May 18—GOSHEN — Life in prison is now on the line for two Elkhart men convicted of murdering a Columbia City woman and robbing a Michigan man two years ago.
Jurors in the case against Donald Owen Jr. and Mario Angulo Jr. returned to Elkhart County Circuit Court to help decide their punishment Monday, nearly three weeks after finding the men guilty at trial of murder, robbery and criminal confinement charges.
The counts stemmed from allegations that Owen, 22, directed the killing of Kimberly Dyer, 31, while Angulo, 20, carried out the deed after holding her captive in a house along Old Orchard Lane in Elkhart in October 2019. A Sturgis, Michigan man, Robert Porter, was also allegedly held and robbed at the house at the same time.
The Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office is seeking life sentences for Owen and Angulo, arguing they acted through a gang affiliation while Dyer was tortured and Porter was humiliated during the approximately two-day ordeal at the house, described as a haven for methamphetamine users.
Since life terms go beyond the standard sentences for murder under Indiana law, the trial jury is needed to hear whether or not elements of the case meet criteria for life sentences.
"You will decide whether the injuries inflicted on Kimberly Dyer by the defendants rise to the level of that intentional infliction of a prolonged period of pain or punishment for coercive or sadistic purposes," Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katelyn Doyle told the jury.
Doyle said evidence would be presented showing the case meets criteria for life sentences, saying Owen and Angulo "intentionally" aided, induced or caused Dyer's death while she was tortured and confined, and while the two along with a third man, Matthew Murzynski, acted as part of a criminal organization. Doyle pointed out Owen had a fourth strike against him since Dyer was killed while he was serving an alternative sentence for auto theft, possession of methamphetamine and resisting law enforcement.
Doyle described the criminal organization allegations as Owen, Angulo and Murzynski forming a sort of progressive line together while connected in ways through alleged affiliations with the Latin Kings gang.
"This was a crime that was initiated by Matthew Murzynski, continued and kept in place by Mr. Angulo, and when Mr. Owen stepped in, that criminal organization was complete," Doyle said. "We are confident that you will return the recommendation to the judge for a sentence of life without parole for both Mr. Angulo and Mr. Owen."
Angulo's attorney, Thomas Dixon, told the jury he doesn't believe the prosecution can meet the standards to prove the criminal organization and the torture allegations.
"I don't think the evidence is going to show criminal gang activity. I don't think it's going to show membership," Dixon said. "I don't think that the state is going to be able to check all these boxes."
He also laid out plans to show that though Angulo fell into the drug culture at a young age, he shouldn't be considered beyond rehabilitation and kept in prison the rest of his life.
"I'm going to ask you, when we're all done with this, whether or not you believe my client can be rehabilitated," Dixon said. "Because life without parole, when you think about it, it's basically saying, 'No.'"
Owen's attorney, Fay Schwartz, made a similar plea, asking the jury to give Owen a chance to receive education and therapy while in prison so that he could eventually be rehabilitated and released.
"He faces life without the possibility of parole. That means he will never see the outside of the prison walls," Schwartz said. "We're going to ask you to vote against life without parole for Donald R. Owen Jr."
Schwartz also argued Owen was more of an accomplice in Dyer's murder with relatively minor participation. In another point, she said the house was not a gang hideout, but a place where drug users gathered to party.
"It was a meth house. It wasn't a place where someone intentionally said, 'Let's go and do some gang activities,'" Schwartz said.
Sentences for murder in Indiana typically range from 45 years to 65 years in prison.
Early on during Monday's proceedings, Owen asked to not participate in person, and he was returned to the Elkhart County Jail.
Meanwhile, Murzynski, 25, pleaded guilty in March to a count of aiding, inducing or causing armed robbery resulting in serious bodily injury, as well as a count of aiding, inducing or causing criminal confinement. Terms call for him to serve 60 years in prison, which includes time tacked onto the charges for criminal gang activity.
He's scheduled to be sentenced June 3.
Aimee Ambrose can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.