Man in Nebraska gets 25 years dead by Ho-Chunk woman whose body was found burning in outhouse

Kozee Decorah

Kozee Decorah

A man from Nebraska who has been convicted of killing his Ho-Chunk partner and trying to cover it up by burning her body has been sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Jonathan D. Rooney of Winnebago, Nebraska, was convicted of killing the mother of his children, Kozee Decorah, originally from Wittenberg, Wisconsin, while stranded in a remote part of a Nebraska reservation in May 2020. He then tried to get rid of her body by burning it in an outhouse, the prosecutor said.

A jury found the 27-year-old man guilty of voluntary manslaughter and destruction of evidence in December after just over a day of trial and six days of testimony at the trial in U.S. District Court in Nebraska.

More: Nebraska man found guilty of manslaughter in killing Ho-Chunk woman whose body was found burning in an outhouse

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Rossiter, Jr., sentenced Rooney faces up to 10 years in prison for manslaughter and 15 years for destroying evidence. The sentences will be served continuously for a total of 25 years, according to online court records.

Before the verdict was handed down on Friday, Decorah’s family described in a statement how Kozee’s death had changed their lives. Kozee, 22, was the mother of three children with Rooney, and she herself was the youngest of six children, part of a large, close-knit family from Wittenberg.

“It felt like a nightmare and we’re still waiting to wake up,” Angelina Sanchez wrote in the statement, a copy of which was obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Sanchez is the daughter of one of Kozee’s sisters, but in Ho-Chunk culture, Kozee is considered her mother, or Nani.

“We all felt each other’s lowest moments … It seemed to bring us all together, but also made us become distant from each other at times. We all had to grieve in our own way,” the statement said.

Decorah’s case became a rallying point locally for the Disappeared and Murdered Indigenous Movement, an international movement seeking justice for and solutions to disproportionate levels of murder and violence against indigenous peoples.

In the days and months after Decorah’s death, her family and friends pushed to raise awareness about her and other indigenous women’s cause by holding demonstrations, getting T-shirts printed and starting a Facebook page that gained over 2,000 members.

More: The Wisconsin family calls for tougher charges of ‘creepy’ killing of Ho-Chunk woman

On Friday, federal prosecutors sought the maximum sentence, 35 years, in Rooney’s case, pointing to the “heinous” nature of the crime and how he “essentially cremated this woman,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lecia Wright said in an interview Monday.

Decorah’s skeletal remains were found still burning on May 17, 2020, about four hours after Decorah had called officers to report that her and Rooney’s SUV had been stuck in the mud on a remote road in the Winnebago Indian Reservation. Rooney was found sleeping undressed in a nearby cabin where investigators found blood.

Decorah’s body was burned too hard for an autopsy to determine her cause of death, court records say. Investigators had to perform a forensic dental analysis to identify her remains.

Documents outlining the prosecution’s arguments for the maximum penalty were filed under seal, as was the defense’s against it.

In the end, Judge Rossiter agreed a sentence that was longer than the federal sentencing guidelines recommended to Rooney were justified. However, he did not go quite as far as the prosecution requested, but instead sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“We did not get the desired sentence, which would have been the maximum, but he also did not get a blow to the wrist,” said Stacey Schreiber Schinko, whose children are related to Decorah. “Even if he was a model prisoner, he will still be there for a long time.”

In December, Rooney was charged with second-degree murder in addition to destruction of evidence, but jurors apparently did not find there was enough evidence to convict him of the murder charge. They instead found him guilty of the minor offense of voluntary manslaughter.

More: The trial involved Ho-Chunk woman whose body was found burning in an outhouse to begin Monday

“To this day, we do not know what happened because he was the only one up there besides their 4 month old baby,” Wright said.

What witnesses said during the trial

Over the course of six days in December, the jury heard testimonies from about 35 witnesses, including FBI agents, the conservator who found Decorah’s remains, volunteer firefighters who responded on the spot, forensic experts, family members of Rooney and a friend of Decorah.

As they entered the trial, federal prosecutors claimed Rooney killed Decorah and tried to cover it up by burning her body, his clothes and a cell phone. Rooney’s defense attorney told jurors that the evidence against Rooney was “purely indicative” and suggested that Decorah’s death may have been self-inflicted.

Rooney did not testify, but federal prosecutors played a recording of his interrogation. In it, he refused to know what happened to Decorah and suggested that she might have cut herself. Rooney admitted they had gotten into an argument that night in the cabin.

