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Sheriff Dixon ordered to stand trial after preliminary hearing

Sheriff Dixon ordered to stand trial after preliminary hearing

December 21st, 2013 in News

LINN, Mo. - Osage County Sheriff Michael Dixon will be tried on a felony charge of tampering with a motor vehicle.

At the end of a 29-minute preliminary hearing Friday afternoon, Phelps County Associate Circuit Judge Ronald D. White determined that "there is probable cause to believe that a felony was committed, and the defendant was involved in the commission of that felony."

White was named by Missouri's Supreme Court to hold the preliminary hearing, after all judges in the 20th circuit recused themselves from hearing any phase of the case.

In October, the Supreme Court named St. Louis County Circuit Judge Richard C. Bresnahan to preside over any trial.

So, although court procedures required White on Friday to set a specific date - 10 a.m. Jan. 3 - for Dixon to be arraigned formally in the circuit court, Bresnahan and the attorneys likely will change that date and time.

Dixon was present for Friday's preliminary hearing, a court appearance required by state law in all cases where evidence hasn't been presented to a grand jury.

Unlike the closed grand jury process - where only a prosecutor and witnesses appear before the 12-member panel - the preliminary hearing occurs in open court, with members of the public allowed in the courtroom to hear the case, and the defense attorney can cross-examine witnesses.

It's a hearing where the prosecutor must present enough evidence to convince the judge that a crime was committed, and that the defendant had some involvement with that crime.

But prosecutors rarely show all the evidence they have.

Phelps County Prosecutor John Beger was named a special prosecutor in Dixon's case after Osage County Prosecutor Amanda Grellner recused herself, noting her ongoing work with Dixon and his deputies in other cases.

Although Beger filed five charges in the case against Dixon, only one is a felony and the subject of Friday's hearing - taking Nathan Abel's all-terrain vehicle without Abel's permission.

Abel was the only witness during the hearing, telling Beger he knew Dixon because "I worked with him previously when he was the marshal at Belle and I was employed with the City of Belle. We (were) also friends and had spent some time together."

Dixon's attorney, Travis Noble Jr. of Clayton, later noted Abel's friendship with Dixon included being a part of the wedding party when Dixon got married.

"The fact that I was in his wedding is really what blows my mind," Abel said, "that he has done the things to us that he has done."

Abel told Beger that Dixon came to Abel's house about 12:30 a.m. on June 26, a Wednesday, because "he wanted to speak with my fiancee" - who wasn't home because she was working at her job with the Belle police department.

"He kept asking where she was - he needed to talk with her," Abel said. "He kept calling her numerous times on the phone."

When Dixon couldn't reach the woman, Abel said he told Dixon she might be at the police chief's house - and, he said, Dixon became "very adamant about (my) going over there (with him). I told him I was not going to go over there," telling Dixon he needed to "get some sleep" before going to work the next morning.

Dixon urged Abel to "get on the four-wheeler and we would sneak over to (the chief's) house."

But, Abel insisted, he told Dixon the ATV was too low on gas, "it's after dark" and could disturb his neighbors - "and it's illegal to ride an ATV on a city street after dark."

But, Abel testified, in spite of his telling Dixon "multiple times not to take it," the sheriff left Abel's home on the four-wheel vehicle and was gone "approximately 25 minutes."

Under Noble's cross-examination, Abel acknowledged he had operated the ATV after dark on other nights.

"So you weren't that much concerned about him driving it at night?" Noble asked.

"You could say that, and I also expressed to him about the neighbors on the street," Abel answered, only to have Noble note, again, that Abel also had driven the ATV at night.

Noble suggested Abel asked Dixon, as sheriff, to check on his fiancee's whereabouts because Abel thought she was having an affair.

But, Abel responded: "Those were statements out of (Dixon's) mouth. There was no discussion."

Nobel asked Abel why he accompanied Dixon in the sheriff's car, driving around and looking for Abel's fiancee, even after he was upset that Dixon briefly had taken the ATV.

"Because (Dixon) is a very intimidating person and does not take no for an answer," Abel said. "After he did not find her where he thought she would be ... he would not leave my residence."

So Abel rode with the sheriff, "doing what he asked so he will leave my residence and I can go to sleep and be ready for work the next day."

Abel also agreed he thought Dixon needed help and that he'd told the sheriff that, "if he needed any help, I would be glad to help him."

Noble later told a reporter he doesn't think a jury will convict Dixon of taking the ATV when they hear about Abel's offer to help Dixon.

But, Beger told Judge White during closing arguments that Missouri law requires someone to have the owner's permission before they use someone else's vehicle, and Abel hadn't given that permission.

White said, before ordering Dixon to stand trial on the charge: "Regardless of what the Legislature intended, what they said was if you operate a vehicle without the owner's permission, you're violating the statute."

If Dixon is convicted of the felony tampering charge, he could be sentenced to a prison term of up to seven years, or a year in the county jail, and a fine up to $5,000.

Beger also charged Dixon with four misdemeanors: first-degree sexual misconduct, third-degree assault, harassment and stalking - that could lead to sentences of up to a year in the county jail and up to $1,000 in fines on each count where there's a conviction.

White didn't have to act on those charges because they're not felonies, so they remain pending before Judge Bresnahan at the trial level.

Noble also has filed a motion for a change of venue - away from Osage County - in the case.

That motion will be considered by Bresnahan at a future hearing.