Public Safety

An inside look at the investigation into deadly 'drug deal gone bad'

Linn County investigators talk about Dylan Plotz case

The site of a homicide is seen Feb. 2, 2017, in rural Coggon. Five men were sentenced earlier this month in federal court for their role in the drug robbery that led to the death of Dylan Plotz, 20, of Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The site of a homicide is seen Feb. 2, 2017, in rural Coggon. Five men were sentenced earlier this month in federal court for their role in the drug robbery that led to the death of Dylan Plotz, 20, of Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Five defendants were sentenced this past week to federal prison for a drug robbery that ended the life of 20-year-old Dylan Plotz on Feb. 1, 2017, but none of the men were charged with his death, and federal prosecutors said Tuesday no additional charges will be filed.

During federal hearings, investigators testified that Plotz, Dillon Beener, 22, and Kordell Jones, 20, all of Cedar Rapids, went to Chase Zerba’s home about five miles southwest of Coggon on Feb 1, 2017. They planned to rob Zerba of a half-pound of marijuana, and Plotz was armed with a .40 caliber pistol, according to testimony.

Zerba, 21, asked friends Cameron Klouda, 22, of Coggon, and Tyler Clemens, 24, of Alburnett, to come to his home in case something went wrong. Clemens took a shotgun from Zerba’s house, loaded it and carried it into a minivan outside where they waited to make the drug deal, according to authorities. Klouda was armed with a knife.

Plotz, Beener and Jones went to the van and stood outside as Plotz demanded the marijuana and raised his handgun to Zerba’s head, according to testimony.

Zerba then yelled “Pull it up,” and Clemens raised the shotgun and it discharged, authorities said.

When Linn County sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found Plotz dead with a shotgun wound to the face.

Zerba said during sentencing that Clemens saved his life.

Despite testimony that Clemens fired the gun, authorities initially said they hadn’t determined who pulled the trigger. Clemens admitted to the shooting during his sentencing.

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This past week, investigators from the Linn County Sheriff’s Office answered questions about why nobody was charged until 18 months after the killing, why murder charges were not filed and how the case ended up being prosecuted in federal court.

Q: The robbery and fatal shooting happened Feb. 1, 2017, but nobody was arrested until July 12, 2018. Why the long delay?

A: “The investigation was probably wrapped up after three or four months. We had most of the story the night it happened. Of course, we had to go back and look at the evidence to see if it matched, conduct more interviews,” Sgt. Dave Beuter said.

“That night, we interviewed all five defendants ... and a juvenile, who wasn’t charged. But we didn’t know what exactly happened or who the shooter was at that point.

“Throughout the investigation, we probably interviewed 25 to 30 people. That first month we spent most of our time on this case. We each (he and Lt. Matt Pavelka) spent 300-plus hours on the investigation.”

A: “There were a lot of consistencies in each of their stories but some parts were left out,” Lt. Matt Pavelka said. “They were all upset that night. It just took some time for all the pieces to come together. Also, it takes time for evidence collection and search warrants.”

Q: Plotz’s body was found in the yard outside the home. But the suspects were gone?

A: “Yes. We didn’t know what happened in the beginning,” Chief Deputy John Stuelke said. “One of the biggest challenges was the weather. It was a bitter cold night. We didn’t know if they had run off in the woods and had guns or what. Both vehicles were gone. We had some help from other agencies — Robins and Cedar Rapids police officers and the Iowa State Patrol — who helped search.”

A: “Zerba was inside his house with some of the family,” Beuter said. “Beener and Jones dumped one vehicle and got into another one but were picked up in a traffic stop.”

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A: “Klouda ran his vehicle into the ditch about 2 or 3 miles from scene,” Pavelka said. “Clemens was found at home.”

Q: After the five were interviewed, what happened?

A: “At first, we couldn’t prove who did it,” Beuter said. “We tried to re-enact, in the van, what they told us to see if it made sense. We have done that in other cases. Clemens never admitted to it, but we knew he fired the gun.”

Q: Why did it go to federal prosecutors, instead of the Linn County Attorney’s Office?

A: “We conferred with Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, but he thought it was more of a self-defense shooting, not a murder case,” Beuter said. “Plotz was holding a gun to Zerba’s head, and Clemens would say he fired the shotgun to protect Zerba and others. In state court — not a lot of options. It would be minor drug charges.

“Because this was more a drug deal gone bad it made sense to take it to federal prosecutors. They handle the more serious crimes dealing with drugs and guns.”

A: “The federal code has different offenses that state law doesn’t with more serious prison time,” Stuelke said. “In state court, someone with a 10-year sentence might be out in a few years. In federal prison, they will serve probably eight years or so. The U.S. attorney is willing to prosecute the gun cases.”

A: “Going federal was a way to get all five charged,” Pavelka said.

Q: What took federal prosecutors so long to file charges?

A: “They reviewed the case and then had to send it for review to the Office of the Attorney General in Washington, D.C., because since it involved a drug robbery, guns and a death, it had potential to be a capital death eligible case — not that prosecutors were seeking it. That’s up to AG’s office,” Beuter said. “It probably took about five to six months before it was sent back, and it wasn’t being considered as a death penalty case. Then, a grand jury is convened and you have to wait for indictments.”

A: “Our hands are tied after we finish the investigation,” Stuelke said. “We have to wait on the county attorney or federal prosecutors to bring the charges. We understand it’s hard on the victims’ families, and we can only give them limited information.”

A: “We couldn’t tell Plotz’s mother much of anything. It’s hard,” Pavelka said.

A: “We try to give them as much as we can,” Beuter said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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