blame overzealous prosecutors and investigators from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which they claim rushed to close a cold case.
The BCA's cold case unit works with the nonprofit Spotlight on Crime program, which since 2001 has offered more than $1 million in rewards to solve violent crimes.
Among the cases Spotlight has featured was the death of Hammill. Spotlight offered a $50,000 reward in the case.
Also around this time Target Corp. donated $150,000 to fund two cold-case investigators for the BCA. Among the cases the investigators solved with that money was the Hammill killing.
"They were looking for another 'case closed' so they could go back to the foundation and get more money," said Fleming, the attorney.
Among the investigators' theories was that the men were jealous because Hammill was flirting with the girlfriend of one of their friends. Another theory, presented in a criminal complaint, was that the attack was a hate crime and Hammill was killed because he was gay.
"There were all kinds of theories that were getting tossed out," Fleming said. "None of them added up."
The case came to the BCA's attention when the biological daughter of Hammill contacted the Wright County Sheriff's Department looking for information about his death.
The Sheriff's Department then contacted the BCA, which decided to feature it as one of its Spotlight cold cases.
Investigators set about re-interviewing witnesses and people of interest from the original investigation, eventually focusing on Michaels and the two others, apparently because their stories had changed after more than 25 years.
The case against Michaels fell apart as soon as Todd recanted his testimony on the stand and Fleming was able to show how investigators guided Todd through his testimony, providing him false information at times -- such as information that they had a murder weapon, that Hammill's DNA was on it and that Todd's car was seen at the murder scene on he could not have known.
"They sat him down for a five-hour interview and cooked him," Fleming said. "They fed him stuff. He didn't remember who Ron Michaels was because he had only met him once, that night."
Fleming and Miller remain angry at what was done to Michaels, who suffered financially and physically from being in jail for such a long time.
Ideally, he and Miller would like the state of Minnesota to look at the misconduct and the Olson conviction.
Neither is confident that this will happen any time soon.
"I'd like to see more people read the book," Fleming said. "I'd like to see more people get interested in it. I'd like to see more people get mad about what happened."
Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280