GOSHEN — Despite pleas for mercy from the victim’s family, a judge sentenced an Elkhart man to do life in prison for his role in a woman’s murder two years ago.
Donald Owen Jr., 22, received the harshest punishment in the case so far during his hearing in Elkhart County Circuit Court on Thursday. Another man charged in the case, Matthew Murzynski, was sentenced earlier this month.
A third man, Mario Angulo Jr., is scheduled to hear his sentence in a couple weeks.
Owen, along with Angulo, 20, of Elkhart, were both convicted on counts of murder, robbery resulting in injury and criminal confinement at the end of their jury trial on April 29. A jury had found them guilty in the torture and killing of Kimberly Dyer, 31, of Columbia City, as well as the robbery and confinement of Robert Porter of Michigan in the basement of a house along Old Orchard Lane in Elkhart in October 2019.
The jury later recommended life in prison for Owen on the murder charge. And after a nearly two-hour hearing Thursday, Judge Michael Christofeno followed the recommendation.
“Donald Ray Owen Jr. should receive a sentence of life without parole as the appropriate punishment for him and for the crime of murder which he has committed under these circumstances,” Christofeno said in his decision.
On top of the life term, Christofeno sentenced Owen to a further 62-year prison term on the robbery and criminal confinement charges.
Evidence at the trial showed Murzynski was at the forefront of confining and abusing Dyer when the ordeal began at the house, described as a meth den at the time. Angulo joined him as they lead an interrogation of Dyer over fears she was a snitch. Porter was also taken captive. Owen was later called in to keep order.
According to evidence, Owen helped rob Porter and gave the command for Dyer to be killed, which Angulo carried by cutting her throat.
Owen’s attorney, Fay Schwartz, opposed the life sentence for Owen, arguing he didn’t have a direct hand in Dyer’s torture or death.
Schwartz was backed by Dyer’s mother and aunt as they sided with the assertion that Owen should instead receive a prison term with an eventual release date.
“I’m begging you, judge,” said Sue Wood, Dyer’s mother. “Please have mercy on him. He did not kill my daughter. He did not take my daughter from her children.”
Dyer’s aunt also wanted Owen to have an opportunity for a second chance.
“I would have to be opposed to the life imprisonment because I believe everybody deserves a second chance,” said Syndi Norton.
As the women spoke, Owen began to cry. And with emotions running high, Schwartz also broke and cried briefly.
During her arguments, Schwartz alleged the jury reached a wrong verdict, saying the evidence was insufficient to show Owen intentionally killed Dyer, or that he was more guilty than Angulo or Murzynski.
“The jury determined this young man, who was barely out of his teens when this terrible event occurred, is more culpable than those who eyewitnesses testified actually committed the acts that took Kimberly Dyer’s life,” Schwartz said.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katelyn Doyle pointed out jurors reached their verdicts objectively when they found Owen was responsible for his crimes as the others were in the case. She added Owen was the one who gave the order for Dyer to be killed.
Christofeno sided with Doyle on culpability, saying with accomplices in a crime, “the act of one is the act of all.”
Owen apologized to Dyer’s family, and made a few accusations of his own, before the sentence was ordered.
“I truly apologize for the events that took place,” Owen said. “And I’m sorry that I didn’t stop what was going on. I’m sorry for that.”
Maintaining his innocence, Owen accused the justice system of corruption and alleged witnesses had lied about his responsibility in Dyer’s death, that he, “never touched her.”
Owen also said he wasn’t sorry for beating Porter, calling it his act of justice as he alleged Porter had raped Dyer at the house. And he asked why Porter wasn’t charged with such an assault.
At the end of the hearing, Christofeno noted an attorney would be appointed to work on Owen’s appeal.
Angulo is scheduled to be sentenced June 24. The jury did not recommend a life sentence for him.
Murzynski, 25, was sentenced June 3 to serve 60 years in prison after he had pleaded guilty in March to charges of aiding, inducing or causing robbery, and aiding, inducing or causing criminal confinement.
Several other hearings were held in Circuit Court on Thursday.
Among them, an Elkhart man made his initial hearing to face charges from a fatal hit-and-run crash in Elkhart a week ago.
Ronnie Hapner, 34, is charged with a Level 4 felony count of leaving the scene of a crash causing death, and a Level 6 felony count of leaving the scene of a crash resulting in an injury.
He was allegedly driving a pickup truck that had struck Blaine Fisher, 18, of Elkhart, and Mckade Nielsen, 18, of Elkhart, in the 3000 block of Greenleaf Boulevard the night of June 4.
Fisher, who had been on a bicycle, died from his injuries. Nielsen, who had been on a skateboard, was injured and required medical treatment at a local hospital.
A tip led investigators to Hapner’s home where they learned he allegedly told a relative he thought he had hit a deer or possibly a person as he was driving home, and that he planned to surrender to police, details in the probable cause affidavit in the case show.
Detectives interviewed him early Sunday morning, and Hapner allegedly admitted to striking Fisher and Nielsen, and that he didn’t stop after the crash, the affidavit shows.
During Thursday’s hearing, Judge Christofeno entered a not-guilty plea on Hapner’s behalf. He also scheduled the trial to begin Nov. 15.