Prosecutors also showed photos of the cremation site where Decorah’s remains were found. All that was left of Decorah’s body were bones that were so “crazy” that they had to be encapsulated in bubble wrap before being taken as evidence, an FBI agent said.

“It was unlike any process we’ve ever had to do before,” said special agent Eli McBride from the stand in December.

Shortly before At 8pm on May 16, 2020, the Winnebago broadcast received a call from Decorah saying she was stuck on Honey Creek Road, a dirt road in a northeastern part of the Winnebago reservation that had been muddy by the rain, witness sender Clinton Free testified. at trial. She also called a relative of Rooney to say that they and their infant son were stuck on the roadwhich also notified shipmenttestified the relative.

A responding officer, Pete Snowball, found the vehicle within an hour of the call, but no one was there. In the process of getting to the vehicle, his own vehicle was also stuck in the mud and he had to walk to a paved road a little over a mile away to be picked up, he testified.

Snowball and another conservation officer then went to a neighboring reservation to check on the couple at their residence, they testified, but did not find them there either.

Together with a couple of Winnebago firefighters, they returned to Honey Creek Road to search the cabins in the area. Around midnight, Snowball noticed “a red glow” in the distance, and he and one of the firefighters soon encountered a cabin and a fire outside.

Rooney was lying without clothes on a mattress on the floor of the cabin as they walked in with the infant. Snowball said Rooney asked, “Where is she,” and then asked where his clothes were and if it was the rescue party.

They asked where Decorah was and he said she went outside to get cell phone service, Snowball said. The two officers left the cabin to tell the others that they had found Rooney and the infant, and then to search for Decorah along the road and at the locked SUV.

It was first they went back to the hut about 45 minutes later, Snowball looked closer into the fire and noticed what looked like a skull, he said during the trial.

They did not tell Rooney what they had found, Snowball said. One of the firefighters took Rooney and the infant back to the joint police and fire station, where Rooney was then detained behind a police cruiser for several hours. Snowball asked the firefighter to turn off his radio while taking Rooney to the station.

Rooney was eventually questioned by an FBI agent. The prosecution played the recording of the 33-minute interrogation for the jury. Sam Roberts, the agent, told Rooney that he had “seen everything” in the cabin and that a team of FBI agents was on his way to “comb the whole place.”

“Before those guys get up there, I want to know what happened,” he told Rooney.

Rooney originally said, “She likes to cut herself.”

At that point in the trial, Wright, the prosecutor, put the recording on pause to point out to the jury that the agent had not mentioned anything about blood before Rooney gave his answer.

Rooney told the agent that he did not know what was happening and that he was asleep. When the agent asked where his clothes were, he said he had hung them up to dry.

After the agent told Rooney what they had found at the scene of the fire, Rooney suggested that Decorah try to charge him with her death.

The agent continued to pressure Rooney about what happened. Rooney eventually said they got into an argument in the cabin.

He said she accused him of being on drugs. He said he was not and that he was trying to be a good father and go to work.

“She wants to get the kids back and take them to Wisconsin is what I think,” he said.

He said she looked like she was getting ready to fight, and that he pushed her out the door of the cabin and lay down.

The agent kept pushing Rooney on what happened, saying it looked like murder, but Rooney eventually asked for a lawyer.

Rooney did not appear to be affected by anything that night. A urine test showed no evidence of illicit drugs in his system. An exhalation test performed shortly after he was detained that night Decorah died showed no alcohol in his system.

He had some scratches and wounds on his body that FBI agents observed.

On May 17, 2020, an FBI team spent the day collecting evidence from the site, including a log of something resembling a bloodstain. They also took pictures of what appeared to be blood stains on the door and floor of the cabin and collected samples of it. Wright, the prosecutor, said tests later confirmed it was blood.

They also collected items from the burning site, including what investigators said was a burned cell phone, keys and a piece of cord that appeared to be from a five-gallon bucket. The mobile phone was too badly damaged to extract information from, expert witnesses said.

Wright, the federal prosecutor, did not know for sure what evidence was most helpful in securing a guilty verdict, but said Preservation Officer Snowball’s testimony likely played a large role.

“Pete Snowball, who is practically a wandering encyclopedia of information, was able to give a very detailed description and set the stage for jurors,” she said.

Wright credited Snowball and the others who eventually found Decorah.

“They did a remarkable job by not giving up and looking for them,” she said.

Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America Corps reporter focusing on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Send an email to her at [email protected] Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift for this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.

This article originally appeared on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Man in Nebraska gets 25 years in prison for Ho-Chunk woman’s death

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