A Rice County jury is expected to begin considering the case today against an Inver Grove Heights man charged with plotting to murder Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom in 2010.
John Stephen Woodward, 49, was originally charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit premeditated first-degree murder. Authorities say he made arrangements with another inmate at the state prison in Faribault to murder not just Backstrom, but also Dakota County District Judge Rex Stacey, who presided over Woodward’s trial on felony drug charges.
Woodward is also on trial on a charge of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault resulting in great bodily harm. Prosecutors say he intended to have someone use a baseball bat to break the arms and legs of a woman who testified against him in his drug trial.
The charge of conspiracy to murder Stacey was dismissed this week for lack of evidence.
Woodward was sentenced to seven years and 10 months in prison on the drug charge, in which he sold methamphetamine from his Inver Grove Heights home. His next-door neighbor was Backstrom, whom Woodward believed had set him up by working with the Dakota County Drug Task Force, according to the criminal complaint against him.
In 2010, prosecutors say, Woodward became friendly with Thomas Ray Jackson, another inmate in the Minnesota Correctional Facility—Faribault, and offered to pay him $10,000 to murder Backstrom when he was released from prison in December 2010. The two men worked out together, and Woodward had helped Jackson file ethics complaints against Backstrom, according to the complaint.
Woodward, who described himself as a former “best buddy” of Backstrom, provided Jackson with a detailed map of Backstrom’s neighborhood, the route that he regularly takes to work and the location where the murder was to be committed, according to the complaint.
Jackson contacted authorities when he realized that Woodward was serious about the murder-for-hire scheme, the complaint says. He gave investigators an envelope containing the map, and authorities subsequently obtained video footage of Woodward drawing the map for Jackson on June 5, 2010, prosecutors say.
Woodward allegedly sent a down payment of $2,500 for the murder to his St. Cloud attorney, Janice Ruth Tarvestad—who died last July—with a cover story that the money was for a truck that Woodward was going to purchase from Jackson.
Jackson also provided investigators with five “inmate kites”—inmate-to-inmate mail between Jackson and Woodward—containing comments about the scheme, including “funds being with Jan,” “the truck B.S.” and “our plans are still on track,” according to the complaint.
Woodward told Jackson how Backstrom’s murder could be accomplished, advising him on the correct time and location and telling him to shoot through Backstrom’s car window, Jackson told investigators. He also told Jackson about a nearby pond where he could dump weapons after the murder, Jackson said.
A note from Woodward to Jackson said “the first one, without mentioning names” and “the third one, without mentioning names”—referring to the murders of Backstrom and Stacey—would be “huge” media events, “Backstrom being who he [expletive] is,” but added that “people will be glad she’s gone,” referring to the witness, according to the complaint.
Investigators asked Jackson why he had brought the information to them.
“If I don’t do it, will he get someone else to do it?” Jackson replied, according to the complaint. “Does that mean Backstrom’s kid’s not gonna have his father?”
Investigators equipped Jackson with a concealed recording device July 30, 2010, before a planned meeting with Woodward. The two men discussed details of the murder-for-hire scheme, including the date of the planned murder, the location, landmarks and businesses in the vicinity and arrangements for payment of the remainder of the $10,000 fee to the Maryland home of Jackson’s sisters.
Jackson and Woodward also discussed a plot to seriously injure the Inver Grove Heights woman who testified against Woodward in his drug trial, in which Woodward instructed Jackson to break her arms and legs and leave her in the woods, and told him to do “whatever he needed to do” to the woman’s boyfriend if he interfered. Woodward told Jackson he would pay him $5,000 for that part of the plan, according to the complaint.
During the recorded conversation, Jackson speculated that Backstrom’s murder could inspire copycat murders. Woodward replied that he would “love to see an epidemic; it would be about time” and that “it could be a beautiful thing,” the complaint says.
Investigators subsequently interviewed Woodward after he was moved to the Minnesota Correction Facility in Oak Park Heights. He initially told them that the map he drew for Jackson was for a “fishing hole” in the neighborhood, but eventually admitted that he and Jackson might have discussed killing Backstrom and Stacey and injuring the witness, though he claimed repeatedly that the idea was Jackson’s and that he went along with the plan just to get Jackson to quit “hounding” him.
Woodward is scheduled to be released from prison next May on the drug conviction; if he is found guilty of the conspiracy charge, he faces 20 more years behind bars.