by Dennis Dalman
In a sad and tragic irony, a sheriff’s deputy – defender of the public peace – was murdered Oct. 18 by a patient in the St. Cloud Hospital – a place of compassion, healing and wellness.
Aitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy-Investigator Steven Martin Sandberg, 60, was shot to death when a patient he was guarding grabbed the deputy’s gun during a scuffle at 5:15 a.m. The patient-assailant also died shortly after being subdued by two hospital security personnel and another Aitkin County deputy. The shooter was Danny Leroy Hammond, 50, of rural Aitkin, who reportedly fired several shots from the deputy’s gun, with at least one of the bullets causing the death.
All of the violence happened within Hammond’s room on the fifth floor of the hospital. According to law enforcement and a hospital spokesman, at 5:15 a.m. Hammond rose from his bed and attacked Sandberg, who was sitting in the room, guarding Hammond who’d been brought to the hospital’s intensive-care unit about a week earlier for treatment for a suicide attempt.
What is known is Hammond was a suspect in a violent domestic situation that occurred Oct. 10-11 against his wife. He had not been arrested before being admitted to the hospital. He was not handcuffed or physically restrained in any other way before his assault against Sandberg.
However, hospital officials, aware of the serious nature of the domestic situation and fearing Hammond might be dangerous, requested the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Department to accompany and to post guard in Hammond’s hospital room.
The hospital security men and the other deputy burst into the room after the shooting and one of them tased Hammond, rendering him unresponsive. He was taken to an emergency unit in the hospital, but he died apparently of cardiac arrest by the time police arrived at the scene. The deputy who entered the room with the security men was also a member of the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Department who had come to the hospital that morning to relieve Sandberg from his guard duty.
Born in St. Louis Park, Sandberg moved to Aitkin with his family when he was a child. He attended the Minnesota State University-Moorhead, and later entered the field of law enforcement. He had worked as an Aitkin County deputy for 27 years, 20 of them as an investigator. He is survived by his wife, Kristi (a school teacher in Aitkin), and daughter, Cassie, who is a student at MSU-Moorhead.
Sandberg is the 100th police officer to be murdered in the United States in the first 10 months of 2015.
News of his murder stunned the residents of Aitkin, many of whom knew Sandberg on a first-name basis. He was widely admired as a kind, helpful, thoughtful family man who would go out of his way to help anybody. A candlelight vigil in his memory was held Monday evening at United Methodist Church in Aitkin. Hundreds of people lined the streets of Aitkin to pay their respects to Sandberg as a hearse with his body drove past. Sandberg also served on the Aitken Fire Department from 1994-2011, as well as being a Sunday school teacher.
The day after the murder, a press conference took place in the St. Cloud Police Department. Speakers were Aitkin County Sheriff Scott Turner, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans and St. Cloud Hospital Vice President Kurt Otto. St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis also attended but did not speak.
During the brief press conference, Evans deplored the senseless killing and urged people to keep Sandberg’s wife and daughter in their thoughts and prayers, a sentiment also spoken by Turner.
Evans and the other speakers said they could not release further details about the incident at this time but promised such information would be made public eventually.
They did confirm the basics of what happened.
Otto praised the hospital security personnel and said the St. Cloud Hospital has always been dedicated to the safety and well-being of its patients and staff. That dedication, he added, will be reinforced even further in light of Sunday’s tragic incident.
Sandberg’s body was accompanied by many law-enforcement cars from St. Cloud to the Ramsey County Coroner’s Office.
Gov. Mark Dayton called the incident a deplorable, senseless murder.
“This tragedy,” he said, “reminds us Minnesota’s law-enforcement officers risk their lives every day and night to keep us safe.”
Just hours after the press conference, news about the perpetrator began to emerge from court records.
The domestic situation referred to by law enforcement occurred Oct. 10-11 in Glen Township, Aitkin County when Hammond kept his wife in the house against her will, brutalizing her physically and emotionally and threatening to kill her with a hand gun. At one point, according to the wife’s statement to deputies, he forced her to eat food laced with rat poison. After two days, he let her go, and she called for help from her father’s house. The deputy who met with the victim was Sandberg, Hammond’s subsequent murder victim. Later, deputies found Hammond in his home, unresponsive, after he had attempted suicide.
Hammond was facing 11 felony charges relating to the domestic violence, including being a felon in possession of a gun.
He also had a criminal record from 20 years ago, all for offenses in Aitkin County. For previous offenses, Hammond had been sentenced three times to prison, ranging from a one-year sentence to an 18-month sentence. Previous convictions included a third-degree burglary conviction in 1989; a conviction for escaping from custody in 1990; and a charge of making terroristic threats, also in 1990.