Trial opens in 'brutal' Iron Range slaying
A prosecutor said a simmering feud culminated in J Cramer shooting, beating and suffocating Frank Meyer. But a defense attorney told jurors the investigation was flawed.
VIRGINIA — Frank Gerald Meyer sent his final communication at 7:40 p.m. Oct. 2, 2019.
It was a simple, two-word text message to his then-11-year-old daughter, Arianna: “Love you.”
By the time she read and responded to the message the next morning, authorities said Meyer, 47, was already dead. But it would be nearly a week before his body was found inside his own garage, having been shot, beaten and suffocated in what a prosecutor described as a “brutal” killing.
“The evidence will show that Mr. Meyer was murdered,” public defender J.D. Schmid agreed Monday. “No one is questioning that. No one thinks that he deserved what happened to him. The issue in this case is who killed Mr. Meyer.”
More than three years later, a trial is finally underway for J Nicholas Cramer, 56, who prosecutors allege killed his one-time friend amid a feud that had been escalating over several days. Cramer, of Mora, Minnesota, had been staying with his wife in a camper on Meyer’s property, 3316 Curt Lane, Makinen.
“Even though (Cramer) tried to play if off as minor, this conflict was ramping up at the time just before Mr. Meyer’s death,” Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Tyler Kenefick told jurors.
Cramer is charged with premeditated first-degree murder and intentional second-degree murder. A conviction on the top count would result in automatic life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Kenefick told jurors that the last recorded activity on Meyer’s phone was a step counter, which last recorded activity at 7:55 p.m. on the night of his apparent killing. His body, however, was not discovered until Oct. 8 after a neighbor twice requested welfare checks.
“Almost every day he came over for a cup of coffee,” Lori Bailey testified, recalling how she became increasingly concerned. “No one had seen or heard from him; he hadn’t been over to the house at all.”
Deputy Matt Tomsich of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office responded to Bailey’s call to the house on the morning of Oct. 8. After a cursory search of the entire property turned up no signs, he was joined by partner Ryan Pauly, who located Meyer in a garage.
(We) can’t tell you who killed Frank Meyer. But we can tell you Mr. Cramer did not kill him.
Tomsich said it appeared the body was intentionally concealed under a pile that included several large bags of insulation, a mini-bike and a battery charger.
Kenefick told jurors in his opening statement that future testimony will indicate Meyer’s arms and legs were bound. He was shot four times, had rags stuffed in his mouth and was struck multiple times with a blunt object — any of which could have been fatal on their own, the prosecutor said.
He said Meyer and Cramer had previously exchanged heated text messages, with Meyer asking about a car window that had been shot out on his property and demanding that the defendant get his belongings off the property.
Tomsich testified that he had previously responded to the property Sept. 30, when a neighbor complained of loud noises, and he said Cramer was trying to move several cars so they would not get stuck in mud on Meyer’s property.
Kenefick added that the Cramers had been seen leaving the area around 10 p.m. the night of the killing, stopping at a U.S. Highway 53 gas station approximately 7 miles away.
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Cramer’s DNA was at the end of that pipe. A pipe that was discovered in close proximity to the body of Mr. Meyer. A pipe consistent with the wounds to Mr. Meyer’s head and face.
Significantly, the prosecutor said, forensic testing of weapons also points to Cramer’s guilt. A Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension expert is expected to testify that two cartridge casings found near the garage door were fired by the same .22-caliber Ruger pistol as a cartridge recovered from the Cramers’ camper. He said investigators also tracked down the man who sold the weapon to Cramer and recovered additional matching cartridge casings.
Kenefick added that a pipe was found in a trash can near Meyer’s body, containing a bloody fingerprint left by the victim. DNA swabs revealed both Meyer and Cramer as likely contributors, while 99.9999999997% of the world’s population could be excluded.
“For all intents and purposes, Mr. Cramer’s DNA was at the end of that pipe,” Kenefick said. “A pipe that was discovered in close proximity to the body of Mr. Meyer. A pipe consistent with the wounds to Mr. Meyer’s head and face.”
Schmid, the defense attorney, offered only a brief opening statement without going through the evidence point-by-point. He simply urged jurors to withhold judgment and pay close attention throughout the case.
“(We) can’t tell you who killed Frank Meyer. But we can tell you Mr. Cramer did not kill him,” Schmid said. “The reason we can’t tell you who killed Frank Meyer is because the evidence does not allow us, the state, (or) anyone to say with any kind of certainty who killed Mr. Meyer.”
Schmid said sheriff’s office and BCA investigators “all have difficult jobs, but things did fall through the cracks in this case.” Leads went unfollowed, he said, and critical forensic testing was not undertaken.
“Sometimes in a case like this, there’s a temptation to believe that because there’s enough evidence to charge that he’s probably guilty,” Schmid said. “That would be a mistake in this case.”
Judge Robert Friday sustained several prosecution objections to the defense’s questioning of witnesses. As jurors went to lunch, Friday made clear he would not allow a “backdoor attempt” to implicate any other person in Meyer’s killing, noting the defense had not cleared the legal burden to pursue an alternative perpetrator theory.
Meyer grew up in Angora and graduated in 1990 from Cook High School, where he played trumpet in the band and participated in football and track. His father, George Meyer, said he was hoping to teach the instrument to his daughter, and also enjoyed hunting, fishing, waterskiing and making snow sculptures.
Meyer worked as an industrial painter before starting his own auto body repair and painting business. He long lived in Eveleth, purchasing the Makinen property just a year before his death in order to further pursue his career.
“Working on cars was his passion,” said George Meyer, 82. “He had 10 acres, a big shop. He was building the shop so he could spray paint, do body work, stuff like that.”
The case is being heard by a jury of seven women and seven men, including two alternates. The trial is scheduled to continue into next week.