MONTICELLO – The fate of a Springfield man charged with the murder of a Hammond man during an early-morning burglary in January 2021 will be announced Tuesday morning in the Piatt County Courthouse in Monticello.
Jerome Schmidt, 19, is one of three people initially charged with the murder of Michael Brown, 64, of Hammond. On Jan. 9, as jury selection was beginning at the Piatt County Courthouse in Monticello, Schmidt waived his right to a jury trial and opted for a bench trial before Judge Dana Rhoades.
Sill awaiting trial is Blayton Cota, 20, of Granite City. A juvenile, testified against Schmidt and accepted a plea deal, accepting a residential burglary charge.
Trial started Monday
Approximately 30 jurors arrived for jury selection Monday, but after Judge Dana Rhoades gave preliminary instructions to the potential jurors, Public Defender George Vargas asked the judge for a meeting with prosecutors in her chambers. After a short meeting, Rhoades returned to the bench, released the jury and asked the remaining participants to return at 1:30 p.m.
When the trial resumed, Rhoades announced that Schmidt had waived his right to a jury trial, instead opting for a bench trial.
Piatt County State’s Attorney Sarah Perry told the court that the testimony would show that Michael Brown’s wife, Linda, received an alert from the home security system around 3 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2021. On an I-Pad, video confirmed that three people were walking around a shed on their property and peering into one of the garage windows.
She informed her husband, who was shot by the intruders after he went to investigate.
“Initially, it was a crime with no suspects,” Perry said. “Police interviewed many, many people in Hammond.”
The investigation was led by the Illinois State Police who used cell phone tower data to determine who was in the area at the time of the incident. That search helped narrow down their suspects to the three defendants.
“At the end of the testimony, you will have a complete picture that Mr. Brown was a victim of a shooting because he interrupted a burglary,” Perry said.
Vargas reserved his right to make an opening statement, doing so before he defense witnesses testified.
The first witness called to the stand was Linda Brown, the victim’s wife. She testified that she was having trouble sleeping and received a security alert on the I-Pad. After noticing three individuals peering into a garage on their property, she informed her husband, Mike.
“He put on his glasses and hearing aid and got his gun,” she said. “I told him ‘Please, be careful.’”
She then heard several gunshots and someone say ‘We have to get (out of) here.’
She grabbed her phone and headed to the garage where she found Mike bleeding.
“He told me to call for help,” she said. “He told me that he was going to die. He said he couldn’t breathe.”
She grabbed a flannel shirt and tried to stop the bleeding, she told the court.
“But there were too many gunshots and too much blood.”
She held him until first responders arrived, but he died before they could save him, she said.
A neighbor, Mike Butler, testified that he heard the gunshots and looked out a bedroom window and saw one of the suspects run into a chain link fence on the property. He testified that he heard four or five shots in rapid fire.
A night of drinking alcohol, smoking weed and stealing cars led to the death of a Hammond man in January 2021, according to testimony offered by one of the defendants on the second day of the Piatt County murder trial for a Springfield man.
A juvenile who was also charged in the murder, told Judge Rhoades he used to be friends with the defendant, Schmidt, on trial for murder. The juvenile, now 17, accepted a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Schmidt. The juvenile will plead guilty to residential burglary. Schmidt’s half-brother, Blayton Cota, remains in jail awaiting trial.
The juvenile told the court he had been friends with Schmidt since sixth or seventh grade. He met up with Schmidt on the night of Jan. 25, 2021 and Schmidt had told the juvenile they were going to go to a party. Instead, they met up with Cota, according to testimony from the juvenile. They got into a silver Prius and Schmidt was driving.
“He handed me a (ski) mask and gloves and told me to follow along,” the juvenile said.
They ended up leaving Springfield and court documents indicated they went to Lovington where they stole a pickup truck. They then ended up in Hammond, breaking into random garages and cars. They did not know any of their victims.
After entering Brown’s garage, Schmidt told the juvenile to turn on the lights. Before he could do that, Brown entered the garage with a Glock and held Schmidt and Cota at gunpoint.
“He said ‘Who is in my garage and then I heard the door shut and a gun cock,’” the juvenile said.
After that, the juvenile said he crouched down and crawled under a truck, and Schmidt and Cota got down on their knees and then told the juvenile to come out because they had been caught.
