Dakota County man found guilty of plot to kill county attorney

Man convicted of drug charges was James Backstrom’s neighbor

A 49-year-old former Inver Grove Heights man and Rice County Jail inmate was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder that he hired another man to kill Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, according to multiple news reports.

The court found that John Stephen Woodward, who is about two years into an eight-year sentence on methamphetamine charges, tried to pay another inmate $10,000 to murder Backstrom.

Woodward was acquitted of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder against Dakota County District Judge Rex Stacey, who presided over Woodward’s 2007 drug conviction, according to a Rice County complaint filed Sept. 29, 2010, and of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault against a witness who testified against him.

Prosecutors said that Woodward hired Thomas Ray Jackson to murder Backstrom in December 2010, on the day Jackson was scheduled to be released from prison, and had his wife give an attorney $2,500 as a down payment.

Initially, Jackson told the attorney the money was for a truck, but eventually reported the murder-for-hire scheme after he determined Woodward’s intentions were real.

The county provided videotape evidence of Woodward giving Jackson a map to Backstrom’s residence and details about his normal route to work.

The plot allegedly was hatched during jailhouse conversations between Jackson and Woodward, who described his previous relationship with Backstrom as “best buddies.”

According to the complaint,  Woodward allegedly told Jackson how he could do it, giving him the route, location of the hit and instructions to shoot through Backstrom’s vehicle window.

Jackson turned the information over to investigators.

Investigators entered as evidence recorded conversations between Woodward and Jackson detailing the plot to murder or seriously maim the female witness.

Among the details Woodward discussed with Jackson were where to dispose of the weapon, arrangements for sending remaining payments after the murder, and the address of the woman.

The complaint states Woodward requested that Jackson beat the woman severely, break her arms with a baseball bat and leave her in the woods.

He allegedly told Jackson to do whatever he needed to the woman’s boyfriend if he were to interfere.

Third on Woodward’s plan was the murder of Stacey, which was to be in the Sturgis area the following August.

In a statement to employees in 2010, Backstrom said he asked that Woodward’s drug case be prosecuted in Rice County to avoid conflict of interest, noting that he witnessed frequent short-term automobile traffic in and out of the Woodward house at all hours of the day and night.

Backstrom stated at the time: “This has been upsetting to me and my family, as I am sure it has been to the other victims involved. I am grateful for the work of the many investigators from multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, who have been involved in this case and have the utmost confidence in the Rice County Attorney who is pursuing this prosecution.”

Sentencing for Woodward is set Jan. 18.

The Star Tribune reported that with Woodward’s previous drug convictions, he could be sentenced to more than 18 years.

“I am grateful for the verdict of the Rice County jury today, and I wish to express my appreciation to the Rice County Attorney’s Office for their hard work in obtaining this conviction,” Backstrom said in a written statement as reported in the Star Tribune.

The statement said he would refrain from commenting further until sentencing.

The Star Tribune reported that Woodward’s defense attorney said they plan to file a motion asking for a new trial based on the defense being prohibited from telling the jury in closing arguments that Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville dismissed the charge concerning Stacey.