ST. JOSEPH — Tyrone Hassel III was the pride of his family, Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli told a jury Monday.
“He was a scholar who had decided to serve his country,” Pierangeli said. “He took his work ethic with him and made sergeant at a very young age. His family looked up to him because he looked out for them.”
But on New Year’s Eve 2018 U.S. Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III’s life was cut short when he was shot multiple times in his father’s driveway in St. Joseph Township while he and his wife, Kemia Hassel, were on holiday leave from the Army.
Kemia Hassel, 22, is charged with his murder and is on trial this week in Berrien County Trial Court. It is alleged that she and Jeremy Cuellar, while also serving in the Army, planned to kill Tyrone Hassel because they were lovers and wanted his life insurance money from the U.S. Army.
“The evidence is never going to put the gun in her hand,” Pierangeli told the jury in his opening statement in Judge Angela Pasula’s courtroom. “The gun was never in her hand but her fingertips are all over this murder.”
Kemia Hassel’s lawyer, Chris Kessel, said in his opening statement that his evidence will show that Jeremy Cuellar is “a full-blown psychopath” and Kemia had nothing to do with her husband’s death. He said a recorded confession that will be played for the jury was coerced.
Kemia Hassel is charged with first-degree premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder. Cuellar also is charged with first-degree murder and will go on trial next month. They face life in prison if convicted as charged.
Tyrone Hassel, Kemia Hassel and Jeremy Cuellar all were serving in the Army when, it is alleged, Kemia and Cuellar started having an affair and, while deployed to Korea, began to plot to kill Tyrone Hassel.
“She had murder on her mind and betrayal in her heart,” Pierangeli told the jury in his opening statement. “The defendant was not happy. She wanted more. She devised a plan with her lover to have her husband murdered.”
He said the two lovers wanted to be together, but “divorce wouldn’t give her everything she wanted. She wanted money. If he (Tyrone Hassel) was killed, she’d get $400,000 in life insurance from the Army.”
In mid-December 2018, the Hassels and Cuellar all had holiday leave. Cuellar went to his mother’s house in Chicago, and the Hassels, along with their baby, came to Berrien County and were staying with Tyrone Hassel’s parents.
It is alleged that throughout the leave, Kemia was communicating with Cuellar by text messages and a phone app called Snapchat, and that he had made four trips to Benton Harbor. The night of Dec. 31, Pierangeli said in his opening statement, Kemia notified Cuellar that her husband would soon be outside his father’s house.
Tyrone Hassel Jr., the father of Tyrone Hassel III, told the jury that he and his son were at a gathering not far from the father’s home the night of Dec. 31, 2018, when his son left to take some food to his wife, who had stayed at the father’s house with the baby. He said his son called his wife to tell her he was on his way.
Hassel Jr. told the jury that a short time after his son left the gathering with food for Kemia, Kemia notified him that his son had been shot.
“I ran out, jumped in my truck and went to the house. When I got there, paramedics were trying to put my son on a gurney. His eyes were open. I looked at him, and I saw a hole in his head. I knew right at that point that my son wasn’t going to make it,” Hassel Jr. testified.
He said Kemia and the baby continued to stay at his house and, on Jan. 11, 2019, police called and asked him to bring her to the sheriff’s department.
“When we got there, they immediately separated us. They told me to go home. They said it’s going to be a long night,” he recalled.
In his opening statement, Kessel told the jury that there is no question that Hassel’s death is not just sad, but a tragedy. But, he said, “As good a guy as I’m sure Sgt. Hassel was, that doesn’t make Kemia Hassel any more or less guilty. As bad as we feel for his family, that doesn’t make her any more responsible.”
He told the jury that to blame her, someone who in not responsible for someone else’s death, would also be a tragedy.
“I hope that we together can prevent that,” Kessel told the jury.
Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa