Fourteen Pennington County jurors began hearing testimony Monday, Sept. 14 in the case of a Thief River Falls man accused of murder and arson.
Devon James Pulczinski, 24, faces felony charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and first-degree arson in Pennington County District Court. He is accused of murdering Alexandra Jo Ellingson, 23, Thief River Falls, on March 27, 2019.
Ellingson’s body was found after Thief River Falls firefighters extinguished a fire at 307-1/2 Arnold Ave. S. She was found in the kitchen of the upper-level apartment. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause and manner of death as homicide by asphyxiation. A power cord was around Ellingson’s neck. Her hands and feet were bound, and fabric-covered her head. Ellingson had also suffered significant burns to her hands, head, and feet.
Jurors had been selected the week of Aug. 31, and the trial began two weeks later due to Labor Day and scheduling issues. Fifteen jurors, which included three alternates, were initially selected for the trial, One alternate was excused Monday since it was determined all other jurors would still be able to serve.
Due to COVID-19 and social distancing issues, the trial is being held in one courtroom while family members, friends and the public are able to watch the proceedings in two other rooms at the Justice Center via virtual technology.
On Monday, jurors heard opening statements from the state and defense. They also heard testimony from members of both individuals’ families as well as from the Pennington County sheriff’s investigator and Pulczinski’s landlord.
State’s opening statement “It was all me. They had nothing to do with it,” said Assistant Attorney General John Gross in his opening statement. Those were Pulczinski’s words after law enforcement stopped a vehicle carrying Pulczinski around 9 p.m. March 27, 2019.
Gross is prosecuting the case with Pennington County Attorney Seamus Duffy.
Five days before the death and traffic stop, authorities had raided Pulczinski’s apartment for drugs.
Three other people – Peyton Stuhaug, James Hanson, and James Shaugabay – were arrested. Neither Pulczinski nor Ellingson were involved or charged.
Rumors swirled regarding the identity of the person who cooperated with law enforcement. Gross said neither Pulczinski nor Ellingson were involved in that investigation. Afterward, Gross said, Pulczinski was angry. Pulczinski believed some people, including Ellingson, were sneaking into his apartment and stealing from him.
Gross said Pulczinski asked Noah Hawkins to help him confront those who had wronged him. Hawkins, who was trained in Mixed Martial Arts, was willing to help with the three men suspected of stealing from Pulczinski.
However, Gross said, Hawkins refused to help with Ellingson. Gross also referred to communications between Pulczinski and his roommate, Shaugabay, about how he would help Shaugabay get out of jail. Shaugabay communicated with him via a jail-issued cell phone. At 3:23 p.m. that day, Pulczinski texted Shaugabay that he would get him out of jail.
However, he would have to hide for a bit. On March 26 and 27, 2019, Pulczinski had also been in contact with Ellingson about Ellingson obtaining drugs at his apartment.
At 4:14 p.m. March 27, Ellingson texted that she would be there shortly. She had told her maternal grandmother, Pattie Jarshaw, and great aunt Connie Ellingson that she was getting suboxone there. Suboxone is a drug used to treat opiate addiction. However, Alexandra Ellingson had lied to her grandma and great aunt.
Gross told jurors that Hawkins arrived at the apartment early that afternoon. Pulczinski wasn’t home. He noted that Hawkins folded clothes and handled plastic bags in order to help Pulczinski, who was in the process of moving. He said Hawkins had no contact with Ellingson prior to that time and barely knew her. After Pulczinski arrived home, Hawkins and Pulczinski smoked drugs together. Hawkins was surprised when Ellingson arrived.
Gross told jurors that Hawkins said Pulczinski tried to choke Ellingson with a cord and then switched to a chokehold. Pulczinski then bound Ellingson’s hands and feet. He also placed fabric, plastic bags and a cord around her head. A partial fingerprint belonging to Hawkins was found on a piece of tape on a plastic bag.
