The self-described drug dealer accused of causing and concealing Danielle Jelinek’s death testified Thursday that he was surprised to find her missing after a night of hard drinking and drug use.
Aaron Schnagl, 31, is charged with third-degree murder in Jelinek’s death. Prosecutors contend he provided her with illegal drugs that caused her death and that he carried her body in a blizzard to a nearby pond, where he pushed her into the icy water.
Jelinek, 27, of Oakdale, was missing for five months until her body was found in May 2013 in that pond, about a quarter-mile from Schnagl’s house. An autopsy showed cocaine and alcohol in her body.
Taking the stand Thursday in his own defense, Schnagl said that he didn’t sell or give cocaine to Jelinek on the night of Dec. 8, 2012. He said that they each paid $40 to buy a total of 5 grams of the controlled substance from Schnagl’s business partner.
Under questioning from both defense attorney Melvin Welch and prosecutor Ryan Flynn, Schnagl described a night of vodka, drugs and sex at his Chisago Lake Township house.
“That’s kind of what we did together,” he said. “That was our relationship, we partied and had fun. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but that’s what my group of friends did.”
Jelinek, a manager at the Wells Fargo branch bank in Maplewood, had a long-standing drug addiction. Her sister Cory testified earlier that Danielle had gone through drug treatment three times and recovered in a halfway house, but wasn’t using drugs before her death.
Schnagl’s nearly two hours of testimony came toward the end of a four-week trial in Chisago County.
Questioned closely about the events of the fatal night, he said he passed out before Jelinek’s disappearance and didn’t know that his home security alarm went off twice. He also had a dim recollection of a “vision” that she was outside playing in the snow sometime that night.
The next morning, Schnagl said, he went looking for her in closets and under beds in his house and outside in the neighborhood. “Extremely” hung over, he said, he began calling everyone he knew for help in finding her while worrying that police might discover a large stash of marijuana.
“I was in a bad state that morning, really bad,” Schnagl testified. “I was scared, a combination of her boyfriend calling me, freaking out on me, the marijuana in the trunk [of my car], and I had a girl missing. I thought she took off and walked somewhere.”
Schnagl then broke down and sobbed on the stand, covering his face with a tissue.
“I just wanted someone to come help me. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
A matter of believability
In his cross-examination, Flynn questioned Schnagl repeatedly about his knowledge of the nearby “Peterson Pond” where Jelinek’s nearly-nude body was found.
Despite having lived in the neighborhood for a year, Schnagl told people he didn’t know the pond was there, Flynn said. But the prosecutor got Schnagl to acknowledge that he took a detour whenever he drove to his house because the pond blocked the main road.
Flynn also noted in court that Schnagl was convicted of first-degree possession of controlled substances in 2007, and pleaded guilty to second-degree possession in 2013. District Judge Todd Schoffelman told the jury that he was allowing prosecutors to mention previous convictions as a way to determine Schnagl’s “believability.”
Schnagl, who is serving 78 months in Rush City prison on the 2013 conviction, freely admitted in court that he was a drug dealer. He said that before the night of Jelinek’s disappearance he had received a large amount of marijuana, which he was to divide and package for distribution to buyers. A duffel bag contained about $36,000 worth of marijuana, he said.
“We had so much weed coming and going, I don’t know who it was from,” he testified.
He acknowledged that the morning after the party he deleted text messages from his phone, gave Jelinek’s worried father the address to his automotive shop rather than his house, and didn’t immediately call police to report her disappearance.
Schnagl said he didn’t know where Jelinek had gone.
“It’s like nobody knew what was going on with this girl,” he said.