A little more than a year after Danielle Jelinek’s disappearance led to massive searches in the snowdrifts and frozen lakes of rural Chisago County that ended when her body was found five months later, Aaron Schnagl, long suspected in her death, was indicted on a charge of her murder on Monday.
Schnagl, 29, convicted earlier this year of drug charges and now held in the state prison at Moose Lake, was charged with third-degree murder by a Chisago County grand jury. He is accused of causing the Oakdale woman’s death by providing her with the illegal drugs — in this case, cocaine — that killed her, even if it was unintentional.
Unlike a criminal complaint, the indictment holds no details of how the investigation led to the charges.
In a statement, Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter said that information would not be made public, but commended investigators for their persistence since Jelinek’s family first reported her missing on Dec. 9, 2012, when she hadn’t made her usual daily call to family members.
Jelinek, 27, who grew up in Cottage Grove and worked as a manager at the Wells Fargo branch in Maplewood, last spoke to her sister, Cory, the previous afternoon. Jelinek said she was going to see a girlfriend, but instead went to meet Schnagl. Cory Jelinek has described their relationship as an on-and-off friendship, though Schnagl allegedly had physically abused her on several occasions and admitted to investigators he had struck her at least once.
When deputies arrived at Schnagl’s residence in the 11200 block of 261st Street in Chisago Lake Township, they detected an odor of marijuana and immediately began an investigation. Schnagl told investigators he woke up to find Jelinek missing, and said he went looking for her.
Hundreds of volunteers mobilized for a series of searches in the area, hampered by heavy snowfall. Her body was found in a marshy area about a quarter-mile from the home on May 10.
“I’m obviously very happy with the grand jury’s indictment for third-degree murder,” said Chisago County Sheriff Richard Duncan. “I can’t share a whole bunch about our investigation; it was mostly shoring up some of the details we already knew and getting the lab work back.”
Jelinek’s family, who requested privacy after the indictment was read, has been waiting a long time for the legal process to begin, he said. The five months between the time Jelinek was reported missing and the discovery of her body was difficult.
“Our focus was always on Schnagl. He was our main focus through the whole investigation,” Duncan said. Even though he could not be labeled a suspect, “in our eyes he’s always been the main target.”
Rachael Goldberger, Schnagl’s defense attorney, said Schnagl was disappointed with the indictment and continues to assert his innocence. “The fact that the grand jury has handed down an indictment hasn’t changed that at all,” she said.
With a trial likely in six months, Goldberger is hoping to get more information about the investigation to prepare a defense. “In a year, they’ve shared nothing with me, then out of left field we get a grand jury indictment.”
Schnagl, she said, “is being held responsible for someone who died of drug use when we know she was an experienced drug user.”
Autopsy results have not been released, but Duncan said investigators always knew that drugs were involved.
“He still had an impact on her death, regardless of whether it was an overdose or not,” Duncan said, which is why Schnagl was charged with third-degree murder. “We’ve felt that way all along.”
Chisago County sheriff’s deputies initially removed 12 pounds of marijuana in individual bags contained in two boxes from a BMW in Schnagl’s garage, according to court documents. A number of unidentified pills also were removed and 29.2 grams of cocaine were discovered. A cache of other drugs also were removed from the house by two of Schnagl’s friends before a search warrant could be executed, documents show.
In February, Chisago County District Judge John McBride sentenced Schnagl to 78 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree cocaine possession. As part of a plea agreement, two lesser charges of possessing and selling marijuana were dismissed.
The sentence runs concurrently with an 86-month jail term to which Schnagl had been sentenced after another drug conviction in Anoka County. In that 2006 case, Schnagl had been sentenced to 30 years of probation, and the prison term was stayed as long as he complied with the conditions. The Chisago County charges violated that probation, putting the prison term into effect. He’s currently scheduled to be released in June 2017. A third-degree murder conviction carries a sentence of 25 years.
Jelinek was the first of three women in Minnesota — the others were Mandy Matula and Kira Steger — who disappeared in the past year only to be found dead later, putting their families through untold anguish. At the site where Jelinek’s body was found last spring, a sign placed by friends the next day saying “Love you Dani” still stands, now adorned with lights, ornaments and greenery.