Hawkins later left to go to his second job. Gross noted that Hawkins lied and omitted information in two initial statements to police that he had been at the apartment.
In midJune, he spoke to law enforcement again. Gross said Hawkins was given use immunity for his testimony, but that doesn’t mean he is immune from prosecution. Pulczinski had also left the apartment. Nearby surveillance video shows a vehicle carrying Pulczinski; his cousin Colton Reese and Alexis Sigurdson arriving at the apartment around 5:22 p.m. Pulczinski went inside the apartment for a short time and then returned to the vehicle. Four minutes later, the vehicle is seen traveling north. Someone called 911 at 5:35 p.m., alerting authorities about the fire. Gross said a state fire marshal investigator estimated that the fire started about 10 minutes before the 911 call.
Gross admitted that a number of witnesses lied to authorities. Some were friends or relatives of Pulczinski. He said some witnesses were scared and some had or still have chemical dependency issues. One was apparently Reese. After initially lying to police, Reese said Pulczinski discarded clothing, Pulczinski’s phone and Ellingson’s phone near Ralph Engelstad Arena. Reese also informed police that Pulczinski said he had killed someone.
Defense’s opening statement “Mr. Pulczinski is an innocent man wrongfully accused of killing Ms. Alexandra Ellingson,” said Pulczinski’s attorney, Anthony Bussa. He added that witnesses lied, telling police what they wanted to hear. Bussa indicated that some witnesses lied to avoid felony probation violations and prosecution. He noted that Hawkins lied in order to obtain use immunity. “People lie. Science doesn’t lie,” said Bussa, who noted that a partial fingerprint was tied to Hawkins. He said it had been found near Ellingson’s head.
Later, Bussa noted that the bag was around Ellingson’s head. Bussa added that Pulczinski confronted people whom he thought had stolen from him. One of those people was Enoch
Evenson. He said the two men resolved the issue and hugged.
Bussa further noted that Pulczinski and Ellingson were together days before her death. Even though Pulczinski suspected Ellingson had stolen from him, Bussa said Pulczinski was cordial and respectful.
Hawkins was the only difference between that day and March 27, 2019, said Bussa, who noted that Hawkins was a trained MMA fighter.
About two months later, Bussa said, Hawkins told Ricardo Martinez that he was there when Ellingson died. Hawkins told Martinez that Pulczinski jumped Ellingson and strangled her with a cord. When that didn’t work, Hawkins suggested an MMA move. Martinez then notified police, who interviewed Hawkins a third time.
DNA was found on the cord that killed Ellingson. “It does not match Mr. Pulczinski,” said Bussa, who added that Hawkins’ DNA was taken, but it wasn’t tested.
Someone else who lied, according to Bussa, was Reese. He said Reese was interviewed three times before June 2019. After being arrested for a felony probation violation, Reese summoned police and said Pulczinski discarded clothes and smashed cell phones near 130th Avenue Northeast.
A short time later, Reese told an inmate, Benjamin Owen, that the only reason he told police that story was in order for Reese to not to be charged. Bussa said Reese and Owen had never met before, and Reese told two other people the same thing.
John Monreal told police that Pulczinski confessed after police pestered Monreal, Bussa said. Monreal and Matthew Wilson were traveling with Pulczinski when he was arrested. Bussa said Wilson was traveling with them the entire time and never heard Pulczinski confess.
Scott Mekash, the Pennington County Sheriff ’s Office investigator, was among those who testified Monday. In March 2019, Mekash was employed with the Thief River Falls Police Department and working with the Pine to Prairie Drug Task Force. He is now employed with the sheriff’s office and continues to work with the PTPDTF. Mekash was present when Pulczinski was arrested and said, “They had nothing to do with it. It was all me.”
Under questioning by Bussa, Mekash said he believed Pulczinski didn’t want to get his friends in trouble. Mekash was among those investigating the case. Reese had summoned Mekash in June 2019, telling him that Pulczinski had discarded clothing and smashed cell phones in the general area of 130th Avenue Northeast.
