ST. JOSEPH — Tyrone Hassel Jr. wants his son, Tyrone Hassel III, to be remembered as a hero.
“You always want your kid to be better than you, and he accomplished that,” the father said. He spoke to reporters just moments after his late son’s wife, Kemia Hassel, was convicted of killing Tyrone Hassel III.
His mother, Lashanda Jones, said the verdict means everything to her and relieves a certain amount of pressure.
“I loved her like a daughter. I called her baby, and she called me mom. I never would have thought this of her,” Jones said.
It took a Berrien County jury just an hour and eight minutes to find Kemia Hassel guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder. Sentencing is set for Aug. 29 but it will be a formality. Both charges carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.
U.S. Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III, 22, was gunned down late on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2018, outside his father’s home on Colfax Avenue in St. Joseph Township. He and his wife were staying there with their young son while on leave from the Army.
Throughout the three-day trial in Berrien County Trial Court Judge Angela Pasula’s courtroom, Assistant Prosecutors Steve Pierangeli and Trevor Maveal called witnesses who said Kemia Hassel, 22, was unhappy in her marriage and conspired with her lover, Jeremy Cuellar, 24, to kill her husband. Kemia and Cuellar were also in the Army, stationed together in Korea. In videotaped interviews with police, Kemia said that is where the plan was made.
She said it was decided that while they were on holiday leave, Cuellar would come to Benton Harbor from Chicago and kill Tyrone. In a signed confession, she said they tried on four different days to make it happen but there was always someone around. The night of Dec. 31, 2018, Tyrone had left a nearby gathering to bring a plate of food to Kemia, who had stayed home with the baby. When he was leaving to go back to the party after delivering the food, he was fatally shot in the driveway and fell next to his truck. He died of multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
Cuellar is scheduled to go on trial the week of Aug. 12 on a first-degree murder charge.
After Tyrone Hassel III died, Kemia Hassel, along with baby Tyrone Hassel IV, continued to stay with his family.
“It seemed like she was grieving. She was really quiet for the first couple of days,” Tyrone Hassel Jr. said in an interview outside the courtroom. “Then after that she seemed normal, like not grieving. She went to the casino for her birthday, which was right around that time.”
On Jan. 11, police called and asked him to bring Kemia to the sheriff’s office. By then, local police had been contacted by authorities in Georgia, where the couple had been based in the military. Police there said someone had come forward with information and local police needed to interview Kemia. She initially denied any involvement in her husband’s death, but in the early morning hours of Dec. 12, in a police interview in Lansing, she said she and a lover had planned the killing.
Kemia Hassel’s lawyer, Chris Kessel, called no witnesses but in his opening and closing arguments at the trial said the confession was coerced.
But in a recorded phone call from the Berrien County jail to her mother, Kemia answers her mother’s question of whether someone is coercing her with, “No mama. No, they’re not.” Kessel said that phone call, along with the recorded police interviews, may have been what swayed the jury.
In an interview after the verdict, Kessel said, “I’m obviously disappointed for Kemia and her family, but certainly all aspects of this case are indeed tragic.” Regarding Kemia showing no reaction to the verdict, Kessel said, “Lots of clients show no reaction when a verdict is read. It kind of washes over them, and they don’t realize it until they’ve had time to reflect.”
Pierangeli said he and Maveal are very satisfied with the verdict.
“Such a good man lost his life. This is so important to us. We live these cases from the start,” Pierangeli said. He credited local law enforcement and collaboration among various departments, and said St. Joseph Township Police Sgts. Mike Lanier and Jeremy Peppers put an extraordinary amount of work into the case.
“I’m their mouthpiece but they built the case,” he said.
Tyrone Hassel Jr. said although he’s very satisfied with the verdict and the family is happy they got justice, “It’s not going to bring him back. It’s bittersweet. And even though (Kemia) did the things she did, she was still my daughter-in-law, and to see somebody you cared about ...”
He said he is struggling to get to the reality of what she did.
“I can’t feel sorry for her. She’s the devil. It’s like ‘Who are you? We never knew you.’ I guess my son didn’t display a lot of emotions, but he loved her dearly.”
Tyrone Jr. said baby Tyrone Hassel IV has been living with Kemia’s mother in Georgia.
“Her mother and sister had been staying here in Benton Harbor after my son was killed. The night Kemia was taken to the police station, her sister asked me if they could take the baby to their hotel for awhile, and I let her. When they found out Kemia was being arrested, they took off back to Georgia, and I’ve never seen (the baby) again.”
He said now that Kemia’s case has been adjudicated, he intends to try to get custody of his grandson.
Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa