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Jury finds wife guilty of murder in slaying of US Army sergeant

A judge's gavel. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The wife of a U.S. Army sergeant was found guilty of murder Thursday in the planned killing of her husband.

After three days of testimony, Kemia Hassel was found guilty by a jury of first-degree premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit murder Thursday, July 18, in Berrien County Trial Court.

Due to the conviction, Hassel will face a statutory minimum sentence of life in prison without the chance for parole for the December murder of her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III, 23. Hassel will be sentenced at 11 a.m. Aug. 29, Berrien County Judge Angela Pasula said Thursday.

Police investigation after the sergeant’s death revealed an affair and plot to kill Tyrone Hassel III. Hassel and her lover Jeremy Cuellar, whose trial is set for August, hoped to continue their relationship and reap financial benefits resulting from Hassel’s death, Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli said during Hassel’s preliminary examination Feb. 20.

“Justice was served, but we still lost,” Pierangeli said after the jury delivered its verdict Thursday.

“The Army lost a good soldier,” he said. “Tyrone’s father lost a good son.”

Pierangeli said he was satisfied with the verdict, which came after about an hour of deliberation Thursday morning. But it was “incredibly bittersweet,” he said, because Hassel was a “family man, friend and good soldier.”

Pierangeli said Kemia Hassel’s statement to police, a recorded phone conversation with her mom from jail where she confessed and records of Snapchat messages between her and Cuellar were the major pieces of evidence presented in the case.

St. Joseph Township Police Officer Mike Lanier testified during the preliminary examination that Kemia Hassel admitted to planning the killing. According to Lanier’s testimony in that hearing, Hassel said “yes” when questioned by police about whether she planned her husband’s death, if the plan began months before and whether money was a motivator for the murder.

Kemia Hassel admitted to a sexual relationship with Cuellar, Lanier testified, and told police she had been unhappy in her marriage but that divorce was not an option because then she would not get any life insurance money, Lanier testified.

Hassel and Cuellar communicated with each other over Snapchat because they thought the app’s temporary messages would be untraceable by police, Lanier testified. Cuellar, who was also in the military, was stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia. Kemia Hassel and her husband were also stationed at Fort Stewart, where they lived with their child.

Cuellar and Hassel began making their plans while deployed in Korea between February and October of last year, Lanier testified.

On the night of the murder, the victim and his wife were staying with his father in St. Joseph Township while the two were home on military leave over the holiday season. Hassell was at a family gathering in Benton Harbor Dec. 31, 2018, and returned to his father’s home in St. Joseph Township at about 11 p.m. to bring his wife some food, police said in a news release. He was confronted there by “an assailant who shot and killed him,” the release said.

Lanier told Pierangeli during the preliminary examination that when he arrived at the scene of the shooting, he found the victim on the ground outside and a truck in the driveway. Hassel had a gunshot wound to his head, Lanier said.

After the jury’s verdict was delivered Thursday, the victim’s father, Tyrone Hassel Jr., said hearing recordings of Hassel’s confessions during the trial was difficult. He did not hear any sympathy in her voice, he said.

“She’s the devil,” Hassel Jr. said.

The victim’s father described the mixed emotions surrounding the case. Prior to the murder, he believed his son and daughter-in-law had a good marriage and loved her as his own, he said.

“To see someone you first cared for hurt you so bad,” he said.

His son should be remembered by the community as a hero, Hassel Jr. said.

“You want your kid to be better than you, and he accomplished that,” he said.

Defense Attorney Chris Kessel said after the trial ended Thursday that he was “disappointed” with the jury’s verdict.

“There was a very large amount of evidence against Kemia,” Kessel said. “Some of that came from herself. That’s a very big burden to overcome.”

Much of the prosecution’s evidence was Kemia Hassel’s own statements. Without those statements, it would have been a “very, very different case,” Kessel said.

The attorney reiterated what he said during his opening statements delivered Monday, the first day of the trial, saying the case was a “tragedy.” Kessel said he hoped the jury would have seen Cuellar “was running the show” and that he was behind the Army sergeant’s death.

Cuellar is in custody on a $2.5 million bond, and will face trial on charges of first degree premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit murder beginning Aug. 12, Pierangeli said.


© 2019 Kalamazoo Gazette