HIBBING — A Hibbing man whose testimony helped send Deshon Israel Bonnell to prison for the murder of Joshua Robert Lavalley has been sentenced for 25.5 years behind bars as part of a plea deal in the case.
A Sixth District judge on Thursday afternoon sentenced the man, Anthony Emerson Howson, 21, of Hibbing, for aiding and abetting the murder of Lavalley, of Aurora, in January.
“This was an incomprehensible tragic act,” District Judge Mark M. Starr said at the time of sentencing, and added that Howson had indicated in the pre-sentencing investigation he was under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine at the time of the murder. “Unfortunately, we have a huge problem in our society of methamphetamine destroying the lives of other people.”
Starr sentenced Howson to 306 months in prison, with 311 days credit for time served. He is expected to be eligible for parole in about 16 years.
Court records show that a snowmobiler found Lavalley’s dead body on Jan. 6 on the Mesabi Trail near Kerr on the western side of Hibbing.
Authorities located a .22 caliber shell. The Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office discovered that Lavalley had two gunshot wounds to his face and ruled his death a homicide. Law enforcement used his fingerprints to identify him. Lavalley’s roommate told them that he loaned his maroon 2001 Chevy Impala to him for the weekend.
The next day, law enforcement found Howson, then 20, driving the vehicle in Hibbing.
Howson told authorities that Bonnell, then 18, was carrying a gun when he created plans to kill Lavalley, 33, for “attempted sexual contact” with his girlfriend, Bailey Bodell French, then 17. He said the four of them spent time together on Jan. 5, and then Howson drove them along the Mesabi Trail the previous morning.
Howson said that he remained in the vehicle while Bonnell and French used a bandana to blindfold Lavalley’s eyes and walked him into the woods. Both Howson and French told law enforcement that Bonnell was the lone shooter.
Bonnell’s mother reported to law enforcement that her .22 caliber pistol was missing from her home and officers later found the firearm at French’s residence under her mattress.
Bonnell, Howson and French were arrested and made their initial court appearances later that month on various charges. Bonnell and Howson were charged with second-degree murder and locked up at the St. Louis County Jail on $1 million bail each.
In February, Howson entered into a plea deal with the county attorney’s office. In so doing, prosecutors say, he dodged a grand indictment and plead guilty to a felony charge of aiding and abetting intentional second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against Bonnell and French.
Lavalley’s death is a ‘tremendous loss’
On Thursday, a representative of the county attorney’s office read four victim impact statements in court before a crowd of Lavalley’s family and friends, along with a note from a counselor at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center, who commented on Lavalley’s kindness when he stayed at the facility in Saginaw.
In his letter, the victim’s father, Robert, wrote that “these three people hurt my family, they hurt their own and they hurt a little boy, Josh’s son.” He would thank the judge, prosecutors and law enforcement for their 10-plus months working the case.
Two of the victim’s sisters — Jonni and Joann — expressed in their letters how they had tried calling their brother for what would have been his 34th birthday on Jan. 7. “I still see his face where he was shot every night,” Jonni wrote. “I hope they think about the fact that they killed someone’s father, son, cousin, nephew…” Joann wrote that she “felt thankful for some of the actions of this defendant” and she was grateful that he was caught and testified against his co-defendants. “I hope he is grateful to get a second chance at life, even though he helped rob another man of his.”
The victim’s aunt named Gladys read her own letter in which she recalled how “Josh was such a happy child” and how “he was a very peaceful man who did not like conflict.” She detailed the struggles of a family handling his murder. “The loss that we all feel is tremendous… The family of the victims are collateral damage.”
Assistant St. Louis County Attorneys Bonnie Norlander and Karl Sunquist, who are prosecuting the three connected cases, said thank you to Lavalley’s family for their continued support and trust.
“Three young people, Mr. Howson included, thought they were in a position to pass judgement on Josh Lavalley, a man they had just met,” Norlander said when reading her statement. “Perhaps these three young people got caught up in a herd mentality but each of those individuals fueled and contributed to the end result. The end result, the loss of Josh’s life was not inevitable. Any one of those three, Mr. Howson included, could have put a stop to it by simply dialing 911.”
Norlander added: “Mr. Howson took responsibility early on in this court process. He did make attempts to minimize his knowledge and role, but overall, he took responsibility and has expressed remorse in his pre-sentence investigation.”
Defense attorney describes Howson as ‘vulnerable’ young man
Defense attorney Todd Deal described Howson as having been removed from his abusive parent’s home at age 6 and placed into foster care — an “addict” diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic-stress-disorder.
“I look at Mr. Howson as being vulnerable because of his addiction, victimization and wanting to belong,” Deal said. “That vulnerability put him with people and places that were no good for him.”
Deal sat beside Howson when telling the judge that he was “a kind young man” who was worth rehabilitation. “He weeps for Mr. Lavalley. He weeps for the entire Lavalley family.” He explained how Howson has been replaying scenarios in his own mind of walking away before the murder or stepping in to stop the killing. “The what ifs will haunt Mr. Howson for the rest of his life,” he said.
Family and friends of Lavalley gasped and whispered expletives as the defense attorney continued.
“We should all weep,” he said. “We’re all involved here. We should all weep for Mr. Lavalley and his family. We should all weep for these kids and we should all weep for society.”
When asked whether he wanted to say anything in court, Howson said, “No, thanks,” and hugged Deal after receiving his sentencing. He briefly looked into the crowd of the victim’s family and friends before being escorted out of the courtroom.
Charged as an adult
French, now 18, appeared in court on Thursday morning. Her defense attorney Kimberly Jean Corradi said they were seeking to challenge the admissibility of statements and an indictment against her. A contested omnibus hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27.
French was originally charged with a juvenile count of second-degree murder and held at a state juvenile detention facility, as Bonnell and Howson stayed in the county jail. A grand jury indicted both French and Bonnell on two counts each of first-degree murder charges.
For French, the indictment meant that her juvenile case was transferred to adult court and she was transported to the county jail. She currently faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of either indictment.
The sentenced gunman
Nearly three weeks ago, Bonnell, who had just turned 19, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 360 months — roughly 30 years.
Bonnell had been facing life in prison without parole, but entered into a plea deal two months ago when he plead guilty to first-degree murder while committing aggravated robbery. “I shot him twice in the head,” Bonnell reportedly told a judge about his using a .22-caliber pistol to kill Lavalley, according to the Duluth News Tribune. He did not expand on his motive or identify any accomplices.
In pleading guilty to the robbery-related murder charge, Bonnell avoided a state-mandated sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole that he was facing after a grand jury indicted him earlier this year. The plea deal cut that charge and others, including intentional second-degree murder and kidnapping.
At his sentencing, Norlander said that “hopefully today will give the family of Joshua Lavalley closure.” She asked Judge Starr to sentence Bonnell in accordance with the plea deal. “We have not seen even an ounce of remorse,” she said.
Bonnell’s defense attorney, Jason Schellack — executive director of the Autism Advocacy Law Center in Minneapolis — did not make any statements at the time. But Bonnell did and his drew quiet gasps from Lavalley’s family and friends in the courtroom.
“I was manipulated into doing this,” Bonnell said.
Bonnell continued, “I’m a man that was raised on my principles. What I did was bad, but at the time I thought what I was doing was right. I apologize to the family and to anyone else I might have hurt.”