“I came out and Jerome was trying to make up a story about needing money for his sister, I think it was chemo,” he said.
When Brown turned to face the juvenile, Cota ran, the juvenile said under oath. When Brown turned to look at Cota, the juvenile said he then took the opportunity to run.
“I heard two shots go off and then I froze up,” he said. Moments later, he heard several more gunshots. “I got to the wall and then I turned around and saw Jerome turn around and lower the gun and fire.”
Brown was pronounced dead at the scene a few hours later, dying of multiple gunshots.
The three returned to the stolen truck and headed back to Springfield. On the drive back, the juvenile said Cota sent a warning.
“Blayton told me that if I said anything, I would end up like the guy did,” the juvenile said.
The juvenile said that on the way home – at about 3:30 a.m., Schmidt called his mom, saying he had (messed) up.
“He shot at ‘B’ (Blayton)” the juvenile testified, repeating the words Schmidt allegedly said. “I had to.”
After returning to Springfield, they crashed the truck into some trees and headed back to Schmidt’s grandfather’s house.
They changed clothes and then returned to the home of a cousin of Schmidt.
Under cross examination, the juvenile said “cloudy judgement” caused him not to call for help during the events of that night.
He also told the court that he didn’t think it was Schmidt who fired the first shot.
“Is it weird I don’t feel bad?”
Jerrod Day, who was formerly married to Schmidt and Cota’s mother, was among the people who met the group after they returned to Springfield on the night of the murder. Although Day said he wasn’t told directly about the incident, he later put the pieces together and called police to give them information about that night.
“Initially, I didn’t know, but I figured it out,” he said. “I contacted the police because it was a burden on my shoulders. My father is the same age as the guy who was murdered.”
Also, one statement that he heard Schmidt make that night, bothered him.
“Jerome said ‘Is it weird that I don’t feel bad?” Day said under oath.
Now separated from their mother and himself serving time on unrelated charges, Day admitted that he didn’t like their mom or Schmidt. He did not receive any help in his sentence for his testimony, according to prosecutors and Day himself.
Who fired first?
Earlier Tuesday, a crime scene investigator from the Illinois State Police testified that he found several 9 mm casings in a garage in Hammond after he was called to the scene on the morning of Jan. 26.
Robert Telford, a crime scene investigator with the Illinois State Police, said he was called to the residence and immediately asked for assistance from other investigators because of the magnitude of the crime scene.
“It took 12 hours to process,” he said.
The investigation found a medical mask, some footprints and several 9 mm shell casings at the scene. There were three cars in the garage and Telford said they appeared to have been rummaged through.
A .45 Glock at the scene belonged to Brown. It had 11 rounds left in the magazine with one left in the chamber. That type of gun holds 13 bullets.
“It appears to have been fired,” Telford said.
Also testifying for the prosecution, was Illinois State Police crime scene investigator Eric Greenlee. He was among the first to respond to the scene and eventually became the lead detective on the case.
The defense has hinted at a self-defense case, which was strengthened when public defender George Vargas asked about security footage which has the audio of the gunshots. “I believe it is possible that Mike Brown fired the first shot,” Greenlee said.
Cell phone tracked
Cell phone data placed Schmidt in Hammond at the time of the deadly shooting.
Zack Hanratty, a special agent with the Illinois State Police Intelligence Support Unit testified Wednesday, on the third day of the Piatt County murder trial, that on the night of Jan. 25, 2021 and early morning hours of Jan. 26, a phone which was later linked to Schmidt, left Springfield at about 10:30 p.m. and went south of Decatur. It hit off of AT & T cell towers near Macon, Bethany, Lovington and Hammond.
The information was gathered through a search warrant, Hanratty told Judge Rhoades, who is presiding over the bench trial in Monticello.
Schmidt, 18, is one of two people charged with the murder of Michael Brown, 64, of Hammond. Sill awaiting trial is Blayton Cota, 20, of Granite City. A juvenile accepted a plea deal and testified against Schmidt earlier this week. The juvenile will be charged with residential burglary.
Hanratty said that information gathered from the search warrant tracked two cell phones and both ended up in Hammond before 3 a.m., which was when prosecutors say Brown’s wife, Linda, received an alert about intruders on their property. Mike Brown went to investigate, cornered the suspects, but was shot and killed.
