FARGO, N.D. (AP) — It was one of the most gruesome mass killings in North Dakota history; four workers at a business who gathered early one morning for “coffee club” were slain in a matter of minutes. Three were shot and stabbed. The alleged killer shot nine times and flailed away with a knife, cutting one victim’s throat.
The ghastly 2019 scene that gripped Mandan, a community of 22,000 just outside the state capital of Bismarck, is set to be rehashed this week at the trial of Chad Isaak, a Navy veteran and chiropractor whose trailer home is managed by the business police say he “targeted.” Investigators say the evidence against Isaak is overwhelming, including clothing, handgun parts, a knife and used shell casings, surveillance footage, bank records, and Facebook and phone data.
Isaak, 47, is charged with four counts of murder as well as lesser counts. He faces life in prison if convicted. The jury selection that starts Monday is expected to take up to two days, with the trial lasting roughly three weeks.
Killed in the attack were RJR Maintenance & Management co-owner Robert Fakler, 52, and co-workers Adam Fuehrer, 42, and spouses Bill and Lois Cobb, 50 and 45. The four were known as the “coffee club” for frequently arriving early to grab coffee and chat.
Isaak’s attorneys declined to discuss the case ahead of the trial, but court documents and public comments suggest they will argue that police did a shoddy job in their rush to gather evidence and that Isaak had no reason to commit the killings. No motive has been offered by police or anyone at the company.
Juries want to know why something happened, said Alex Reichert, a criminal defense lawyer from Grand Forks who has handled numerous homicide cases but who has no connection to the Isaak case.
“It sounds like they don’t know why,” Reichert said. “Can they get a conviction without a motive? Yes. There is no requirement for a motive. On the other hand, it gets very difficult in a circumstantial case without a motive. I haven’t handled a case with no motive before.”
The defense attorneys will have two hurdles to overcome before testimony is heard. One is that Isaak has clashed with his lawyers, at one point saying he wanted to represent himself. The judge removed his primary attorney and essentially told Isaak he needed to be represented by a well-known criminal defense team.
The second obstacle is the brutality of the slayings, Reichert said.
“Absolutely that can sway a jury,” Reichert said. “Because they become incensed. They become angered and concerned and it stirs up a lot of emotion. Emotion can cloud logic sometimes.”
Few of the players are talking. Prosecutor Gabrielle Goter said she wants to “preserve the defendant’s rights and limit potential juror taint.” The defense team, from the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, isn’t commenting. Jackie Fakler, Robert’s widow and a co-owner of the company, was advised by Goter not to comment. Family members of the other victims could not be reached.
Jackie Fakler told the Bismarck Tribune for a story published in April that company workers had had few interactions with Isaak.
“We have not received any insight on a motive, nor have we been able to find any insight internally,” she said. “Our thoughts on the motive — finding a motive is not going to bring back the precious lives we lost. Nor will any reason be justified.”
Surveillance video shows the assailant entering RJR wearing brightly colored clothing, then leaving in dark clothing about 15 minutes later, according to court documents. An employee at a nearby McDonald’s told police that she saw a man wearing a camouflage ski mask, dark pants and dark shoes get into a white Ford F-150 that morning.
Police later linked the vehicle to Isaak. At his home in Washburn, they found clothing matching what they had seen on video, nine spent shell casings, a knife with a bent tip, and gun parts in a kitchen freezer. The clothing, knife and gun parts all smelled of chlorine bleach, court documents say.
Rolf Eggers, of Bismarck, said he bought the mobile home park in Washburn in 2018 and that Isaak “came with the park.” He said he didn’t know Isaak, but that Isaak’s neighbors never complained about him.
The previous owner, Mike Nelson, described Isaak as “a model tenant.”
“Paid his rent on time. Took care of his property,” Nelson said.
Navy records show that Isaak enlisted in the service in 1992 and left in 1997 as a hospital corpsman 3rd Class, with a Good Conduct Medal and National Defense Service Medal.