WILLMAR - A Willmar man charged with third-degree murder for allegedly selling the fentanyl that led to the death of U.S. Army veteran John Schlegel, 24, of Blomkest, rejected a plea agreement offer Friday and is taking his case to a jury.
Richard Carl Michael Houske, 30, of Willmar, declined the plea offer during a hearing in Kandiyohi County District Court in Willmar. With that decision, jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday.
"We have no other affirmative defense other than he is not guilty,'' defense attorney Theresa Patock of Willmar told the court at the end of Friday's hearing.
If Houske had pleaded guilty, prosecutors said they would not have opposed the minimum penalty of 84 months in prison for the offense, and would not have objected to the defendant asking the court for a "downward departure" - or lesser sentence than the sentencing guidelines recommend.
The prosecutors also said they would have accepted an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the evidence is sufficient for a conviction.
Assistant Kandiyohi County Attorney Aaron Welch told the court Friday that prosecutors will now seek the maximum recommended sentence of 117 months in prison if Houske is convicted by a jury.
Schlegel was found deceased at his residence on Nov. 4. The Midwest Medical Examiner's office determined the death was caused by fentanyl toxicity.
Eleven days after his death, investigators recovered a folded magazine paper "bindle'' in Schlegel's wallet that contained 0.2 grams of powdered fentanyl.
Houske was taken into custody following a Dec. 13 search of his residence. The complaint alleges that he admitted to law officers that he previously sold fentanyl to Schlegel. Houske said he did not sell any to Schlegel on the morning of Nov. 3 when he came to his house seeking fentanyl.
The complaint alleges that two other people suffered non-lethal overdoses of fentanyl they purchased from Houske. In one case, Houske is said to have administered naloxone, a drug which reverses the effects of opioids, after the man's girlfriend called him for help. The other individual was treated at a hospital emergency room, court documents state.
Houske, who is currently in the Kandiyohi County Jail, pleaded guilty March 15 to felony third-degree sale of a narcotic.
Presiding Judge Stephen Wentzel has ruled on much of the evidence that will be admitted at trial. Friday's hearing focused on other evidence that the state wants to present to a jury, but had not yet been brought before the judge. Wentzel heard objections by Patock to some of it, and will rule on whether some of the challenged evidence can be admitted at the trial's start.
The evidence under discussion Friday included a series of photos taken at Schlegel's residence when his body was found, a photo of the body when it reached the medical examiner's facility, as well as photos from Houske's residence when officers seized drugs and other items there.
The state also has over 23,000 lines of text messages sent while Houske has been in the county jail, and a video from Houske's arrest and transport to jail on Dec. 12.