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Ely teen to stand trial as adult for attempted murder

A 17-year-old who allegedly tried to kill his brother last year has been diagnosed with a number of potential mental health issues, but a judge said keeping the case in juvenile court would prevent the needed long-term supervision.

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An Ely teen who allegedly stabbed his 13-year-old brother more than a dozen times and left him for dead in a ravine has been certified to stand trial as an adult.

Michael William Haapala, 17, is charged with attempted intentional second-degree murder in the October 2020 incident near Miners Lake.

Authorities said there was "no apparent reason" why Haapala allegedly lured his younger brother into the woods and stabbed him at least 13 times before dragging the boy into a concealed area near the water on a chilly morning. Haapala is accused of returning to the scene hours later, again leaving the victim to bleed out.

The 13-year-old, who was eventually discovered by passing hikers, suffered injuries to his neck, legs, arms, chest and hand, and underwent surgery during a two-week hospital stay, according to court documents.

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Michael William Haapala.jpg
Michael William Haapala

Haapala, after being charged in juvenile court, was initially found unfit to stand trial and civilly committed for mental health treatment. Having since been deemed restored to competency, Judge Michelle Anderson last week granted a motion from the St. Louis County Attorney's Office to have his case transferred to adult court.

"Based on the testimony and reports of each of the evaluations, the child requires a very structured, long-term placement to deal with his significant trauma and mental health issues," the judge wrote in a 24-page order.

"Furthermore, even if he could successfully complete treatment, there is not adequate time to maintain supervision in the community following discharge before the court loses (juvenile) jurisdiction. Without monitoring the transition to the community for a lengthy time, the public is not adequately protected."

The adult certification means Haapala, if convicted, will face nearly 13 years in prison under state sentencing guidelines. He has been booked into the St. Louis County Jail, with bail set at $500,000.

No apparent motive for attack

Court documents state that Haapala, then 16, invited his brother on a walk around 2 a.m. Oct. 8, 2020, and brought him into the woods. He allegedly produced a large kitchen knife and began stabbing the victim before dragging him closer to the lake.

The 13-year-old later told authorities that he knew of no reason why his brother had stabbed him and, when asked, he allegedly responded that he "wanted to see a dead body."

A criminal complaint states that Haapala then went home, washing the knife and his clothes before hiding the weapon in a bedroom closet. He reportedly returned to the crime scene hours later, finding his seriously wounded brother and stating: "You're still alive, huh?"

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PREVIOUSLY: Ely boy rescued from ravine following stabbing
Authorities said the victim, who suffered a throat injury that prevented him from calling out for help, only survived because he was discovered by some passing hikers roughly 12 hours after the attack. Haapala allegedly admitted in an interview to stabbing his brother "more than one time" and said he knew the victim would probably bleed to death.

Haapala, who had no prior juvenile court history, has subsequently been examined by at least five doctors and committed to the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center. Court records indicate he has been given a number of varying diagnoses involving depression, anxiety and possible schizoaffective disorder.

Treatment professionals opined that Haapala has average to above-average intelligence, but suffered significant childhood trauma and has experienced hallucinations, self-harm and a feeling that he is being controlled by others, according to reports cited in court.

Psychologist Gerald Henkel-Johnson wrote that Haapala exhibited "planfulness" in cleaning up the evidence and returning to the scene, but he also concluded that the teen "did not understand that the act of stabbing his brother was wrong." He has reportedly shown an unwillingness to discuss the incident.

Several examiners told the court that Haapala would present a moderate to high risk of again harming others or himself if his condition goes untreated.

Mental illness defense possible

Defense attorney Lara Whiteside argued the needs of public safety could be met under extended juvenile jurisdiction, which would give the court authority over Haapala until he turns 21. She cited available treatment programs at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Red Wing and the West Central Regional Juvenile Center in Moorhead.

"Certifying Mr. Haapala into the adult system may result in him spending more time in prison, but once he has completed his sentence, he will be released back into society — untreated and likely in a worse mental condition," Whiteside argued. "It would far better serve the interests of public safety to spend the time and resources treating Mr. Haapala than to simply imprison him for an additional three years."

But with Haapala turning 18 in March and the case still pending, Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Leah Stauber noted that the court would have limited time to meet the needs of the defendant.

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"Two or three years under juvenile court jurisdiction for the offense of attempted murder does not square," she wrote. "Respondent nearly took his brother's life, and two or three years is not long enough to adequately assure that he doesn't present a danger to the public."

Judge Anderson, in agreeing to have the case moved to district court, was careful to note that a mental illness defense may still apply. She pointed to Henkel-Johnson's diagnosis of schizophreniform disorder, a time-limited condition that can be a precursor to the development of schizophrenia.

"Expert opinions differ on whether the diagnosis is appropriate, and what, if any, impact it has in reducing his culpability," Anderson wrote. "What is contained within the record are facts which, taken as true, show a level of sophisticated planning before, during and after the assault. Whether or not the child may have a (mental illness) defense to the alleged crime is not an issue before the court at this time."

Haapala is scheduled to be back in court Dec. 20.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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