Hibbing murder result of voluntary drug use, expert says

HIBBING -- Benjamin David Lundquist was not thinking clearly when he randomly went to an apartment building and killed Joel Dean Gangness in January 2017.

Benjamin David Lundquist

HIBBING - Benjamin David Lundquist was not thinking clearly when he randomly went to an apartment building and killed Joel Dean Gangness in January 2017.

But the Grand Rapids man has no legal basis for a mental illness defense, an expert testified Wednesday.

"I believe he was delusional," said psychologist Anne Pascucci. "I believe he was having psychotic symptoms. But I believe it was the result of volitional consumption of controlled substances."

Pascucci, an independent evaluator appointed by the court, testified that Lundquist had a significant history of drug use, particularly methamphetamine, and a documented knowledge of its effect on his behavior.

Her opinion contradicted those of two defense experts who testified a day earlier that Lundquist suffers from mental illness and was incapable of understanding the wrongfulness of his actions.


"There is no objective evidence of a mental health condition that would impair him to a degree so as to not understand the consequences of the volitional consumption of the drug," Pascucci told the court.

The conflicting opinions are now before 6th District Judge Mark Starr, who is tasked with determining whether Lundquist should be found not guilty by reason of mental illness.

The judge already determined that there is sufficient evidence to convict Lundquist of an intentional second-degree murder charge in the bludgeoning and stabbing death of the 54-year-old victim. Lundquist waived his right to a jury and agreed to proceed directly to the competency portion of his trial.

Starr, who heard three full days of testimony, will issue his verdict by April 29. He ordered attorneys to submit written closing arguments in the coming weeks.

Differing opinions

According to evidence presented in the trial, Lundquist was under a delusional belief that the victim was a child molester and that he was directed by God or Jesus to eliminate him. He told investigators he went to Gangess' apartment, No. 12, at the old Star Motel and confronted him, because "everything came to 12."

Two psychologists retained by the public defender's office diagnosed Lundquist with schizoaffective disorder - a condition primarily characterized by the personality traits of schizophrenia, but also incorporating some symptoms of mood disorders.

Pascucci said she believes Lundquist has a severe meth-use disorder, as well as other chemical-dependency issues, but asserted that he "does not have a mental illness as defined by legal statute."


Based on a review of historical medical records and an interview of the defendant, Pascussi said it's clear Lundquist's mental health deteriorates when he uses meth. She opined that years of drug use has likely brought on brain damage, which explains why he continues to experience delusions more than two years after the crime.

"Meth use is strongly correlated with psychotic symptoms," Pascussi said. "It can appear upon toxication and continue through withdrawal. It can persist for many months to years."

In order for a defendant to be found not guilty by reason of mental illness, the defense must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was incapable of understanding his actions or did not realize that they were wrong. St. Louis County prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich has argued that Lundquist's "voluntary intoxication" does not apply.

Lundquist had both meth and marijuana in his system at the time of his arrest, according to Donna Zittle, a certified toxicology specialist at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Zittle, who analyzed Lundquist's blood draw, testified that it's impossible to say when he last used the drugs, or in what quantity. But if he last used meth three or four days prior, as he told evaluators, that would be a sign of binge use, she said, and withdrawal only leads to more risky behavior.

"Psychosis can exist in someone who is binging," Zittle testified.

Unusual encounters

Another witness testified Wednesday that Lundquist showed signs of what she believed to be either meth impairment or mental illness a short time after the murder.


Shara Norris said she was driving from Hibbing to Nashwauk shortly after 4 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2017, when she nearly struck Lundquist, who was standing in the middle of U.S. Highway 169.

Norris testified that she stopped to see if everything was OK before Lundquist suddenly got in the passenger seat of her car.

"My intuition told me he was going to kill me," she told the court.

Lundquist was mumbling and hard to understand, but Norris said she tried to keep him talking in an effort to calm him down. She said she retrieved a knife and pepper spray from her purse but continued driving to the gas station where she works.

Lundquist spent about three hours drinking coffee, reading the newspaper and talking to a doll before he left the store at her request, she testified. He also left a phone number and asked her to call.

In an interrogation after his arrest, Lundquist talked at length about Norris, saying he knew from first sight that they were destined to be married and repeatedly referencing a bobblehead doll, stolen from Gangness' apartment, that he said represented her.

While incarcerated over the past two years, Lundquist has twice had released inmates visit her and apologize on his behalf, Norris said.

Her testimony was similar to that of Vlatkovich's first witness, Dustin Storer, who told the court Tuesday that he gave Lundquist a ride to Hibbing hours before Gangness' death. He said the defendant began making bizarre comments, had slurred speech and could not hold his hands - symptoms he recognized as being common with meth use.

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
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