“There were also several phone calls,” Hanratty said, indicating that the phone belonging to Schmidt called a phone that belonged to the mother of Schmidt and Cota.
Hanratty confirmed calls around 3 a.m., 3:13 a.m. and the final one at 5:40 a.m.
Testimony from the juvenile indicated that the three suspects returned to Springfield and met with Schmidt and Cota’s mother, Jessica. The juvenile also testified that Schmidt called his mother on the way home, confessing to the shooting.
Hanratty was the final witness called by the state.
Testifying in his own defense, Schmidt said he fired his gun at the victim because he was in fear for his life.
He told Judge Rhoades, that he, co-defendant Blayton Cota - who is his brother, and a juvenile were out ‘hitting cars,’ in the early morning hours of Jan. 26, 2021.
The three stole two vehicles, including a pickup truck in Lovington because it had a full tank of gasoline. The three drove to Hammond and Cota entered the unlocked garage of Michael and Linda Brown. After entering, Schmidt testified that Cota said the garage had “lots of stuff.”
Schmidt told the court that it was Cota who was carrying a 9 mm gun, but he asked Schmidt to hold it as Cota rummaged through some cabinets. At that point, the deadbolt to the garage unlocked.
“I thought it was the cops, so I ran to a corner and put the gun under my left armpit,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t want to get shot.”
Cota then jumped over something and ran to the corner of the garage near Schmidt, he said.
The door then slammed shut, Schmidt heard Brown cock his gun and the lights came on.
“He said what the (expletive) are you doing in my garage?” Schmidt said.
“Sir, we are just kids, don’t shoot,” Schmidt said he replied.
“He said ‘I don’t give a (expletive) you came in the wrong (expletive) garage,” Schmidt said “and he continued to walk toward me and my brother.”
Schmidt said he and his brother put their hands in the air.
“I was just scared and waiting for the cops,” Schmidt said. “I told him my mom had cancer and we were just trying to get money for chemo. Then he said ‘Put your hands in the air or I will shoot you.’”
Juvenile tries to escape
At that point, the juvenile, who had been hiding, made a noise, which distracted Brown, according to Schmidt’s testimony. Brown ordered the juvenile to join the other two in the corner. Cota then attempted to escape by running toward the door.
“Mr. Brown turned and shot at my brother,” Schmidt continued. “Because of my positioning, when he shot, I saw my brother go down and when he went down, he went out of my view. At the time, I thought my brother had been shot. Then he turned toward me and I thought he was going to kill me too, so I was in fear for my life.”
Still holding the gun, Schmidt made a decision.
“I pulled the gun from my armpit and shot,” he told the court. “I didn’t even know if the gun was cocked. I just pulled the trigger.”
After noticing Brown had fallen, Schmidt said he joined Cota and the juvenile in leaving the garage.
“He had shot at my brother and I was just trying to get out of harm’s way,” Schmidt said.
The three re-united outside and Schmidt asked his brother if he was okay. Cota told him that he had slid to avoid the shot, which went right past his head.
Schmidt testified that he was crying and scared. He said that Cota had started to vomit and then, the three re-entered the truck with Schmidt in the driver’s seat.
“I told my brother that we needed to wait for the cops to get here to see what was going to happen,” Schmidt said under oath. “He told me that I was trippin’.”
The juvenile also didn’t want to wait for the cops, Schmidt said. So, Schmidt called his mother, Jessica Cota, in Springfield.
“At first, I was hyperventilating, I was crying, I was breathing heavy,” he said. “After I got calmed down, I explained to her what just happened. I told her he had just shot my brother and I had to do it and I was sorry. Then she went on a rampage about how we were so (expletive) stupid and yada, yada, yada.”
Earlier, the juvenile testified that the three returned to Springfield and met with Jessica Cota. The juvenile testified that they changed clothes and the clothes they were wearing during the burglary now smelled like bleach.
Prior to Schmidt’s testimony, Jessica Cota took the stand. Cota is facing obstruction of justice charges in the case and is due in Sangamon County Court on Tuesday. She testified that Schmidt called her and told her that he “had to shoot someone.” She said that Schmidt explained that they were held at gunpoint on their knees and when Blayton Cota tried to escape “the man shot at him.”
“Jerome said I had to shoot him, I didn’t have a choice, I was begging for my life,” she testified. “We begged him to call the police but he wouldn’t. I’m sorry Mom, I had to.”
