The South Dakota prison inmate accused of killing a retired Rapid City teacher pleaded not guilty to the crime at the Pennington County Courthouse on Tuesday morning.

Andrew Eastman, 28, is charged with first-degree murder and an alternative of second-degree murder in the death of Larry Mintzlaff, 64, in June. Eastman can be convicted of only one of his alternative charges.

The body of Mintzlaff, who had been a longtime teacher at North Middle School, was found June 6 at his house on Wisconsin Avenue. Police say he and Eastman had known each other, and that a letter from Eastman had been discovered at Mintzlaff’s residence.

Investigators say Eastman, a minimum-security inmate, went to Mintzlaff’s home after escaping community service work at the Rapid City landfill on June 2. Authorities say he left the landfill in a city-owned pickup, later found abandoned about two blocks from Mintzlaff's residence.

According to a Pennington County sheriff's deputy report, obtained from the courthouse Tuesday, the keys to the pickup were kept in an unlocked office.

A fellow inmate working at the landfill told investigators Eastman had joked about taking the keys and going to Mexico. Another inmate said he had been acting strangely that day.

The Rapid City government said it has since tightened security procedures involving access to its vehicles at the landfill.

Eastman was arrested in Albuquerque, N.M., on June 9 while driving Mintzlaff’s missing car.

Eastman is also charged with second-degree escape from the Department of Corrections’ minimum-security facility, as well as two counts of grand theft for allegedly stealing the city pickup and Mintzlaff’s car. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Judge Robert Gunsinsky, of the Seventh Circuit Court, informed Eastman of the penalties his charges carry.

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First-degree murder is punishable by death or life in prison; second-degree murder, life in prison; second-degree escape, five years; and each count of graft theft, five years.

If Eastman is convicted and his previous felonies are confirmed, the penalties for his new charges can be enhanced, bringing his total prison time for escape and theft from 12 to 40 years.

At the time he left the landfill, Eastman was serving sentences for drug offenses out of Hughes County and grand theft out of Pennington County.

He is detained at the Pennington County Jail and is due back in court Sept. 12.

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Rapid City Journal