By Dan Nienaber
---- — ST. PETER — Two potentially long criminal trials were averted Monday after a North Mankato couple reached a plea agreement in a case accusing them of starving an adopted son.
Mona and Russell Hauer, both 45, entered Alford pleas to a single charge of child neglect during the plea hearing before Nicollet County District Court Judge Allison Krehbiel. The Alford plea allowed the Hauers to maintain their innocence but admit enough evidence existed for a jury to find them guilty of that charge and several others filed against them nearly a year ago.
Mona Hauer pleaded guilty to a felony-level charge accusing her of causing substantial harm to her child, who was 8 years old when she brought him to a hospital, as a result of her neglect. Russell Hauer pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge accusing him of neglect that could have resulted in substantial harm. The plea agreement caps the maximum jail time at 60 days for each of the Hauers.
The charges were filed Nov. 2 after investigators learned the boy, one of the Hauers' four children, had been denied food. The Hauers have said the boy had problems that led to an eating disorder when he was originally placed in their home as a foster child. The boy told investigators he wasn't allowed to eat, was spanked frequently and was left outside for long periods of time.
After a civil trial earlier this year, the Hauers lost their parental rights over the boy, but they have been allowed to keep the other three other children. That decision by Judge Todd Westphal has been appealed by both the Hauers and Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer. The Hauers want their rights restored. Fischer wants the other children removed from their home.
Fischer said she wanted Mona Hauer to plead guilty to a more serious charge because the evidence showed she was more responsible for what happened to the boy. She also said she offered the Hauers the plea deal because she didn't want the victim to go through the trauma of having to testify at two trials. Mona Hauer's trial was scheduled to start Monday and Russell Hauer's on Nov. 14.
The plea agreement for Mona Hauer also said she will receive a stay of imposition for the felony conviction. That means, if she successfully completes her probation requirements, the charge could be reduced to a misdemeanor level.
During the plea hearing, Krehbiel told the Hauers she doesn't usually accept Alford pleas in these types of cases. She said she had been swayed in this case by Fischer's concerns about the boy testifying.
After the hearing, the Hauers' attorney, Christopher Rosengren, said his clients didn't want their family, or the boy, to go through a trial either. The Hauers have never faced criminal charges before and, up until the charges related to the boy were filed, had been considered model foster parents in Nicollet County, he said.
If the Hauers had gone to trial and been found guilty, Fischer was planning to request a year in prison for each of them and a judge's order requiring them to pay prosecution costs, Rosengren said. He estimated those costs could have reached more than $50,000.
"They were faced with a Hobbesian choice here," Rosengren said. "They didn't want to put their whole family through this. Forget spending a year in prison. And, if they go to prison, then what happens to their children?"
Krehbiel ordered pre-sentence investigations for Mona and Russell Hauer. Sentencing is scheduled to take place Nov. 26. Fischer has agreed to remain silent during those hearings. Rosengren will be allowed to argue for lighter sentences and said the Hauers have many people who will be writing to Krehbiel on their behalf.