An Iowa County jury found Mariana Lesnic guilty of first-degree murder in what might be the shortest deliberation time — 50 minutes — for recent murder trials in the county.
Lesnic was convicted in the fatal shooting of Ernest Kummer, 60, a Monroe truck driver who gave a hitchhiker, Lesnic, a ride that days later resulted in him being shot four times in the head at close range while he was sleeping in his semi-trailer cab Sept. 6, 2017, at a rest stop on Interstate 80 near Victor.
Earlier on Thursday, Lesnic, a U.S. citizen originally from Moldova, a border country of Romania, testified and told a rambling and sometimes confusing account of what happened during those early morning hours in Kummer’s truck before he was shot. In the end, she admitted that it was premeditated and she had specific intent to kill Kummer.
Lesnic showed no reaction when 6th Judicial District Judge Andrew Chappell announced the verdict. The seven women and five men were polled to confirm it was unanimous.
Kummer’s family members, who have been in the courtroom all week, seemed relieved. His sister-in-law and a woman who considered Kummer and his deceased wife, Darla, as her parents, both teared up and hugged afterward.
The family declined to make a statement to the press.
Iowa County Attorney Tim McMeen said he and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Douglas Hammerand were happy with the verdict and wanted to thank the Iowa County Sheriff’s Office, Williamsburg Police Department and Iowa Division of Criminal investigation for their work on the case.
McMeen said this was likely the quickest verdict for a murder trial, at least in recent history.
“I was telling just the family that I wished it would bring Ernie back but that’s not possible,” Iowa County Sheriff Robert Rotter said after the verdict. “I hope the family will have some closure now.”
Rotter said the investigation was fairly straightforward, that Kummer just seemed to be a nice man who tried to help her, but he and the other investigators kept thinking there must be “more to the story.” Lesnic never gave any explanation — until today on the stand.
Lesnic, during her testimony, said she shot Kummer because he threatened her with a gun, “pressured” her to have sex and wouldn’t let her leave once they were traveling together.
Lesnic, as her own lawyer, was allowed to give a narrative testimony because she wouldn’t allow her appointed standby counsel to assist her or ask her questions.
Her version didn’t make much sense at times and she was difficult to hear. She talked in a low, soft voice and often spoke in broken English.
According to testimony Wednesday, Lesnic has been in the United States since 2001 and lived about 15 years in Colorado. Authorities didn’t know if she had any known residence when she met Kummer.
Lesnic, who never looked at the jury, said she was hitchhiking last year and met several drivers who were “nice.”
“This old man” (Kummer) was one of them,” Lesnic said.
She sent text messages to several drivers, asking for ride to Washington state, she said. Kummer replied and picked her up in his personal vehicle, not his semi-truck, in Nebraska and took her to his home, she said.
Lesnic said he then made excuses not to leave for three days. One day, she was outside smoking and heard a strange noise inside, she said. When she went inside, Kummer was lying on the floor with a long gun. He told her she needed to do what he said, she testified.
On the stand, she repeatedly called him an “old man.” She said Kummer threatened her by telling her he had guns in his house, car and semi.
They finally left on Sept. 5 to take a load to Chicago, she said, and Kummer told her his brother was following them and they were all going to get together and have a “party,” which isn’t something she wanted.
When they returned to Iowa from Illinois, they stopped at the Victor rest stop and Lesnic thought it was her chance to escape because it was crowded, she said.
She went to the bathroom, and afterward Kummer grabbed her arm and pushed her back in the truck, she said. Kummer then told her to undress and lie down behind him, but she stayed in the passenger seat and kept her hand on her gun in her purse, she said.
At this point, she started shooting him, though she did not say if he attacked her. She said she didn’t know how many times she fired the gun.
On cross examination, Hammerand asked why didn’t she tell investigators about these threats of guns and that Kummer was pressuring her when she was first questioned.
Lesnic repeatedly said she was “in shock” or “I don’t remember.”
Hammerand asked why she didn’t tell them about being pushed into the truck or Kummer wanting her to lie next to him.
Lesnic admitted she didn’t give many details, that she needed more time to “catch my breath,” she said.
Hammerand asked if she made the decision to shoot Kummer when she got her gun out of the purse. “It was intentional?,” he asked.
“Yes,” Lesnic said.
Hammerand said “Your specific intent was to kill him?”
Lesnic said yes.
Lesnic faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.
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