It was just more than two years ago, in the fading light of a brilliant spring day, that a five-month search for Danielle Jelinek ended with the discovery of her body in a shallow slough near a rural cul-de-sac in Chisago County.
On Monday, at the county courthouse in Center City, jury selection will open what is expected to be a two-week trial for Aaron Schnagl, 30, the last person known to have seen her alive.
Schnagl, whose home was a quarter-mile east of that slough, was indicted on a third-degree murder charge in December 2013, 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. An autopsy showed cocaine and alcohol in her system, but made no conclusions about the cause and manner of her death, one of the case’s several focal points.
The case is the last to be legally resolved involving three Twin Cities women — the others were Kira Steger and Mandy Matula — who vanished over a six-month span from late 2012 to early 2013. All were found dead weeks later after intensive searches.
The long interim from the time of Schnagl’s indictment to the trial speaks to the complexity of the case, for both prosecution and defense. The trial originally was slated for March, and a request for a further delay by defense attorney Melvin Welch, who replaced Schnagl’s public defender, was denied by Chisago County District Judge Todd Schoffelman.
Months of pretrial hearings, motions and judge’s orders have laid out the trial’s groundwork, with each side gaining and losing strategic legal ground. In the meantime, the grieving Jelinek family has tried to adjust to their loss. Schnagl has remained incarcerated on drug charges, separated from a young daughter.
Missing in 2012
Jelinek’s family first reported her missing on Dec. 9, 2012, when she hadn’t made her daily call checking in.
Jelinek, 27, who grew up in Cottage Grove and worked as a manager at the Wells Fargo branch in Maplewood, had last spoken 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.
The extent of that physical abuse, and how much jurors will hear about it, has been another point of pretrial contention. In testimony to the grand jury, a former cellmate said Schnagl told him he had beaten her that night, she had overdosed and he hid her body.
That history of physical abuse, prosecutors argued in pretrial motions, is critical to understanding the context of the relationship between Jelinek and Schnagl. “This, sadly, was the crux of their relationship. [Schnagl] treasured the companionship of Ms. Jelinek, a young woman who had long struggled with chemical dependency,” argued Nicholas Hydukovich, assistant Chisago County attorney. “Ms. Jelinek kept coming back to the defendant, despite his physical abuse, because he supplied the drugs.”
In a pretrial order on June 4, Schoffelman sharply curtailed the admissibility of evidence about physical abuse, saying it would be more prejudicial than supporting the prosecution’s legal case of proving Schnagl provided the drugs that led to her death.
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 had woken up to find Jelinek missing, and said he went looking for her.
Hundreds of volunteers subsequently mobilized for searches in the area, hampered by heavy snow that had fallen on the day of her disappearance. Her body was found the following May 10 after the snow and ice had melted, without shoes and clad in just a camisole, court papers say.
Chisago County sheriff’s deputies initially removed 12 pounds of marijuana 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 was discovered.
Schnagl was sentenced 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.