'I was a fool': Man gets 65 years in murder of Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III

Published: Sep. 23, 2019 at 6:02 PM EDT
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Emotions flared inside a Berrien County courtroom Monday during sentencing for convicted killer Jeremy Cuellar.

Cuellar, 25, admitted to shooting and killing Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III on New Year's Eve 2018.

Cuellar created the murder plot with Sgt. Hassel's wife, Kemia Hassel. The two were having an affair.

The judge accepted Cuellar's plea agreement and sentenced him to a 65-year minimum to 90-year maximum prison sentence. He'll be 90 years old before he is eligible for parole.

"I want to apologize to the family again, sincerely. I was a fool for just taking her words and not really looking to see who he was," Cuellar told the victim's family in court. "... I also want to apologize to the Army. It was the best thing that happened to me. It was stupid, and that's not me at all. I was raised right, I just had issues within my own demons, I know we all do. But what she was telling me, I opened up to her and she played on it. I shouldn't have opened up to her. I was a fool for trusting her."

Sgt. Hassel's mother, Lashonda Jones, told the court she is now forced to listen to videos to hear her son's voice. As she spoke, Cuellar let out an expletive-filled outburst and began crying.

"I feel like God is working on him, and when I heard the outburst, that lets me furthermore know that God is working on him, so I'm glad he said something," Jones said after the sentencing.

Weeks before Cuellar's sentencing, the victim's father got a chance to question his son’s killer. Tyrone Hassel Jr. sat down with 16 News Now's Kim Shine about his one-on-one conversation with Cuellar.

"I don't know how I did it, but I really wanted to know what he had to say," Hassel Jr. said.

It was his one chance to hear the truth, or at least one side of it.

"When he looked, he looked at the camera, because it was through video, and he was like, 'Tyrone Hassel Jr?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he was like, 'First of all, sir, I would like to tell you I am so, so, so, so sorry."

After the apologies, Hassel Jr. said Cuellar revealed his apparent motivation as the gunman.

Cuellar told him it was love and not the $500,000 in death benefits the victim's wife, Kemia Hassel, was to receive. Cuellar and Sgt. Hassel’s wife had been having an affair.

Hassel Jr. said he then asked Cuellar how they thought they could trust one another after the New Year's Eve murder.

"He said, 'I thought about that, but I really didn't think about it, you know, as much. He was just thinking about the family, 'and the five kids' she promised me."

In court documents, Cuellar traveled to Benton Harbor four times to try and kill the victim. But in their conversation, Hassel Jr. said Cuellar admitted to trying six times and explained how he said Kemia's rejection that night led him to carry out the murder.

"He asked to see her and she didn't want to see him. And he told me he got angry because he hadn't seen his family in a year and she got him out here trying to do this and she doesn't want to see him. He said he was angry, he said, 'That's why it was so many shots,'" Hassel Jr. recalled.

Hassel Jr. said he does not forgive Jeremy Cuellar but he believes there is a lesson here, a chance to help other young men who are apparently blinded by their emotions.

Perhaps, he suggests, they could seek out a mentor or someone to talk to before they act.

Kemia Hassel is serving a life sentence without parole.