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CEDAR RAPIDS — A Marion man convicted of killing Chris Bagley in 2018 was charged Tuesday in the jail assault of an informant who he attacked in May in an attempt to stop him from testifying against a drug dealer.
Johnny Blahnik Church, 35, formerly known as Drew Blahnik, during an initial appearance, was charged with willful injury resulting in serious injury, a felony. He was also charged with tampering with a witness, an aggravated misdemeanor.
Sixth Judicial District Associate Judge Russell Keast ordered a $10,000 bail for the two charges.
Blahnik Church remains in jail after being sentenced to 57 years for fatally stabbing Bagley, 31, of Walker, in December 2018. He was convicted of second-degree murder and other charges. He also is pending sentencing — up to 10 years — in a federal court conviction for being a drug user in possession of a firearm.
According to a criminal complaint, Blahnik Church, along with Gregory Sills, 49, of Oelwein, followed Ethan Palmer, the drug informant, into the bathroom in their cell pod at the Linn County Jail on May 27, and began “striking” Palmer. They eventually dragged Palmer out into the main area of the cellblock and continued to attack him.
Blahnik Church and Sills “repeatedly punched, kicked and hit Palmer with a metal lunch tray causing serious injuries.” Palmer’s injuries included a broken nose, two broken orbital bones, a torn retina, chipped teeth and a broken knee, the complaint states.
A complaint hasn’t been filed on Sills, who will be charged separately in the assault.
First Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter, after the initial appearance, prefaced her comments about the charges by saying that Blahnik Church “is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”
“This is another cowardly act by Church and another person to attack someone at the behest of another individual,” Slaughter said. “Once again he is doing someone else’s dirty work.”
Tampering with or retaliating against a cooperating witness “will not be tolerated in Linn County,” Slaughter added.
Slaughter was referring to Blahnik Church asking Drew Wagner, who was also convicted in Bagley’s death, to help him kill Bagley at the request of Andrew Shaw, a convicted marijuana trafficker. Shaw wanted Bagley dead as revenge for Bagley robbing and assaulting him, according to testimony during Blahnik’s murder trial.
Palmer’s wife, Laurie Palmer, told The Gazette earlier this month about the attack on her husband. Law enforcement and court documents from a federal conviction of the drug dealer, Justin Michael Buehler, 39, who Palmer testified against, confirmed the assault.
Buehler was convicted in U.S. District Court in June on two counts of distributing methamphetamine.
Palmer and Sills testified at Buehler’s trial about his drug trafficking and the jail assault that happened 12 days before the trial began, according to federal court documents.
Evidence at trial showed Buehler knew Palmer had been arrested and would be taken to the same jail pod where Buehler had previously been in custody before being transferred to another jail, U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams said in an order denying Buehler a new trial.
Palmer is charged in Fayette and Black Hawk counties with drug and theft charges, according to state court documents.
Sills testified that Blahnik Church asked him to help assault Palmer.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said earlier this month that none of the jail staff witnessed the assault. But in reviewing surveillance video, jail administration said that “from the time the assault started until the time Palmer was removed from the cell block was just over three minutes.”
Gardner said jail staff didn’t witness the assault and “no one made staff aware of the assault until Palmer pushed the call button.”
Jail staffers aren’t told which inmates are testifying against whom in court, Gardner added. They receive only a remand, placing detainees in the county’s custody, and any no-contact orders between inmates.
The U.S. Marshals didn’t have a no-contact order between Palmer and Blahnik Church before the assault, he said.
If convicted, Blahnik Church faces up to 12 years in prison.
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