Congdon murders prosecutor John DeSanto to retire after long career as judge

John DeSanto, who as a young prosecutor handled the Congdon murder cases in Duluth in the late 1970s, will retire this month from his position as a state judge.

DeSanto was just four years out of law school and working in the St. Louis County Attorney’s office when heiress Elisabeth Congdon was murdered on June 27, 1977. She was smothered in bed in her 39-room mansion on the shores of Lake Superior. A night nurse, Velma Pietila, was beaten to death while trying to defend Congdon.

DeSanto and the police alleged that Congdon’s adopted daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, planned the crime to speed up her inheritance. And they said her husband, Roger Caldwell, broke into the mansion to commit the crimes.

DeSanto won the murder case against Roger Caldwell, but faltered with Marjorie Caldwell, who was acquitted. (She has since been charged with bigamy and another murder, and been imprisoned twice for arson.)

Roger Caldwell was granted a new trial after his wife’s acquittal, though, and DeSanto arranged a plea bargain that required Caldwell to confess in return for his release from prison after just over five years.

After a long career as a prosecutor, DeSanto was appointed as a state judge in 2009 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. DeSanto will retired later this month when he turns 69, as he nears the mandatory retirement age for judges of 70. He’ll continue as a part-time senior judge.

The Duluth News Tribune has a thorough story about DeSanto’s career.

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