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Hibbing man contests charges in baby's fire death

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Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski made a poor decision to leave his 11-month-old nephew, Bentley, home alone while being paid to babysit last August.

But the 25-year-old Hibbing man had no reason to suspect that a fire would soon engulf the Tower residence, causing the boy's death, his defense attorney argued in a recent brief.

"Mr. Bonacci-Koski's conduct, while ill-advised, was insufficient to establish criminal liability," public defender J.D. Schmid wrote in support of a motion seeking dismissal of two second-degree manslaughter charges.

"The harm caused by his decision to leave (Bentley) alone in the home was not probable, obvious, or even reasonably foreseeable. House fires are a relatively infrequent occurrence and there is no evidence to suggest Mr. Bonacci-Koski should have predicted that the house would catch fire when he left that morning."

St. Louis County prosecutor Jessica Fralich strongly disagreed, arguing: "It is simply not reasonable to leave an 11-month-old child unattended for any length of time."

"(Bentley) at 11 months was completely dependant on adult supervision for his care and safety," she wrote in response. "To assert that leaving a child of that age alone for any length of time is appropriate is contrary to the common sensibilities of the ordinary person."

The issue is one of three defense motions being considered by 6th Judicial District Judge Gary Pagliaccetti.

In addition to asking the judge to toss the most-serious charges from the case, Bonacci-Koski is seeking to have his statements to law enforcement suppressed and to prevent the state from seeking an above-guideline sentence if he is ultimately convicted.

Documents filed by both prosecutors and defense attorneys in recent weeks provide new details on Bonacci-Koski's actions and the subsequent investigation of the fire and the baby's death.

Bentley Joe Lewis Koski was declared dead at the scene of the fire at 813 Third St. N. in Tower on the morning of Aug. 2. The boy had been left in the care of his uncle the previous night while his parents went out.

The prosecution brief indicates that it was a next-door neighbor, a member of the Tower Fire Department, who arrived home at 7:45 a.m. and found the house on fire. The neighbor noticed the back door unlocked and open but no one responded to his knocking.

Fire crews made entry and found significant fire in the kitchen. A sweep of the residence found Bentley in an upstairs bedroom, unresponsive in a crib. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead from inhalation of products of combustion.

An investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office was inconclusive. It was determined that a kitchen countertop, cabinets, stove and wall containing an electrical outlet were all extensively damaged. Officials said they could not rule out cooking, electrical issues or smoking as the cause.

Bonacci-Koski was arrested later that afternoon in a car reported stolen from a neighboring residence shortly after the fire broke out.

Schmid wrote in the defense brief that Bonacci-Koski had left Bentley alone for about two hours in order to go to a nearby business, Benchwarmers Grille, and access their wireless internet.

Upon returning, Schmid said, Bonacci-Koski saw fire trucks and "panicked," stealing the car and later hiding from law enforcement in the woods. He said the defendant admitted to using methamphetamine and that he had been awake for six days.

The defense attorney contended that the factual record did not support the two charges of manslaughter, which require showing that Bonacci-Koski acted with "culpable negligence" and "willfully put (Bentley) in a position where it was more likely than not that he would suffer substantial harm."

"The house caught fire sometime while Mr. Bonacci-Koski was gone, and (Bentley) died as a result," Schmid wrote. "The cause of the fire is undetermined. There is no evidence that Mr. Bonacci-Koski's conduct contributed to the fire."

Fralich, in response, cited Bonacci-Koski's statement to law enforcement that he was "guilty of neglecting" the infant while he left to "get high."

The prosecutor noted that Bentley was left alone in an unlocked house for a minimum of two hours. At just 11 months of age, she said there was a foreseeable risk of injury or death stemming from the lack of supervision.

"Defendant admits at some point he was near the residence and saw the firefighter response," Fralich added. "At no time did he attempt to alert anyone to (Bentley's) presence in the home. This evidence alone provides probable cause for both (counts)."

Other issues

Separately, Bonacci-Koski is asking the judge to suppress the statements he gave to law enforcement after his arrest.

In unrecorded statements to deputies in a squad car and at the jail, Bonacci-Koski allegedly admitted to leaving Bentley home alone while he bought drugs and later stealing the neighbor's vehicle upon finding the house on fire.

Schmid contended in a brief that the statements were the result of an illegal interrogation, with Bonacci-Koski, who stated that he had been awake for six days, facing questioning without ever receiving a Miranda warning.

Prosecutor Bonnie Thayer argued in a response that it was Bonacci-Koski who initiated both conversations with the deputies. She said investigators intended to bring the defendant to an interview room and read his Miranda warning, but Bonacci-Koski, after initially requesting to talk the next day, voluntarily made the incriminating statements.

In another motion, Bonacci-Koski is asking Pagliaccetti to preclude the state from seeking an above-guideline sentence if he is ultimately convicted.

Schmid argued that prosecutors failed to demonstrate that Bentley's "zone of privacy" was invaded in such a way as to justify a departure from guidelines, or that the case was substantially more serious than the typical manslaughter case.

Fralich, in response, noted that the victim was left in his bedroom, where he had an expectation of privacy and security, and argued that the case is particularly egregious because he was completely dependant on his babysitter for care during that time.

The judge took all three motions under advisement. He has not indicated when he might issue a ruling.

In addition to the two counts of manslaughter, Bonacci-Koski is charged with theft of a motor vehicle and fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine. He remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $200,000 bail.

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