DULUTH, Minn. — After two years of fighting a felony assault charge, Conrad John Sunde IV was contrite when he appeared for sentencing on Monday.
But a last-minute apology won no leniency for the city’s former firefighter of the year, who faces losing his job after attacking a 65-year-old woman along a trail west of Duluth in 2020.
“I’ve been through two years of hell because of this guy, and it’s still going,” victim Mary Modec told the court.
Judge Theresa Neo placed Sunde, 51, of Proctor, on three years of supervised probation, a tentative sentence for a first-time offender convicted of third-degree assault.
But Neo refused to suspend the imposition of the sentence – a more favorable outcome sought by defense attorneys, who said it could allow the defendant to continue working in his chosen profession.
“You may well be forced by this to find something else to do,” the judge told Sunde, “and that may be exactly what you need.”
Modec confronted Sunde about her off-leash dogs on the Duluth Traverse Trail System on July 10, 2020. After a verbal altercation, Modec said Sunde ended up hitting her with his mountain bike, knocking her to the ground, before rubbing his face on the gravel and throwing his phone into the woods as he left the scene.
Modec suffered a broken nose, a deviated septum, and numerous cuts, scrapes, and bruises in the incident. With no way to call 911, she had to walk home and ask a neighbor for help.
Sunde claimed at trial that he acted in self-defense, fearing Modec would use a canister of pepper spray around his neck against him or his dogs. He said he tried to put the bike between them and denied shoving her face into the ground.
Neo, serving as sole investigator after Sunde waived his right to a jury, called his defense “grossly absurd”. Finding Modec’s account more believable, the judge wrote in a June ruling that Sunde was “the aggressor” and could have simply left the scene without resorting to violence.
Sunde acknowledged on Monday that Modec’s testimony and face-to-face interview with a probation officer brought to light “issues that I was not aware of.” Without giving details, he apologized and vowed to work to improve.
“I let her down,” he said. “I let the community down. I let myself down. I let everyone down. I am particularly sorry about that. »
Defense attorney Mikkel Long requested a stay of imposition, which would have allowed the crime to be considered a misdemeanor once probation is successfully completed.
“He may have the opportunity to keep his job,” without a felony conviction, Long told the court. “That could make the difference for him on the matter.”
Modec balked at the idea, telling Sunde, “There was no (taxation) reprieve when you attacked me.”
The victim, who continues to have breathing problems and may still require surgery, said he was left to fall through the cracks of the justice system. She cannot get the services that would be provided to others, such as victims of domestic violence, and she has to pay for her own therapy while Sunde goes about her daily business.
“I see a fire truck and I feel like throwing up,” Modec told the court. “I think the city would be making a big mistake keeping him. It’s wrong.”
St. Louis County Attorney Nate Stumme neither recommended nor opposed the application for a stay of taxation, saying it “suits most people in Mr. Sunde’s situation.” But he said the case stands out among the thousands he has prosecuted, with one victim who “was so deeply affected”.
Judge Neo agreed, saying Sunde’s conduct affected the sense of safety of so many hikers, joggers and cyclists who enjoy the city’s extensive trail networks.
“She ended up with a broken nose,” Neo said. “She found herself alone. She found herself with no one to help her.
Neo said it was clear Sunde was “out of balance” on the day of the attack, whether or not he realized something was wrong. After decades of service in the US Marine Corps and the Duluth Fire Department, she said a change could be good for him.
“You’re not a bad person,” Neo said. “You did a bad deed.”
Neo, refusing the suspension of the imposition, ordered Sunde to comply with a number of conditions, including screening for potential participation in the South St. Louis County Veterans Treatment Court, completion anger management training, 100 hours of community service and payment of approximately $300 in restitution. He will avoid a 366-day prison sentence if he stays in compliance for three years.
Decisions regarding Sunde’s continued employment could be made in the weeks or months to come. Sunde, who served a 30-day unpaid suspension immediately following the incident, remains actively employed as a firefighter.
The city defers to regulatory bodies – the Minnesota Emergency Medical Services Board, the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians and the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education.
“These agencies have informed us that they are investigating this matter,” Duluth Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said in a statement Monday. “The timing and outcome of these investigations are beyond the control of the City of Duluth and we will refer further investigations to them.”
Zach Kayser, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said a review panel that was scheduled to review Sunde’s license earlier this month had its meeting postponed until October.
“We acted very deliberately in this matter because we know it will set a precedent for how licensing issues will be handled in the future,” Kayser told the Duluth News Tribune. “It’s rare in the first place for a license to be challenged due to a criminal matter, and typically these are resolved when the license expires while the person is incarcerated.”
Kayser said the agency is working closely with the Minnesota attorney general’s office. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.