Did William Thoman take steps to hire a hit man when he allegedly asked an acquaintance if he knew where he could find a gun and someone to take care of the cancer doctor who treated his late wife? Or was he a grieving and angry man who made crass comments but never planned to hurt anyone?
Those are the questions Pennington County jurors will have to weigh this week in the case against Thoman, a 63-year-old Rapid City man charged with criminal solicitation for allegedly trying to find someone to commit the first-degree murder of Dr. Mustafa Sahin last September.
Thoman was previously charged with attempted first-degree murder; it's unclear what happened to that charge. He's also facing two additional solicitation charges in a separate case for allegedly asking two inmates at the Pennington County Jail to help him find someone to murder a judge and the witness who reported him to police.
Six female and eight male jurors (two will later be dismissed) listened to prosecutor Kelsey Weber and defense lawyer Ellery Grey's opening statements Monday in the four-day trial at the state court in Rapid City. Both attorneys agreed the case boils down to intent — did Thoman intend to have someone kill Sahin?
The jurors also heard from Sahin, who said he was so traumatized by learning from police that Thoman may have tried to hire a hit man to kill him that he eventually left his job at Regional Health in May and moved away from Rapid City, where he had lived since 2014.
It was a tragic situation when Thoman lost his wife of nearly 40 years to cancer in August 2018, Weber told the jury. "But he is responsible for his actions" and anger. Thoman "did not stop with words" by telling many people he wanted to hurt or kill Sahin, he "took steps to begin to put his plan into action."
Sahin will testify that Thoman told him he wanted to drive his car into his office, while neighbors will testify that Thoman said he wanted to use a shotgun on Sahin, Weber said. One of those neighbors, former city councilman Ron Sasso, will testify that Thoman told him about getting a gun and knowing somebody who could do something.
Ken Jones, a business acquaintance Thoman has known for about 20 years, will testify that a few years ago, he joked about knowing a hit man, and that in September 2018, Thoman asked him about the hit man and if he knows where he can find an untraceable gun, Weber said. Jones will explain that when he told Thoman that there's no hit man and pointed out that Thoman already owns rifles, Thoman said he wanted a shorter weapon so he could look Sahin close up in the eye.
The conversation was "extremely concerning" to Jones, so he called 911, Weber said. Jurors will listen to a recorded conversation that police set up between Jones and Thoman, where Thoman again shows a desire to harm Sahin, Weber said.
They'll also listen to jailhouse calls Thoman made to Sasso and testimony from two men previously incarcerated with Thoman who said Thoman asked them to find someone to kill Jones and Jane Wipf-Pfeifle, the original judge in Thoman's case.
Thoman may be a "cantankerous old man with no filter, but he is not a killer," Grey said. "Being angry and talking is not the same as doing action," as having criminal intent.
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Grey said his client has no criminal history and has lived in Rapid City most his life. He and his wife, Katherine, were "basically inseparable," and he quit his job as a home inspector once she was diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 2017.
Grey noted that Sahin and Thoman's neighbors, including Sasso, a licensed counselor, never reported his statements to the police.
There was "no serious discussion about hiring a hit man" and no gun or money exchanged between Thoman and Jones, Grey said. During the recorded call between the pair, Thoman was in a happy mood and thankful that Jones called to check in on him, not acting like a man who was working on hiring a hit man.
When Jones brought up Sahin during the call, Grey said, Thoman said he doesn't need a gun, that he can just ram his car into the doctor’s office. When Jones said those aren't good thoughts, Thoman said they give him comfort and promised to call Jones if he started having dark thoughts.
Thoman was shocked when police arrested him Sept. 24, 2018, while he was taking out the garbage, apologized to the officers for his statements, and said he was just blowing off steam and would never hurt anyone, Grey said.
Grey also cast doubt on the credibility of the jailhouse informants, one who was accused of dealing meth and illegal gun ownership. The man said he was bragging about how his motorcycle gang is tougher than the Hell's Angels when Thoman approached him to ask if he knew anyone who could kill Jones and Wipf-Pfeifle, Grey said. But when police told the inmate to give Thoman a number to a hit man (really a number to the police), Thoman didn’t call after he briefly bonded out of jail.
The other informant, who Grey said was jailed for alleged crimes against children, had asked if he could be released from jail on electronic monitoring after speaking with police about Thoman.
Sahin said he gave Katherine the only treatment available for her aggressive lung cancer. He said he had a good relationship with Thoman, who actively participated in all appointments and knew that his wife's cancer could be treated but never cured.
When Katherine relapsed, Sahin said, Thoman left him a threatening voice mail and later made statements to him in person about driving a truck into his office. Sahin said he wanted to believe Thoman was joking but "it was serious," he wasn't kidding. Sahin said he didn't' report Thoman to the police because if he was arrested, there would be no one to care for Katherine.
Sahin said he felt disappointment and "stabbed in the back" when he learned about Thoman's alleged plan to take a hit out on him since he worked hard to help Katherine. He said he and his mother fled Rapid City but returned once Thoman was in jail so he could continue treating his many patients. But he said he had to leave his home and job after things became increasingly difficult, since he thought about the incident each morning he arrived at work.