HIBBING, Minn. — Deshon Israel Bonnell wouldn't say much about the events of Jan. 6.
But when asked about the death of 33-year-old Joshua Robert Lavalley, he didn't hesitate.
"I shot him twice in the head," Bonnell admitted at a hearing in State District Court in Hibbing Wednesday, Sept. 25.
The 18-year-old pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree murder while committing aggravated robbery in the Aurora man's death along the Mesabi Trail. With the plea, Bonnell will automatically receive a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.
Appearing before 6th Judicial District Judge Mark Starr, Bonnell was hesitant to offer any explanation of the events that led up to the shooting. He refused to identify his accomplices and said he either would not or could not recount certain events.
Authorities allege that Bonnell led Lavalley down the trail and killed him in an execution-style shooting in retaliation for the victim's alleged behavior toward Bonnell's girlfriend. A co-defendant testified to that effect in February, but has since sought to withdraw his guilty plea.
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Bonnie Norlander asked Bonnell whether he came into possession of $5 belonging to Lavalley. He admitted he did, and that he had a concealed firearm at the time, but would not identify how the robbery occurred.
"I was an intimidation factor," Bonnell testified. "I'm just a big guy. All I did was sit there."
Norlander moved the conversation to the Mesabi Trail. Bonnell admitted to using a Ruger .22-caliber pistol to kill the victim but would not elaborate on the motive.
"At that time were you assisted by at least one other individual?" the prosecutor asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Bonnell replied. "But I will not name any names."
Norlander and defense attorney Jason Schellack told the judge they were satisfied Bonnell's admissions provided a sufficient factual basis to establish his guilt. Starr accepted his plea.
Schellack requested that the court immediately proceed to sentencing, given the automatic sentence, but the judge said he would give Lavalley's family time to prepare victim-impact statements. Starr scheduled that proceeding for Oct. 25.
By admitting to a robbery-related murder charge, Bonnell averts a mandatory sentence of life without parole if he were to be convicted of premeditated first-degree murder. That charge, along with counts of intentional second-degree murder and kidnapping, was dismissed under an agreement with prosecutors.
Bonnell had been set to stand trial on the charges Oct. 21.
He is the second of three defendants in the case to plead guilty. Anthony Emerson Howson, 21, entered a guilty plea in February to a count of intentional second-degree murder, though he recently indicated a desire to withdraw that plea.
Howson testified at his Feb. 22 plea hearing that Bonnell carried a gun and talked of a plan to kill Lavalley in retaliation for his behavior toward his girlfriend, Bailey Bodell French. He said the four of them spent the day together Jan. 5.
Howson testified that he eventually drove the victim's roommate's car out to the Kerr area, on the western side of Hibbing, in the early morning hours of Jan. 6. He said he waited with the car while Bonnell and French placed a bandanna around Lavalley's face and led him down the trail.
Lavalley's body was discovered by a snowmobiler later that day with two gunshot wounds to the face, according to court documents. He had no wallet or identification, so investigators had to use fingerprints to identify the body.
In the subsequent investigation, Howson and French both allegedly confirmed the circumstances of Lavalley's death. French, according to court documents, told police that Bonnell fired the two shots.
Howson entered into a plea agreement that calls for a 25½ years in prison, sparing him a grand jury indictment for first-degree murder and the possibility of a life sentence. His sentencing has been withheld as he agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of his co-defendants.
However, earlier this month, Howson discharged public defender Todd Deal, telling Starr he was in the process of hiring a new attorney and seeking to pull out of the plea agreement. He did so even as the judge warned him that right is not absolute, and could expose him to grand jury proceedings. As of Wednesday, Howson did not have any attorney registered, nor had he filed any formal motion to withdraw the plea.
French, 17, who was indicted on charges of premeditated first-degree murder and first-degree murder while committing kidnapping, has yet to enter a plea. She is scheduled to be back in court on Nov. 14.