Jury selection begins in Navy hero’s robbery trial — (Star-Tribune)

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Star-Tribune

Paul Gustafson, Star Tribune

April 27, 2004

A decorated Navy veteran who fled federal robbery charges in Minnesota and disappeared for 15 months with his young son pleaded guilty Monday to a charge of failing to appear for trial.
Mark W. Samples, 40, of Hager City, Wis., entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul just hours before the start of jury selection in his robbery case, which continues today.
Samples is accused of entering a Red Wing, Minn., credit union on May 3, 2001, wearing a ski mask and brandishing a semiautomatic weapon, ordering clerks to open their cash drawers, and escaping with thousands of dollars.
After Samples pleaded guilty to the fleeing charge, attorneys disagreed about how much information jurors in the robbery trial should hear about Samples’ disappearance with his son, Christopher.
Frank indicated that he is likely to allow some evidence about the disappearance with testimony about Samples’ mental condition.
Robert Richman, Samples’ attorney, said he will use a mental illness defense, arguing that Samples suffered from suicidal thoughts and irrational thinking at the time of the robbery due, in part, to a prescription medication he was taking.
At the time, Samples was suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from a 1987 incident when he was a crewman abroad the USS Stark, Richman has argued. The Navy frigate was hit by missiles from an Iraqi warplane while stationed in the Persian Gulf.
Samples received medals for helping prevent the Stark’s missiles from exploding in the fires that resulted from the attack, which killed 37 crew members.
A debilitating back injury that Samples suffered later in the Naval Reserve aggravated his psychological problems, Richman has argued.
Samples withdrew from a plea agreement with prosecutors, then disappeared with his son in June 2002, about three months before he was scheduled to stand trial for the credit union robbery.
Authorities found Samples living with his son last September in East Rochester, Ohio. Samples was arrested and brought back to Minnesota to face trial.
The boy was reunited with his mother, Jennifer Bjork, who had shared custody with Samples, her estranged husband. Bjork, who lives near Pepin, Wis., and Samples are divorced.
Paul Gustafson is at pgustafson@startribune.com.