Alleged killer to face Duluth trial in North Shore dismemberment case
A judge granted a change of venue in the case of Jacob Johnson, of Superior, citing a co-defendant's recent trial and logistical challenges in Cook County.
GRAND MARAIS — The man accused of fatally shooting Richard "Ricky" Anthony Balsimo Jr. will be tried in Duluth this summer, two years after the victim's dismembered remains were pulled from Lake Superior.
Judge Michael Cuzzo on Tuesday ordered a change of venue for the trial of Jacob Colt Johnson, 37, of Superior.
"I do that reluctantly, because I know it's generally important to be able to serve the community and have a trial where there is a nexus between acts and the community," Cuzzo said. "These are extreme circumstances that I think are important, and the change of venue is necessary to make sure that both Mr. Johnson and the state get a fair trial with (jurors) that have not been subjected to the level of publicity that has been received in Cook County."
Johnson is the final remaining defendant of the three charged in connection with Balsimo's killing. Court documents indicate he fatally shot the St. Paul man in a moving car in the Twin Cities in June 2021 before transporting his body north to be dismembered on a rural Douglas County property and ultimately deposited in several bins off the shore of Grand Portage.
The move was requested by public defenders Steve Bergeson and Nora Huxtable. Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken and Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Dan Vlieger did not oppose relocating the trial to St. Louis County.
The matter was complicated by the recent trial of a co-defendant, Robert Thomas West, who was found guilty in February of aiding an offender as an accomplice after the fact to second-degree murder and interference with a dead body. That trial, spanning multiple weeks, required summoning dozens of potential jurors to the Cook County Courthouse.
Johnson's trial is scheduled for July 18 to Aug. 4 — the height of the busy tourism season in the county of just 5,600.
"The state is in agreement that pretrial publicity is too much of a risk, and if we start getting going on jury selection here in Cook County and need to ditch out, which I think is a significant risk, then we're going to delay this trial even more," Hicken said. "There are other issues related to how busy this county is and how busy our jurors are in the middle of summer."
Under an amended criminal complaint filed in late February, Johnson is facing two counts of second-degree murder: intentional and unintentional. His attorneys have said they will argue he acted lawfully in self-defense and defense of others.
The two charges would provide jurors discretion in assessing his level of culpability, but it comes with a significant difference in terms of potential sentencing. An intentional murder conviction would likely carry a prison term in excess of 25 years, while unintentional murder carries only about half of that under state sentencing guidelines.
Court documents indicate that Balsimo, Johnson and two women were traveling in a car around the Twin Cities area June 20, 2021, when an argument ensued. Defense attorneys said statements from the two women confirmed that Balsimo, 34, pulled out a knife and began pointing it at others and making death threats before he was shot from behind through the front passenger seat by Johnson.
West, 42, of South Range, reportedly told investigators that Johnson showed up at his residence with Balsimo's body in the back seat of his Audi on June 20. Court documents indicate he also described the circumstances of shooting the victim while he was waving around a knife in the car.
The men reportedly covered the body with a blanket and Johnson drove the car to his daughter's birthday party in Superior before the defendants hatched a plan to dispose of the remains. Court documents say West admitted that he recommended dismemberment and assisted Johnson in bringing the body to a motor home in Bennett, about 20 miles south of Superior.
Johnson allegedly completed the dismemberment, while West helped encase the remains in concrete inside three 5-gallon buckets and a tote.
A Duluth woman, Tommi Lynn Hintz, 32, pleaded guilty last June to aiding an offender and agreed to cooperate in the West and Johnson prosecutions. She testified that she had been contacted by Johnson early on the morning of June 20 and saw the bullet holes in the front seat of the car during a trip to the Hinckley, Minnesota, casino the night of June 21. She admitted she helped arrange for a boat out of Grand Portage on June 22.
Court documents indicate the boat owner has been cooperative, stating he took West out on the water after being told he was disposing of some of his grandmother's belongings and a dead dog.
Balsimo's family was critical of law enforcement and said they did not see any significant movement on their missing person report until they hired Duluth private investigative firm Applied Professional Services, which identified the cause of death and location of Balsimo's remains.
The four containers with the victim's remains were ultimately recovered July 15-16, 2021, with assistance from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. An autopsy later determined Balsimo had been shot at least four times.
Johnson is being held at the Mille Lacs County Jail on $1.5 million bail. Sentencing hearings for both West and Hintz have been delayed until August, after the completion of Johnson's trial.