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Duluth firefighter found guilty of felony assault in trail encounter

13 June 2022

DULUTH – Conrad Sunde IV, a firefighter who got into a physical altercation with a trail-user who admonished him for violating the city’s leash laws, has been found guilty of felony third-degree assault.

Judge Theresa Neo issued her written ruling on Monday. The defense waived a jury trial in favor of a daylong bench trial in early April. Both lawyers submitted written closing statements in May.

The court’s findings and a sentencing date will be scheduled later.

“The state is pleased with the court’s finding of guilt,” St. Louis County Attorney Nathaniel Stumme said. “We will now focus on facilitating the victim’s right to express the full impact of this brutal assault on her life and those who enjoy our local trail system.”

Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said Sunde, 50, is currently employed by Duluth as a firefighter. The felony has been reported to the boards that regulate EMT certification and firefighter licensure.

“How these regulatory agencies will rule, or when, is outside the city of Duluth’s control,” according to Schuchman.

Mary Modec, 67, testified that she encountered Sunde, who was on a bicycle alongside three off-leash dogs, on July 10, 2020. She reminded him of the ordinance about leashing animals, then reached for her phone so she could take a photograph and report him. In turn he swore at her, lifted his front bicycle tire and knocked her to the ground.

He kneeled on her shoulder and pushed her face into the ground, she said.

Sunde testified that his actions were in self-defense. He saw the pepper-spray canister hanging from a lanyard around Modec’s neck and thought she was going to use it against him. He believed his response was reasonable, he said, a series of actions the longtime firefighter with a military background described as “shield, block, disarm.”

He tossed her cellphone out of reach.

Modec’s nose and glasses were broken, she has a scar on her arm and a permanently bruised eye, she said. She needs to have surgery if she wants to again breathe normally. Photos of Modec’s face were widely shared on social media along with a description of Sunde and his dogs. He turned himself in to the West Duluth police station later that same day.

The defense, in its written closing statement, argued that Modec’s version of the physical altercation has not been consistent — between what she told a police officer, a doctor and later testified in court. The chemical irritant she said was tucked into her shirt must have been visible for Sunde to respond the way he did, according to defense attorney David Keegan.

Stumme argued that Sunde’s actions might have been out of character but they were not justified.

“In the end, even if Mr. Sunde is believed, the threat he faced amounted to a 65-year-old woman standing on a trail with her hand on a small cannister of chemical irritant held against her body on a lanyard around her neck who had neither threatened its use nor put it in a position to deploy,” he wrote in his closing statement.

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