Judge to consider mental illness defense in Ely stabbing

Having found that Michael Haapala acted with intent to kill his brother, the court will hear evidence on the defendant's state of mind when he attacked and left the 13-year-old for dead in a ravine.

A courtroom gavel

VIRGINIA — A May court trial has been scheduled for a judge to hear testimony and determine if a mental illness defense negates a guilty verdict for an Ely teen who stabbed his 13-year-old brother multiple times and left him for dead in a ravine in October 2020.

Michael William Haapala.jpg
Michael William Haapala

Michael William Haapala, 18, was found guilty of attempted intentional second-degree murder by Judge Robert Friday last month after a stipulated facts trial. Haapala waived his right to a jury and testimony, allowing the court to make the determination based on police reports and physical evidence.

Because Haapala has asserted a defense of not guilty by reason of mental illness or deficiency, the court must proceed to a second phase of trial that will include evidence of his mental state at the time of the offense.

The defense bears the burden of proving that Haapala was suffering from a condition that rendered him incapable of understanding the wrongfulness of his actions.

Judge details evidence of attack

Friday issued a detailed order last week explaining the initial finding of guilt. According to his memorandum:


The victim was discovered by passing hikers near Miners Lake around 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2020. He was described as being in the fetal position and "cold to the touch," with wounds discovered on his neck, legs, arms, chest and hand.

Police went to Haapala's Ely residence and received permission from his father to conduct a search, finding a recently washed kitchen knife and wet, bloody shoes in the defendant's bedroom. Blood also was found in the laundry area, where officers found freshly washed clothes, bedding and towels.

Michael Haapala faces an adult prison term for the October 2020 incident that nearly killed the 13-year-old.

Haapala, then 16, participated in an interview but was "withdrawn, (with a) flat affect and hazy memory of the events that transpired earlier in the morning." He admitted that he and his brother went for a walk around 2 a.m. and that he grabbed a knife from the kitchen "because the last time he went on a walk he got scared."

At some point, Haapala pulled out the knife and stabbed his brother, though he could not recall how many times. He said he remembered striking his leg but claimed he missed the neck. Haapala said there had not been any argument preceding the attack and he was "only upset with how nice" his brother was acting toward him.

He told officers that, at some point, he dragged the victim closer to the water and they both fell in. He said he then dragged the boy out and was told to leave.

"Defendant admitted that he was aware (the victim) would probably bleed out, and at that time he could not use his legs and was unable to walk," Friday wrote.

The victim, who underwent surgery and was hospitalized for two weeks, initially could not communicate verbally due to his injuries. It was nearly a week later before he was able to fully speak with investigators.

The teen said Haapala had invited him on the walk and appeared to be acting normally before he suddenly pulled out the knife. The victim attempted to leave, but Haapala chased him down and stabbed him in the left leg.


The victim asked Haapala what he was doing, and he responded that he "wanted to see a dead body."

As the younger brother attempted to free himself, he was stabbed several more times. He said Haapala then threw him into the lake. He climbed out but was again pushed into the chilly water.

The defendant left but returned several hours later. The victim said he believed he was going to "finish the job," but instead he just made a comment along the lines of, "Still alive, huh?" and left again.

The 13-year-old suffered approximately 13 wounds and had two cuts across his neck that sliced his vocal box.

Friday wrote that the injuries and physical evidence documented by police was consistent with statements provided by both brothers. And while he described Haapala as "very guarded," he said both accounts were "credible."

Haapala given multiple diagnoses

Haapala was certified to stand trial as an adult after he initially was ruled incompetent and underwent a civil commitment to Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center.

Court records indicate he was examined by at least five professionals and given a number of varying diagnoses involving depression, anxiety and possible schizoaffective disorder.

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.

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."

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.

Haapala remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $500,000 bail, with the testimony on the mental illness defense slated for May 23.

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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