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Murder charge added in teen's shooting death on Fond du Lac Reservation

The additional charge significantly increases the potential sentence Joseph Fohrenkam could face if convicted of killing 16-year-old Joseph Peterson.

Joseph James Fohrenkam.jpg
Joseph James Fohrenkam

Prosecutors have added a third-degree murder charge against the Brevator Township man accused of fatally shooting his friend in late December.

Joseph James Fohrenkam, 18, already was facing a felony count of second-degree manslaughter in the death of Joseph James Peterson, 16. But he now faces a significantly stiffer sentence if convicted of murder.

Authorities said Fohrenkam was "showing off" his pistol when he discharged it, apparently by accident, while drinking with Peterson and three other friends in a car on the Fond du Lac Reservation . Fohrenkam and his mother allegedly went on the run before they were arrested more than a week later in northwestern Minnesota.

Fohrenkam pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge Feb. 1. But St. Louis County prosecutor Nate Stumme filed an amended criminal complaint with the murder charge last week.

While a manslaughter conviction would lead to a presumptive prison term of about four years, Fohrenkam is now looking at 12 ½ years under state sentencing guidelines if convicted of murder.

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PREVIOUSLY: Witnesses recount shooting that killed 16-year-old on Fond du Lac Reservation
According to court documents, Fohrenkam and Peterson were among five young people drinking alcohol in a car outside the defendant's house, 3609 Giiniw Road, in the early morning hours of Dec. 28.

Fond du Lac homicide locator Fohrenkam/Peterson December 2020
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The three other occupants later told police that Fohrenkam was waving a firearm around, "pointing the gun at everyone in the truck (and) messing around" when he suddenly shot Peterson.

A criminal complaint indicates that the witnesses were intoxicated and did not all clearly observe what led up to the gunshot, but one said Fohrenkam may have accidentally bumped the center console while putting the gun away, causing it to fire.

Fohrenkam allegedly could be heard arguing with his mother, Little Fawn Fohrenkam, during a 911 call placed by one of the witnesses. The other witnesses were allegedly directed to leave the residence before police arrived.

The Fohrenkams were arrested Jan. 6 in an apartment near White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen County, Minnesota. Authorities said Little Fawn initially provided a false name and that Joseph was found concealed within a couch. The mother and son allegedly had shaved their heads and ditched their car in order to hide their whereabouts.

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Little Fawn Fohrenkam.jpg
Little Fawn Fohrenkam

PREVIOUSLY: Charges: Mother, son shaved heads, ditched car to evade arrest after Fond du Lac homicide
Joseph Fohrenkam has remained jailed on $400,000 bail, with Judge Eric Hylden in February declining to lower the figure over concerns that he could be a flight risk.

The manslaughter charge alleges he caused Peterson's death through "culpable negligence whereby the defendant created an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm to another."

The murder charge alleges that he killed Peterson, without intent, "by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life."

Both mother and son made brief appearances in State District Court in Duluth on Thursday.

Joseph Fohrenkam told Hylden he was finalizing the hiring of a private attorney and intends to discharge the services of the public defender's office.

Little Fawn Fohrenkam, 38, is under pretrial supervised release while facing a felony count of aiding an offender to avoid arrest. She has yet to enter a plea, and public defender J.D. Schmid said he hasn't yet had an opportunity to review some 2,000 pages of discovery with his client.

Hylden scheduled new hearings for both April 2.

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