Jury deliberations to begin in murder trial of Berrien County soldier

Published: Jul. 17, 2019 at 7:18 PM EDT
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Court wrapped on Wednesday with closing arguments and both disagreeing on Kemia Hassel's involvement in her husband's murder.

“It was a planned conspiracy.“

Those are words from the prosecution Wednesday during closing arguments in the Kemia Hassel murder trial.

Prosecutors said that Hassel, 22, didn’t pull the trigger, but she is just as responsible for her husband's murder. They allege she aided and counseled her boyfriend, Jeremy Cuellar, in the killing of her husband, 22-year-old Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III.

Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli said Kemia Hassel’s confession to police was not forced. She was unhappy and chose her needs over her husband's life.

"Was there a plan? Absolutely, there was a plan; she admitted it." Pierangeli told jurors. "The defendant's confession alone is enough to convict her. Everything you heard during that interview [with Michigan State Police], this was no false confession."

Kemia Hassel’s lawyer told jurors to rely on the facts.

"What you don't know is what are pieces of evidence that we don't have," defense attorney Chris Kessel said. "Whether it's because Kemia deleted her Snapchat account, for any of 100 reasons, you don't know what was in those messages. You can presume, as the prosecutor does, he presumes that they are evidence of a plot to kill her husband. That is his theory."

Medical examiner testimony revealed Tyrone Hassel was shot five times outside his father's Berrien County home around 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve in 2018. Cuellar is the accused gunman.

Police say Cuellar and Kemia Hassel were motivated by their affair and a combined $500,000 in life insurance and military death benefits.

In audio from several jailhouse phone calls that were played in court Wednesday, Kemia Hassel admitted to planning the killing to her mother.

"I knew what was going on. I knew what was happening," Kemia Hassel said. "It was planned in Korea."

"Why?" her mother asked.

"He made me plan it so that we could be together," she responded.

During the call, Kemia Hassel's mother said her daughter was living a double life.

"Why not break up?" she asked.

"He wouldn't let me," Kemia Hassel replied.

"You could have told me."

"You would have been disappointed."

"No. I'm disappointed in this."

Her mother asked Kemia Hassel if someone made her comply with the murder. In parts of the conversation, she said she and Cuellar shared responsibility.

"I wasn't thinking straight," she said.

"This is horrible," her mother replied. "[Tyrone Hassel] didn't deserve that. You think he deserved that?"

"No, ma'am. I feel terrible, mom. I just wish it never happened."

"My grandson is not going to have his dad or his mom, for no reason at all."

Kemia Hassel admitted to police that she and Cuellar used Snapchat in their secret plan. But when investigators searched her phone after the murder, the social media app had been deleted.

A computer analyst with the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office testified for the prosecution.

Corey Peek, a sheriff's office detective sergeant, found a phone call from Kemia Hassel to her husband at 10:19 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. At 10:48 p.m., she received a text message from Tyrone Hassel that he was bringing her food.

It's during this time that prosecutors say Kemia Hassel called Cuellar, who'd recently left the Benton Harbor area after a third failed assassination attempt, to return. Hassel was shot around 11 p.m. after dropping off dinner plates to his wife.

Though the Snapchat app was not on Kemia Hassel's phone, Peek revealed ominous details about her mobile web history after the murder. He testified that her searches included “how to delete Snapchat,” "active-duty soldier killed on New Years Eve" and "what do I do after my house is paid off".

Peek also showed evidence of Kemia Hassel seeking Snapchat support.

“Again, it’s a screenshot of a computer screen, and this happens to be support at Snapchat, which was also previously searched and on this particular support page for the website SnapChat – 'delete my account,'" Peek explained.

Peek found no calls logged between Kemia Hassel and Cuellar on her phone and believed they made calls via Snapchat to avoid a history. The app uses data for calls and not cellular service.

Kessel questioned this admission.

“As you said, there’s no way to tell if she was on a Snapchat call, if she was using Snapchat, if she was searching the web like you said, is that right?” Keller asked.

“Other than comparing it with her phone, yeah, no," Peek responded.

Peek also said Snapchat was not able to provide any data from Kemia Hassel’s account because user data is removed from the company’s servers after 30 days.

Other testimony revealed that bullets from the crime scene were fired from a 9 mm gun that was never found.

Jurors also learned that a license plate reader on Interstate 94 and cellphone towers between Illinois and Michigan prove Cuellar's movements between Dec. 28, 2018, and Jan. 1, 2019.

The prosecution also said Cuellar activated a new phone on Jan. 1, and that device pinged on cell towers in Georgia on Jan. 6, while his old phone remained in Chicago.

Kemia Hassel faces life without parole on charges of first-degree, premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree, premeditated murder.

A jury is expected to deliberate in court on Thursday morning.