BISMARCK, N.D. – A man who pleaded guilty to killing his North Dakota neighbor in 1999 over a water drainage dispute will leave prison without ever telling authorities where he dumped the body.
Steve Thomas, a 48-year-old former Marine with a criminal past, pleaded guilty in 2006 to manslaughter in the death of 82-year-old Norman Limesand, of Marion, and sentenced in 2007 to the maximum 10 years in prison. Thomas' plea agreement called for him to face a murder charge if he was uncooperative in finding the body.
Thomas, who was released from prison Saturday, has participated in air and land searches — even hypnosis to jog his memory, authorities say. But he still can't remember where he hid Limesand's body.
"It's unfortunate and I wish there had been a better outcome," said the state's Assistant Attorney General Jon Byers, who helped prosecute the case. "I honestly think he gave a good-faith effort."
But Limesand's family believes Thomas got away with murder.
"He was supposed to tell us where he put the body," said Milton Limesand, taking a break Friday from planting soybeans near his father's home. "I can't believe someone could do something like that and not know."
Thomas refused a request for an interview. After a stint in the military, Thomas worked as a taxi driver in California and was convicted in 1995 on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon after stabbing a coworker's boyfriend in a dispute. He served a year in prison.
After his probation ended, Thomas moved back to North Dakota in 1999 to live with his mother. Shortly thereafter, Limesand was dead.
Thomas said at his sentencing that he accidentally shot Norman Limesand in the face while hunting rabbits on his mother's property.
"I should have been paying more attention to what was going on around me," Thomas said in court.
But the Limesand family says it was a cold-blooded killing regarding a dispute about a drainage ditch.
Limesand, who had farmed in the area since 1947, also was a township officer for more than 30 years and took his job seriously, his family said. Part of his job was to manage culverts in the county, making sure they were clear of obstructions so roads would not flood.
Thomas' mother, Bonnie Rosland, owned a farm near Limesand's property. Her land had a problem with a clogged culvert.
Milton Limesand said he and his father visited Thomas the day before Norman Limesand disappeared and offered to help Thomas clean out the culvert. Thomas declined.
The family believes Norman Limesand went back the following day, Nov. 12, 1999. He was never seen again. Limesand's bloodstained truck was found abandoned in Moorhead, Minnesota, on Nov. 16. Thomas was charged with murder three years later.
At the 2007 sentencing, Thomas told Judge James Bekken that he put Limesand's body in the pickup and drove around before dumping the body in a dry slough.
Bekken, now deceased, said Thomas and Limesand were the only ones to know what really happened, and ordered Thomas help find the body so that the man's family could have closure.
Milton Limesand said he and his seven siblings were split over the plea agreement with prosecutors.
"They said they were 50-50 whether he would be convicted of murder because they didn't feel that they had enough evidence," he said.
Marjorie Limesand, 91, said at sentencing that she did not believe her husband's death was an accident. She is in declining health and the topic upsets her, Milton Limesand said.
"She's getting older and we don't like bringing it up to her," he said. "But she has always said there was no reason for it to happen."
Norman Limesand was declared dead in 2002. An empty grave is placed near where he tended cattle and raised crops.
"It's just a stone there," Milton Limesand said. "We were always hoping to put him in there."