Two to go to trial soon in Newton kidnapping case - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Two to go to trial soon in Newton kidnapping case

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Photo by Daniel Freel/New Jersey Herald — Douglas Stangeland may soon go to trial for the 2010 kidnapping of a Newton businessman. Photo by Daniel Freel/New Jersey Herald — Douglas Stangeland may soon go to trial for the 2010 kidnapping of a Newton businessman.
Photo by Daniel Freel / New Jersey Herald — Lonnie Swarnes, right, speaks with his attorney, public defender David Nufrio. Photo by Daniel Freel / New Jersey Herald — Lonnie Swarnes, right, speaks with his attorney, public defender David Nufrio.
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By ERIC OBERNAUER
eobernauer@njherald.com

NEWTON — Two of the three remaining defendants in the mistaken-identity kidnapping and torture of a Newton pet supply store owner four years ago were back in court Monday, where state Superior Court Judge Thomas Critchley indicated that a trial for both men could soon commence.

The case, which received nationwide attention, could result in Lonnie Swarnes, 48, and Douglas Stangeland, 50 — both of whom hail from Missouri — being sentenced to life in prison if convicted of one or more counts.

A third defendant, William Barger, 50, who also is from Missouri, was not in court Monday but is expected to appear before Critchley on Friday afternoon with his Sparta-based attorney, Jeff Patti, at which time the charges against him are expected to be finalized.

Barger, though not a participant in the kidnapping, is accused of having recruited Swarnes and Stangeland to commit the crime, in part by boasting of his connections to a new chapter of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club being started in the Midwest.

The three face a laundry list of charges including conspiracy to commit murder, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison. The three also are accused of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree robbery, both of which are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and various weapons offenses carrying a potential jail term of up to 10 years.

First Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Mueller previously had indicated in court that the state intended to try Swarnes first.

The trio of defendants, whose cases are being handled separately from one another, are accused of snatching Jeffrey Muller at gunpoint from the parking lot of his Newton pet supply shop on an early Friday morning in January 2010 and shocking him with a stun gun, beating him and driving him in the back of a car with his hands and feet bound on a harrowing 1,200-mile, 24-hour road trip from Sussex County to Missouri.

Muller’s ordeal finally ended when the car driven by his captors broke down in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, at which point Muller — having undergone multiple beatings — escaped and alerted a convenience store clerk, who called 911.

Authorities believe the three defendants conspired to extort money from Muller and kill him in the mistaken belief that he was a New York-based money broker, also named Jeffrey Muller, who was blamed for having bilked a fourth defendant, Roy Slates, 60, out of money in a failed land deal.

With his wife by his side, Muller sat through Monday’s court proceedings but showed little outward emotion.

Swarnes, dressed in the charcoal-gray striped uniforms issued to all inmates of the Sussex County Jail, was escorted Monday by sheriff’s officers into the courtroom, where a brief discussion ensued regarding witness statements that his attorney, Deputy Public Defender David Nufrio, had sought to have suppressed.

The judge scheduled an April 14 status conference after Mueller, the prosecutor, indicated authorities were not intending to use those statements at trial. Swarnes whispered a few words to his attorney but did not otherwise comment during his appearance.

Stangeland, who recently underwent cataract surgery while awaiting trial, appeared in court in handcuffs while dressed in a light-beige jumpsuit with dark glasses covering his eyes. Authorities are close to being ready to try him as well but may have to wait a bit longer given what his attorney, Martin Morrison, indicated was the possibility of Stangeland having his other eye treated for cataracts.

Stangeland, who is being housed temporarily at a medical correctional facility in Trenton, expressed frustration at one point over the “confusion” in his case, to which Mueller responded that he shared that sentiment and that the state was anxious to proceed to trial. The judge, in turn, also scheduled April 14 for a pre-trial conference to go over last-minute details of Stangeland’s case, after which a trial date is expected to be finalized.

Two other defendants in the case — including Swarnes’ 25-year-old nephew, Andrew Wadel — have already pleaded guilty to charges in New Jersey stemming from their role in the kidnapping.

Wadel, who participated in the kidnapping with his uncle and later provided statements incriminating the other defendants, is in the third year of an 18-year prison sentence he was given under terms of a plea deal. As part of that deal, Wadel pleaded guilty to first-degree kidnapping, second-degree conspiracy to commit kidnapping and unlawful possession of a firearm, and fourth-degree possession of the stun gun used to subdue Muller.

Under the No Early Release Act, Wadel must serve 85 percent of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

Slates, who is accused of having laid the groundwork for the entire case, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft by extortion, which is a second-degree crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. According to authorities, it was Slates who, after meeting Stangeland at a Missouri bar in 2009, told him of having been bilked out of money by a New York-based power broker named “Jeffrey Muller” and of his willingness to pay Stangeland 10 percent of whatever losses he could help him recoup.

Slates, whose defense was handled by Sparta-based attorney Joseph Corazza, remains free on bail after having been granted permission to return to Missouri to visit a sick relative. Authorities have said he will not be sentenced until after the other defendants’ cases are resolved.

In the meantime, Swarnes and Stangeland could also face charges in Missouri stemming from a November 2009 home invasion in which they, along with Wardel, are alleged to have held a man and his wife at gunpoint and injured him in a botched attempt at learning the whereabouts of the Jeffrey Muller they were seeking. The three allegedly did so on Barger’s orders, which included a directive to kidnap Muller and bring him back to Missouri.

During that episode, Stangeland allegedly shot the captive man, who lost several fingers as a result. The man and his wife were allegedly tied to chairs afterward and told not to tell anyone what happened.

The investigation of the 2010 Newton kidnapping and the home invasion that preceded it was a joint effort of multiple federal, state and local law enforcement agencies including the FBI, New Jersey State Police, Sussex County County Prosecutor’s Office, and Newton Police Department. The effort also involved several police and law enforcement agencies in Missouri.

Authorities eventually agreed to have the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office take the lead in handling the case.

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