Cota invokes 5th Amendment
Blayton Coda, still in custody and awaiting his own trial, appeared in the courtroom but invoked his 5th Amendment rights and did not answer any questions. Instead, the defense played a portion of an interview he had with Eric Greenlee, a state police crime-scene investigator who became the lead detective on the case.
During the interview, Cota was reluctant to share much information about the incident, but eventually admitted that it was Schmidt who fired the gun because he feared for his life.
If convicted, Schmidt faces 45 to 85 years in prison. We will have a full report in the Jan. 25 edition of the Piatt County Journal-Republican and on-line at www.journal-republican.com.
A status hearing on Cota’s case is set for Jan. 23. The juvenile’s case is set for a status update on Feb. 21.
The trial wrapped up Friday with closing arguments from both sides.
“After a week, we all agree the defendant drove a stolen truck into Hammond, went into Michael Brown’s garage looking for something to steal, and Michael Brown interrupted that,” said Piatt County Assistant State’s Attorney Victoria Dedman. “The defendant shot Michael Brown with a stolen 9 mm.”
Dedman reminded the court that Schmidt took the stand and confessed to burglary and confessed to murder. She said Schmidt’s only conceivable argument left is that the defendant shot Michael Brown in self-defense or in defense of others.
“But the law doesn’t agree with him,” she continued. “You do not get to commit burglary, a forcible felony, murder a man, and then claim self-defense or in defense of others. The law is very clear on that.”
Dedman said that while on the stand, Schmidt attempted to minimize his role in the burglary. After getting surprised by Brown, Cota and Schmidt were held at gunpoint on their knees by Brown, but when the juvenile made a noise, Cota attempted to escape.
“The defendant implied that it was Blayton who was calling the shots,” he said.
After the shooting, the three drove back to Springfield, changed clothes and later, threw the gun into a lake near Petersburg.
“And most egregious of all, the defendant wants this court to believe that after shooting Michael Brown, he so desperately wanted to call 911. He was doing anything he could to not get caught. He had full control. He was driving the truck. He was the one making phone calls to his mother. He could have stopped. He could have called 911. He could have screamed for help. There is no remorse in these actions.”
Dedman reminded the court of a statement made by Schmidt in front of Jerrod Day, who was previously married to Schmidt’s mother, Jessica.
“Mere hours after killing Michael Brown, Jerrod Day quotes the defendant as stating “Is it weird that I don’t feel bad?”
Dedman said that the autopsy report indicated that only one of the six gunshots that hit Brown, came from an upward angle.
“Every other gunshot wound is downward which seems to suggest that the gun is facing above him, shooting down,” she said.
Dedman said that investigators discovered 15 shots had been fired in the garage, only one of which came from the Glock 21 that Brown owned.
“Without a doubt, what happened to Mike Brown was a tragedy, said Public Defender George Vargas in his closing statements. “He was an outstanding and honorable man. But regrettably, his actions led my client to being backed into a corner where he had no other recourse but to protect himself.”
Vargas recalled the testimony of the state’s star witness, the juvenile, who testified against Schmidt and received a plea bargain of residential burglary.
“He got a sweetheart of a deal,” Vargas said. “You recall his mannerisms on the witness stand. He clearly does not like Jerome.”
Vargas hammered home the point that Brown fired the first shot, which the juvenile testified was fired at Cota when Cota attempted to flee. It missed, but Schmidt testified that he did not know that it missed and was worried that his brother was hit by the shot. Seconds later, Schmidt fired the 9 mm at Brown, hitting him in the right arm. Brown fell and according to testimony, Schmidt fired several more rounds at Brown.
If convicted of first degree murder, Schmidt could face 45 to 85 years in prison. Vargas asked the court to consider second degree murder, which would carry a lesser sentence.
“If this were in front of a jury, I would tell them this: You have to put all emotion aside,” Vargas said. “You have to apply the law to the facts. You may not like what he did. Sometimes the right and legal decision is not going to be the most popular decision. But it is the just and legal decision.”
State’s Attorney Sarah Perry made a final plea to the judge for a conviction.
“Jerome Schmidt did not want to get caught and that is why he killed him,” she said. “He was hit at least six times. There is no self-defense. He wanted to get away with it.”
The judge will consider the case over the weekend and announce her decision at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning.