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Duluth firefighter and alleged victim testify in assault trial – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — It is not disputed that a Duluth firefighter hit a 65-year-old woman with his mountain bike and knocked her to the ground during a confrontation over her off-leash dogs on the morning of July 10, 2020.

But on Wednesday, a court heard differing accounts of how and why Conrad John Sunde IV used physical force against Mary Modec before throwing her phone into the woods and leaving the scene.

A prosecutor said Sunde “blew up” amid a heated verbal dispute, going to any lengths to avoid having his picture taken and posted on social media. The defendant claimed that he reacted in a split second upon seeing Modec reach for a small pepper spray canister, choosing to protect himself and the three dogs from him.

Now, it’s up to Judge Theresa Neo to rule on the facts of what really transpired on the Duluth Traverse Trail System that day between two frequent trail users who had crossed paths without incident in the past.

Eight witnesses, including Modec and Sunde, took the stand on the first and only day of testimony in the felony third-degree assault trial in State District Court. After a full day of jury selection on Tuesday, the firefighter waived his right to have the panel hear his case, instead allowing Neo to be the sole investigator.

But a verdict is not likely to be reached until June, as lawyers will first present closing arguments in writing.

Verbal altercation becomes physical

Modec, a retired driver’s license examination station worker who once attended fire school, testified that she was on a walk near her Norton Park home when she came across one of Sunde’s dogs, which started barking at him.

She said she told Sunde, about 20-25 feet away, that he was supposed to have the dogs on a leash, per city ordinance, and he responded by calling her “p—ing b—h “. Modec testified that he was pulling her phone out of a backpack, intending to take a picture of her to report Sunde for the leash violation, when he charged her with the bike and hit her in the chest. .

“The next thing I knew, he was on top of me,” Modec said. “He pushed my face down into the dirt.”

Modec said Sunde managed to snatch the phone out of his hand, but did not see what he did with it and quickly left. He told the court that his glasses were broken and that he suffered many cuts, scrapes and bruises before going to the emergency room and discovering that he had a broken nose.

Sunde, a US Marine Corps veteran who has worked for the Duluth Fire Department for more than 21 years, said he and the dogs seemed to “scare” Modec when they ran into each other on the road. He said the dogs were well-trained and friendly, but admitted he was wrong to release them.

Sunde, denying the specific insult Modec alleged, said he apologized twice, but the confrontation quickly escalated and he made a comment to the hiker like “maybe you should be tied up.”

The firefighter testified that he was only 5 to 10 feet from Modec when he noticed her reaching for the pepper spray around his neck, claiming it was an “instantaneous” reaction to put his bike between them.

“My intentions were to disarm her,” Sunde said, telling the court that he “feared for my safety.”

Lawyers separate details

In contrast to Modec’s statement, the defendant testified that he never pushed Modec’s face into the gravel or forcibly grabbed the phone, which he said fell to the ground and tossed into the woods in an attempt to divert Modec’s attention while was going.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Nate Stumme noted that Sunde had a legal duty to back away before using physical force in self-defense, repeatedly questioning why he didn’t leave the scene when he noticed the pepper spray.

“I don’t think I would have had that opportunity because of the proximity and the pace at which things were developing,” Sunde said.

Modec disputed Sunde’s account of the pepper spray, saying he kept it stuffed into his shirt while jogging and never thought to reach it before the firefighter suddenly “attacked”.

Stumme also questioned how Modec’s nose could have been broken if Sunde didn’t bury his face in the ground. The defendant speculated that he must have hit her in the face with the bicycle, not her chest.

Modec testified that he had a permanent black eye nearly two years later, along with a scar on his arm that has not healed and a deviated septum that makes it difficult to breathe through one side of his nose. Defense attorney David Keegan suggested some of the details may have faded from his memory after nearly two years, but he said she lives with the emotional scars.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I can feel Mr. Sunde’s knee on me and my face on the ground,” he said.

Fellow firefighters defend Sunde

Stumme, in his opening statement, acknowledged that Sunde appears to have been an “outstanding” public servant, earning Firefighter of the Year honors in 2012. But he said the case is about “a good person doing a bad thing.”

“His behavior was totally unjustified,” the prosecutor told the court, arguing that Sunde acted out of anger and not self-defense.

But defense attorney David Keegan noted that his client has significant training in responding to perceived dangers, arguing that Sunde only wanted to push Modec back and had no intention of assaulting her.

The defense called four of Sunde’s former Duluth Fire Department colleagues as character witnesses, each telling the court that one allegation of assault is not representative of the many they are aware of.

“He’s professional, hard-working, God-fearing, trustworthy,” retired firefighter Dan Fuentes said. “He would do anything for anyone, even when they don’t ask. It’s what we do in the fire department… I’m sure he’s saved my life many times.”

Sunde served a 30-day unpaid suspension immediately after the alleged assault and remains on duty. However, a felony conviction could jeopardize his ability to serve as a licensed firefighter and city employee.

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