The 911 caller who spotted the crash near Wadena Asphalt Monday afternoon relayed an urgent message: A child was missing and good Samaritans were out trying to find her.
When authorities arrived at the scene, one of the witnesses told them he'd been out in the woods with the driver, 29-year-old James Howard, looking for the missing child. The girl, Howard allegedly told the witness, was "hurt really bad" and in a tree stand.
Howard, according to prosecutors, while in the woods speaking to officers, then made a shocking admission: He'd taken a young girl from Wadena, sexually assaulted her, then stabbed her to death and hid her body in a deer stand.
His account set off a frantic search. Nearby property owners checked their deer stands, while the Todd and Wadena sheriff's offices used drones and a K9 to scour the area, according to a news release from the Wadena County Sheriff's Office. They found nothing.
Then the truth began to come out.
Criminal charges filed against Howard Wednesday, Oct. 6, say he concocted the story about the injured, kidnapped girl, following the crash around 5:53 p.m. Monday on Leaf River Road, north of Wadena. Instead, the charges allege he stole a car from outside a Wadena woman's apartment less than an hour earlier, drove it out of the city and got into a one-car crash after using meth and cocaine earlier in the day.
There was never a missing girl, the charges say.
According to the complaint:
After the failed search, Howard changed his story, first saying he'd actually placed the girl in a cornfield, then insisting the child was in the attic of his apartment. Officers checked his residence and found nobody.
Then Howard told officers he'd killed his neighbor, who was pregnant with his child. Authorities did a welfare check and found the woman, who said she was indeed pregnant with Howard's child, but that she was safe.
She was, however, worried about Howard's substance use disorder and his mental health.
Howard told officers he'd used meth and cocaine earlier in the day following a fight with his girlfriend. Officers "observed signs of chemical substance use" but did not detect any odor of alcohol. A preliminary breath test also came back with no signs of alcohol consumption.
Howard, while in custody, "began kicking the rear passenger door" of the squad car, damaging it, and was further restrained. He was then taken to Wadena County Jail. A blood sample was sent to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis.
Howard, who is from Wadena, is charged with felony theft of a motor vehicle, misdemeanor, and third-degree public property damage, a gross misdemeanor. He made his first court appearance Wednesday. An omnibus hearing is scheduled for Oct. 25, at 1:30 p.m.