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Duluth woman pleads not guilty in Lake Superior dismemberment case; investigation ongoing

With forensic test results awaited, and new charges filed in Wisconsin, a judge gave the parties until April to determine next steps in the court process.

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DULUTH — Due to ongoing forensic testing and new charges in Wisconsin, it is likely to be several months before any major developments are seen in the cases of three people charged in connection with the killing and dismembering of a man whose remains were found in Lake Superior last summer.

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Richard Anthony Balsimo

Two defendants made brief Zoom appearances Monday in State District Court in Grand Marais, as several family members and supporters of Richard “Ricky” Anthony Balsimo Jr. looked on.

Tommi Lynn Hintz, 31, of Duluth, formally entered a not guilty plea to felony charges of aiding an offender as an accomplice after the fact and interference with a dead body. Defense attorney Keith Shaw told the court he had not identified any probable cause or constitutional issues to raise, but reserved the right to do so as the discovery process continues.

The family of Richard Balsimo Jr. held a walk Sunday in Duluth to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous men and to call for changes to the justice system.

Robert Thomas West, 41, of South Range, appeared on the same charges, but did not formally enter a plea. His attorney, Michael Ryan, noted that he had received several new batches of investigative files since December and requested additional time to review the evidence.

The third suspect, Jacob Colt Johnson, 35, of Superior, is charged with intentional second-degree murder. He is scheduled to appear in court Feb. 14, but his case also likely will not be prepared to see significant progress.

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Jacob Colt Johnson

Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Dan Vlieger said the case has been complicated now that it's multi-jurisdictional, with Douglas County last month charging West with felony counts of party to mutilating a corpse, harboring or aiding a felon and possession of a firearm by a felon.

"The Wisconsin Department of Justice is involved in the testing of a number of items and there's still items that are awaiting to be tested at our Minnesota (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as well," Vlieger said Monday. "My understanding is that we're going to have a conversation, possibly at the end of this week or next week, with the prosecutors over in Wisconsin to get a handle on timelines as to their testing, which will also affect some of the testing that happens here at the BCA."

Ryan added that the addition of charges in Wisconsin "certainly changes calculations from the defense standpoint" in West's case.

Judge Michael Cuzzo set Hintz and West's next appearances for April 11.

The man charged, Robert Thomas West, is facing similar charges in Cook County.

Dive teams located the remains of Balsimo, of St. Paul, on July 15-16 in cement-weighted buckets that had been dumped in Lake Superior near Grand Portage. He had been reported missing several weeks earlier and his family had turned to private investigators, who obtained information identifying him as a likely homicide victim.

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Robert Thomas West

West reportedly told Douglas County Sheriff's Office detectives that Johnson showed up at his home in South Range on June 20. The Audi that Johnson was driving had bullet holes in the front passenger seat; Balsimo's dead body was in the back seat, a criminal complaint said. Johnson allegedly told West he shot Balsimo in self-defense.

West and Johnson brought the body to an RV in Bennett, where Johnson cut up the body, according to the Wisconsin charges. West allegedly said he went to Menards in Superior to buy additional tools, as well as the buckets and cement to put the body parts in. He and Johnson later burned their clothes.

Hintz allegedly mentioned a commercial fisherman friend in Grand Portage, accompanying West up the North Shore. The charges state that West told the boat owner he had some valuables he wanted to dispose of, dumping two 5-gallon buckets and a large tote into the lake.

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Tommi Lynn Hintz

The remains inside the containers were formally identified as Balsimo, with a medical examiner concluding he had been shot in the torso. West allegedly confessed to coming up with the plan to dispose of the body and corroborating a number of details in other witnesses' statements, according to the charges.

Johnson's attorney, Steve Bergeson, has filed notice last week that he intends to argue his client acted in self-defense and defense of others.

West is being held in the Lake County Jail and Johnson in the Pine County Jail. Hintz remains free on bond.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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As reported by St. Louis County District Court.