ST. JOSEPH — A jury heard Kemia Hassel, in a recorded police interview, tell an officer that while serving in Korea she and Jeremy Cuellar formulated a plan for him to kill her husband.
She said she was unhappy in her marriage to Tyrone Hassel III, she thought she and Cuellar would end up together, and they wanted the insurance money she would receive if her husband died.
Kemia Hassel, 22, is on trial in Berrien County Trial Court on charges of first-degree, premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder, both punishable by life in prison. Cuellar goes on trial on a first-degree murder charge and a weapons charge next month and faces the same fate if convicted.
Tyrone Hassel III, 22 was a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He and his wife were on leave for the holidays and were staying, along with their baby, at Hassel’s family’s house in St. Joseph Township when Tyrone was gunned down.
According to previous testimony, he and his father were at a nearby New Year’s Eve gathering when Tyrone decided around 10:30 p.m. to take food back to the house to Kemia. He called her and said he would be there soon.
Kemia was communicating by text message and other phone apps with Cuellar, and sent him a message to “come now,” according to testimony. Tyrone Hassel delivered the food to his wife and, while going back to his truck to return to the gathering, was fatally shot in the head, according to testimony.
It happened at about 11 p.m. Dec. 31, 2018. Kemia Hassel continued to stay with her husband’s family at their house on Colfax Avenue. But on Jan. 11, police called and asked Tyrone Hassel Jr. to bring her to the sheriff’s office.
She initially denied having any involvement in her husband’s death. But about 90 minutes into an interview with Michigan State Police First Lt. Detective Andrew Longusi, she told him she had planned it with Cuellar.
Her confession came after Longusi told her police had spoken with Cuellar, who had returned to his military base, and “he’s going to throw you under the bus.”
In the videotaped interview, which was shown to the jury Tuesday, Longusi tells Kemia Hassel several times, “You need to get in front of this.” Longusi called Cuellar “A cold-blooded manipulator and told Kemia Hassel he thought circumstances had pushed her to where she was.
After that, she told Longusi she was unhappy and Cuellar listened to her and was there for her, and they became romantically involved.
“We planned this but in the beginning I didn’t take it seriously,” Kemia Hassel tells the detective. But she said eventually they planned to go back to Georgia and move in together and “go from there.” She said that with what she knows now, “I would go back and not do it.”
She told Longusi, “I feel just as guilty as him.”
But, she said, if she had called off the plan Cuellar would have been mad at her.
“So, you put your needs and wants in front of somebody’s life?” Longusi asked her.
She replied, “I did.”
Army Specialist Jaquan Hamilton testified that he worked side-by-side with Jeremy Cuellar and Kemia Hassel while they all were deployed to Korea, and he became good friends with them both. He said he knew they were romantically involved.
He testified that one day Cuellar came to his room after he’d just been with Hassel and said, “Buddy’s got to go. We have to get rid of him.” He said “Buddy” referred to Kemia Hassel’s husband, Tyrone Hassel III.
“I asked him, ‘How do you know that’s what she wants?’ and he said, ‘It’s mutual. It has to be done.’ I asked him, ‘Are you sure?’ and he said ‘Yes,’” Hamilton testified.
He said after everyone had returned to their base after the holiday break, they were told as a company about the death of Tyrone Hassel. That same day, he told the court, Cuellar came to him and said, “It’s done. I had to do what I had to do.”
Hamilton said a day later he sought spiritual guidance from a chaplain and two days later he told Army Special Agent Zachary Roberts of the Criminal Investigations Division about the conversations with Cuellar.
Berrien Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli, who is prosecuting the case along with Assistant Prosecutor Trevor Maveal, asked Hamilton why he had come forward with the information, and whether it was tough to do.
Hamilton responded, “I knew it was the right thing to do,” and he said it was tough because Cuellar and Kemia Hassel were his friends.
U.S. Army Sgt. Mark Burks served in the same company as Tyrone Hassel and said he became friends with him and knew him well. Burks testified that he and his wife hung out with the Hassels and that Tyrone was affectionate toward Kemia but she did not appear to return the affection.
Burks said he had seen Kemia Hassel and Jeremy Cuellar together and they interacted closely.
“I didn’t want to cross a line but I told (Tyrone) that I wouldn’t be a good friend if I didn’t tell him.” He said Tyrone seemed to already suspect something was going on.
Kemia Hassel’s lawyer, Chris Kessel, played for the jury a part of her interview with Longusi. In it, Longusi can be heard telling her, “There’s no doubt about it, you’re a pawn. He’s brought you into something you don’t deserve. You are not driving this. You did not pull the trigger. This isn’t something you planned. This guy got into your head.”
In cross examining Longusi, Kessel said, “You told her you were going to go to bat for her. Have you?”
Longusi replied, “Well that was before I knew her level of involvement.”
Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa