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As testimony gets underway in Cloquet homicide trial, cousin says Thompson confessed to killings

The mother of Jackie Defoe also testified that she was concerned about her daughter's relationship with the defendant.

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Sheldon James Thompson
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CARLTON — Sheldon James Thompson admitted to killing his pregnant girlfriend and her toddler son, his cousin told a jury Tuesday.

Taylor Smith testified that Thompson made the confession while giving her a ride March 6, 2020, a day before the bodies of Jackie Ann Defoe and Kevin Lee Shabaish Jr. were found at their home on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Smith, one of the first witnesses to take the stand in Thompson's trial in State District Court, sobbed and buried her head in her hands, looking straight down as she was asked to recount the circumstances in a Carlton County courtroom.

"He just told me he killed Jackie and her son," Smith said. "He wanted me to drive him out of Minnesota."

Smith, saying she couldn't remember exact words, testified that Thompson "said something about Jackie stabbing him" before he grabbed the knife and killed her. She said her cousin, who did not have any apparent injuries, also made a choking motion that indicated he may have also strangled Defoe.

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File: Jackie Defoe
Victoria Smith holds a picture of homicide victims Jackie Defoe and her son, Kevin Shabaiash Jr., at a memorial march on the Fond du Lac Reservation on March 9, 2020.
Steve Kuchera / File / News Tribune

Smith said the admission was preceded a day earlier by an incident in which Thompson was "freaking out," saying, "I'm not going back; I'm not going back. They're going to have to kill me first."

She said Thompson also asked her to assist him in selling or trading several items, including a TV, that she recognized from Defoe's residence, 1620 Locke Lane, Cloquet.

Police were eventually summoned by Smith's mother to conduct a welfare check, later finding Defoe, 27, and Kevin, 20 months, dead inside the residence. Authorities said autopsies showed that Defoe, who was 13 weeks pregnant, had been stabbed more than 30 times, while Kevin died from blunt-force injuries.

Attorneys preview expected evidence

In an opening statement earlier in the day, Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola told jurors that Defoe and Thompson's relationship was one defined by "power and control."

She said evidence would show that after they started dating in fall 2019, Thompson seized control of nearly every aspect of Defoe's life — from her debit card to her car to her phone.

"The power he exerted over her extended even to that (unborn) baby," Ketola said. "He was going to decide whether or not it come into the world."

Ketola said forensic evidence would reveal that Thompson left a bloody handprint at the crime scene, among other forensic evidence. She said surveillance video from various points would also help piece together the final hours of Defoe's life and Thompson's movements.

But defense attorney Steve Bergeson contended the evidence isn't so clear cut, taking particular aim at the standards of proof for Thompson's first-degree murder charges, which require the jury to find he acted with premeditation and had a pattern of engaging in domestic abuse.

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"Argue, reconcile, repeat," Bergeson said. "Argue, reconcile, repeat. That was the relationship between Jackie Defoe and Sheldon Thompson. ... It was not a relationship of power and control. It was not a relationship of death."

Bergeson said the past domestic incidents to be relied upon by the prosecution involve much less serious conduct against a different woman between 2013-16. He suggested there was no motive, no witnesses and no weapon recovered to implicate Thompson in killings of Defoe and Kevin.

"There is no evidence of an attempt to divert attention away," from the crime scene, the defense attorney said. "There is also no evidence that this crime scene was disturbed — that someone washed, bleached, cleaned, did anything to clear the tracks of what they did. Ask yourself: Is that a crime scene of premeditation beyond a reasonable doubt?"

Mother, son remembered by family

Defoe's mother, Tammy Suomi, also testified Tuesday, saying she felt increasingly cut off from her daughter and grandson as Defoe's relationship with Thompson progressed.

Suomi said Defoe, who grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation and had two older children, had been taking pipe-laying classes before her death. Kevin, she said, was a "happy little guy" who loved watching Elmo and being outside.

FILE: Jackie Defoe and Kevin Shabaiash Jr.
Tammy Suomi of Duluth holds a sign with photos of her daughter, Jackie Defoe, and grandson, Kevin Shabaiash Jr., during a silent protest organized by the group "Justice for Jackie" outside the Carlton County Courthouse on Jan. 19, 2021.
Clint Austin / File / News Tribune

Suomi said Thompson would accuse Defoe of cheating on him and search through her phone. She said the defendant was "kind of cold" around Kevin and recalled an incident in which Thompson allegedly stated he wanted to "get rid of" the unborn baby."

"I think she was a little nervous," around Thompson, Suomi testified. "Just a little scared of him."

The family has held several public events to honor Defoe and Kevin, while criticizing the justice system for its handling of prior cases involving acts of violence committed by Thompson. Suomi exchanged hugs with a number of family members and supports after stepping down from the witness stand Tuesday.

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Former Fond du Lac Band police officer Nils Hansen also testified about his interaction with Thompson upon his arrest in a wooded area of the reservation on the evening of March 8, 2020. Hansen, now a Carlton County sheriff's deputy, said Thompson stated that he "messed up" and was "going away for a long time."

Defense attorney Jesse Dong contended Thompson was suffering from effects of possibly hypothermia, suggesting the alleged, unrecorded statement was not an admission of guilt.

Thompson, 35, faces eight counts of murder related to the deaths of Defoe, Kevin and the unborn child. If convicted of the most serious charges, he faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Judge Jill Eichenwald is presiding over the case, with a jury of 12 men and two women, including two alternates, who were selected after individual questioning of more than 80 county residents over six days. The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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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