Concerns on witness issues raised in trial

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Jamie Chris Lee Schammel, 22 of Austin, who was arrested for driving while impaired early Saturday, has also been accused of possible witness tampering at his murder trial.

And, authorities are looking for Schammel's girlfriend, Amy Lemoine, who prosecutors want to question.

Testimony continued Monday before District Judge Fred W. Wellmann in the third-degree murder trial of Schammel.

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The defendant was released on his own recognizance, during the trial, and was arrested by Austin police early Saturday morning for poor driving.

Schammel was released on probation at the time after serving a prison sentence on burglary and lottery fraud charges.

When his Minnesota Department of Corrections probation officer ordered a field test for the presence of controlled substances, Schammel tested positive for the presence of amphetamines.

James Erick Chilson, 42, died of severe burn injuries suffered in a Jan. 13, 2001, flash fire and explosion at his residence in southwest Austin. His girlfriend, Sandra Jean Johnson, and her then-4-year old son escaped injury.

Troy Alan Meyer, 36 of Austin, entered into a plea agreement on similar murder charges. He was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 12 years in prison in connection to the meth lab death two years ago.

Monday afternoon's testimony was interrupted when court bailiff Arden King and Wellmann had a private conversation in court.

The judge announced to all he had been informed a brother of the defendant was in the hallway outside the courtroom. Also, a sister of Schammel's was in the courtroom, during a portion of the testimony, and taking notes. When she left, she conferred with the brother in the hallway outside the courtroom.

During a court recess with the jurors out of the courtroom, prosecutor Steve Sleicher, an Assistant Minnesota Attorney General, told Wellmann Schammel's activities made him concerned about possible witness tampering.

At least one of Schammel's relatives was slated to be a witness for the defense.

Defense attorney Ross Leuning wanted to know, "How is my client communicating?"

Sleicher pointed out to Wellmann that Schammel, at the time of the confrontation in court, wadded up a note in the palm of his hand.

Leuning took the note from his client and read it and announced, "I believe the note has nothing to do with the trial whatsoever."

The note was given to the judge who said it would become part of the confidential file he is maintaining at the trial.

Wellmann immediately informed all that such actions could be interpreted as witness tampering and threatened the offenders to be charged with contempt of court.

A Mower County Sheriff's deputy was summoned to the courtroom to ensure no relatives of the defendant would be allowed in the courtroom for the rest of the afternoon.

More witnesses

On Monday morning, Sleicher and Patrick W. Flanagan, the Mower County Attorney, questioned Steve Jacobson, a neighbor to the southwest Austin residence near where the meth lab fire and explosion occurred.

Also testifying was Chad Seyes, who was in the basement at the time of the flash fire and explosion, while methamphetamine was being manufactured. Seyes has not been charged in connection with the crimes.

In the afternoon, a Regions Hospital burn unit surgeon testified in detail how Chilson suffered second and third degree burns from "the top of his head to his ankles."

Schammel listened to the testimony, but did not look at the color photographs shown on a screen in the courtroom.

The doctor testified after six weeks of treatment, Chilson's relatives decided he should be taken off life-support after four organs had failed.

Austin Fire Chief Dan Wilson and Fire Commander James Mattice also testified Monday about the Austin Fire Department response to the Jan. 13, 2001, emergency.

Lt. Matt Holten was the first on the scene after Officer Ryan Leif called for assistance.

Schammel was taken into custody and transported to Austin Medical Center and his girlfriend questioned further by police in the course of their investigation.