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Eveleth woman sentenced to nearly 29 years for arranging boyfriend's murder

Janessa Lynn Peters, 22, speaks to Judge James Florey at her sentencing hearing Monday at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia. Peters, who admitted to arranging the death of her boyfriend Harley Jacka in April 2014, was sentenced to nearly 29 years in prison on an intentional second-degree murder charge. Credit: WDIO-TV

VIRGINIA — An Eveleth woman who voluntarily came forward to admit that she arranged the murder of her boyfriend nearly three years ago received no leniency from a judge Monday.

Janessa Lynn Peters, 22, was sentenced to nearly 29 years in prison after earlier admitting that she set up the killing of 28-year-old Harley Joseph Jacka because she was having difficulty breaking up with the Virginia man.

The prison term, handed down by 6th Judicial District Judge James Florey, was a guideline sentence for Peters’ intentional second-degree murder conviction. The judge denied a defense motion that would have cut about 12 years off the sentence.

“While you have cooperated with law enforcement, while you have expressed remorse, that doesn’t excuse your culpability,” the judge told Peters in imposing the sentence.

Jacka was found dead inside a Virginia apartment in April 2014, the victim of more than a dozen stab wounds. Three suspects were taken into custody at that time.

While a motive remained elusive for investigators, Peters came forward to law enforcement in August 2015, saying she could no longer live with the guilt. She pleaded guilty later that year to intentional second-degree murder.

Peters and defense attorney Bruce Williams cited her remorse and cooperation with authorities in seeking the lesser sentence at the long-delayed hearing in State District Court in Virginia.

Williams argued that a prison term of a little less than 17 years was appropriate for his client.

“She was essentially home free,” Williams told the judge, “but her conscience got the best of her.”

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets framed the case in markedly different terms, calling Peters the “architect” of the plot and saying Jacka would still be alive if not for her.

“The defendant put a hit on her boyfriend — arranged for him to be brutally killed,” the prosecutor said. “Then she went on with her life for 16 months.”

The judge agreed, imposing the 346-month sentence that was requested by Holets.

Florey rejected arguments from the defense, who also cited Peters’ history of substance abuse and mental health issues, in seeking the shorter prison term.

The judge noted that Peters was already given consideration for her decision to come forward when the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office agreed not to seek an indictment for a premeditated first-degree murder charge, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

Jacka was found dead in an apartment at 207 Fifth St. S. on April 29, 2014. An autopsy found that he had been stabbed approximately 15 times. Four knives were recovered at the scene.

Peters later came forward to tell police that she had asked Bartholamy Jake Drift, with whom she was also in a relationship, to kill Jacka because she wanted to break up with him.

Several of Jacka’s family members spoke at the hearing about the impact of their loss.

They described the 28-year-old, who overcame health scares after being born extremely premature, as hard-working and generous. He left behind five children.

“The day I was told he was gone, my heart shattered to pieces,” said Nicole Jacka, who is a niece of the victim but described him as her father and best friend. “Every second of every day he is on my mind.”

Erin Miller, who raised children with Jacka, said his death has rippled through the family, leaving his children without a father.

“The cruelty they put him through can never be justified,” she said. “It can never be explained in a sensible way.”

Williams said Peters has lived a troubled life, with regular opioid use starting at age 16. She was been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety in the summer of 2015 following three suicide attempts, the defense attorney said.

He noted that Peters was in custody on a relatively minor charge — fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine — when she requested to speak to investigators about Jacka’s death.

“She invited herself to the table,” Williams said. “As a result of that, she’ll spend a significant portion of her life in prison.”

Holets, however, said Peters’ life history and cooperation with police didn’t lessen the impact of her actions.

“Her remorse first came 16 months after the deceased last breathed,” he said in a brief filed with the court. “The conduct of the defendant is more egregious than most being sentenced for second-degree murder. The defendant coldly plotted with one of her co-defendants to lure the deceased to a party later that day with the purpose of killing him. Their scheming was devoid of remorse.”

Peters rose before receiving her punishment, offering a brief statement without the aid of any written notes.

“Being sober, I’m in a different state of mind,” she said. “I don’t agree with what was done. Every day, I feel guilty. It’s a burden to me. It’s not going to be an easy future for me. I feel bad every day.”

Florey said he accepted that Peters was remorseful, but said the nature of her conduct simply could not be explained.

“It didn’t have to happen,” he said.

Peters is the third of four defendants to be sentenced in connection with Jacka’s death.

Co-defendant Anthony James Isham, 45, admitted that he stabbed Jacka three times inside the apartment. He was sentenced last month to more than 30 years in prison.

His cousin, 40-year-old John Edward Isham, is serving approximately 6½ years in prison after pleading guilty to aiding an offender after the fact.

The prolonged case is expected to finally draw to a close on Jan. 23 with the sentencing of Drift, 42. He faces a presumptive sentence of about 32 years in prison.

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