A man charged with deliberate homicide after allegedly igniting a trailer fire that killed his father has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a suspended sentence after reaching a deal with prosecutors last week.
Jason David Weldele, 42, was arrested in the early morning hours of Oct. 17 after investigators found him “acting erratic” outside a burning trailer on Forest Hill Village south of Kalispell. Law enforcement later discovered the body of his father, 63-year-old Daniel Gerald Weldele, inside.
The younger Weldele has been held at the Flathead County Detention Center on $100,000 bail since his arrest. He was charged with a single count of deliberate homicide three days later, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The plea agreement downgrades the initial charge to one count of criminal endangerment and recommends a sentence of five years, all suspended, meaning Weldele would spend no additional time in custody provided he does not violate the terms of his release. In a court appearance Wednesday, Weldele pleaded nolo contendere, or “no contest,” to criminal endangerment, meaning he accepted the terms of the agreement without admitting guilt.
The recommended sentence is not binding, however. Judge Amy Eddy could choose to impose her own punishment and state statutes allow for an up to 10-year prison sentence for those convicted of criminal endangerment. If Judge Eddy does go beyond the bounds of the plea agreement, Weldele will have the opportunity to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial. Weldele’s sentencing hearing is currently scheduled for Feb. 18 at 9 a.m.
Before that hearing, Eddy is requiring attorneys on both sides to submit a sentencing memorandum justifying the agreement. In a written order filed Thursday, Eddy noted she “routinely rejects the concept of binding plea agreements outright” and that further explanation was needed in this case “due to the dramatic reduction in charges and the lenient recommended sentence.”
Eddy further asked the attorneys to respond to three questions in advance of the Feb. 18 hearing: how the proposed five-year suspended sentence meets state sentencing policy; whether Weldele will be charged with criminal endangerment or deliberate homicide if she rejects the agreement and he changes his plea; and whether Weldele will continue to pursue a series of motions in an attempt to dismiss the deliberate homicide case if he is tried on criminal endangerment.
In those motions, all filed in the weeks preceding the plea agreement, Weldele’s attorney argued for the case to be dismissed, claiming an unconstitutional amount of time passed between his client’s arrest and the charges being filed, that law enforcement violated his Miranda rights when he was initially interviewed, and that his warrantless arrest at the scene of the fire was unjustified. The court had scheduled a hearing on those matters for Jan. 19 but the hearing was vacated after the plea agreement was reached.
Liam Gallagher, Weldele’s appointed defense attorney, said the case was “overcharged” from the beginning and that prosecutors cut a deal to save face in a case that has “more questions than answers.” He expressed confidence that his client would prevail if the case was brought to trial, saying the only evidence against him was the “bizarre set of circumstances” the night of the incident.
“The prosecutor had to be concerned we would go to trial and get a not guilty verdict,” Gallagher said. “What do you do? You cut and run and with this plea agreement they at least got him for five years’ probation.”
Gallagher also expressed confidence that Eddy would abide by the terms of the agreement despite her seeming concern over the reduction in charges. Gallagher said that, to this point, Eddy was only availed of the evidence provided by prosecutors and law enforcement, and that a fuller accounting of the case would justify the deal. And he again pointed back to the original decision by the county attorney’s office and by Judge Eddy to both file and accept charges of deliberate homicide.
“I understand (Eddy) wants to make sure there’s good reason for reducing this; I wish judges were equally activist in the other way,” Gallagher said. “We kind of work ourselves into this situation when judges rubber stamp these charging documents … we let (prosecutors) file whatever they want, it gets in the press, and now the judge says ‘I’ve got to stand beside this one.'”
Deputy County Attorney Amy Kenison did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In the original charging documents, prosecutors claimed Weldele made multiple calls to 911 on the night of Oct. 16 and into the following morning. At 5:21 p.m., Weldele claimed someone had entered the residential trailer at Forest Hill Village and installed cameras inside, but that law enforcement should not respond. Several hours later, Weldele called 911 to report that a building was on fire but did not provide an address and hung up abruptly. Law enforcement traced the call to the area near the Weldele home but could find no fire.
Finally, at 2:07 a.m. on Oct. 17, emergency responders arrived at the home and saw flames inside the trailer. Weldele was “acting erratic” and “was not understandable,” according to court documents, and he ran from the scene when a Flathead County Sheriff’s deputy asked if anyone was inside the home. When the fire was extinguished, authorities discovered the elder Weldele dead along with evidence that potential exits had been barricaded. The 63-year-old victim was described as “semi-ambulatory” and unable to get around on his own in court documents.
When Jason Weldele was arrested, investigators found a shard of glass and a lighter in his possession. He was not administered a drug test, his attorney said, or offered counsel in sufficient time to arrange for a drug test to be taken on his own.
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