Law enforcement found a sock, glove, sweatshirt, running shoe, burlap sack and a tattered piece of cloth in that location about two months after Ellingson’s death. None of those items were linked to Pulczinski. Some possible pieces of plastic were also found, but it was unknown from where that plastic had originated.
Jurors heard from family members of both Pulczinski and Ellingson. Called by the prosecution, Pulczinski’s mother, stepfather and sister detailed plans to get him into drug rehab days before Ellingson’s death. Peggy Klaven testified that her son had asked her to obtain an Amtrak ticket for him to travel to rehab in Chicago. He made that request shortly after the drug raid at his apartment. Her husband, Travis, and daughter, Cheyenne, testified about picking Pulczinski up prior to the planned trip to rehab. They picked him up at the home of Evenson. “He looked like he was on drugs and strung out,” Travis Klaven said about the man whom he considers to be his son.
Travis Klaven testified that Pulczinski was angry because he thought Evenson had stolen from him and drugged him. However, he said Pulczinski wasn’t acting violently. The Klavens later drove their son to the Amtrak station in Grand Forks, N.D. Travis Klaven testified that Pulczinski was ready to go to rehab, but he was apprehensive.
However, after dropping him off at the train station, they learned that a friend had picked him up and driven him back to Thief River Falls.
Days later, on March 27, 2019, Pulczinski and his sister, Cheyenne, communicated with one another.
Cheyenne Klaven testified that she had talked with her brother on the phone at 5:23 and 5:50 p.m. “He sounded like he always did,” said Klaven, who noted they were in contact regarding her brother’s cats.
Under questioning by Gross, she testified that her brother had given her instructions weeks later about his location during their last phone call March 27, 2019. “He asked me to say that he was by the college,” said Klaven, who declined since she didn’t know where he had been at the time. Pulczinski had also asked her to contact Reese in November 2019. She said she didn’t contact Reese.
In another conversation, Pulczinski blamed Ellingson for this situation. Under questioning by Bussa, Klaven testified that she believed her brother didn’t mean what he said because he was mad and frustrated.
Peggy Klaven saw her eldest son the day after he had been arrested for this case. She said he cried, telling his mom that he didn’t kill Ellingson and wasn’t a monster or murderer.
The Klavens were all asked about Pulczinski’s time in MMA. Peggy Klaven said her son had competed in one MMA fight and practiced once in a while. Both she and her daughter said he hadn’t competed in years. Travis Klaven testified he didn’t know how Pulczinski would be able to compete in MMA in March 2019 since he was sick from drug use.
Ellingson also suffered from drug addiction. Her mom, Tara Weigel, testified that she had a strained relationship with her daughter at the time of her daughter’s death and was attempting tough love. Weigel had custody of Ellingson’s son, Kenneth John Strand, at the time of Ellingson’s death. He celebrated his second birthday the day after his mom died. Weigel continues to have custody of her grandson. Ellingson sometimes stayed with Jarshaw and Connie Ellingson in another home across the yard from Weigel.
Jarshaw testified that she wanted to give tough love to Ellingson, but she couldn’t because “grandmas need to be grandmas.” Jarshaw and her sister Connie Ellingson picked up Alexandra Ellingson earlier that day outside of Pulczinski’s apartment. They returned to his home at about 4:20 p.m. that day.
Jarshaw testified that her granddaughter said not to leave her because she was coming home. She also screamed to Jarshaw to not leave town without her. It would be the last time that they would speak. Two minutes later, Jarshaw texted Ellingson that the sisters were going to drop off a letter for Ellingson at the post office and then return. She received a text back from Ellingson’s phone that sounded like her. The sisters returned to the home and waited outside.
Jarshaw continued texting her granddaughter. She received no responses. Then the sisters noticed the fire coming from the back of the duplex. Jarshaw testified that she ran to the back of the property, yelling Ellingson’s name many times. After realizing no one could live through the fire, she said that she notified Martinez, the downstairs tenant, about the fire.