The jury in the murder trial of a Yankton man returned a verdict of guilty Tuesday afternoon.
Stephen Robert Falkenberg was found guilty of the March 1, 2019, murder of Tamara Jo LaFramboise, also of Yankton.
In a statement released by the office of the South Dakota Attorney General Tuesday, Jason Ravnsborg announced that Falkenberg, 45, was found guilty of second-degree murder, a Class B felony, and of first-degree manslaughter, a Class C felony, stemming from the death of LaFramboise, 46.
Each charge carries a sentence of mandatory life imprisonment and up to a $50,000 fine.
The day began with almost 60 separate detailed instructions for the jury regarding individual juror duties and responsibilities, and how to perform them according to law. These were read by the Presiding Judge Cheryle Gering.
Prosecutor Brent Kempema made closing arguments for the state.
“There were two people present at the time of the murder,” Kempema said. “(LaFramboise) is dead. He (pointing at Falkenberg) did the imaginable and the unimaginable to hide that fact.”
Kempema reviewed the events leading up to the woman’s death.
On the night of Feb. 28-March 1 last year, LaFramboise worked at Wilson Trailer. When she was done with her shift, Falkenberg picked her up and took her to Walmart, then dropped her off at home. He returned the next morning. At that time, Falkenberg told investigators that LaFramboise was dressed up and that he became jealous.
Prosecutors believe Falkenberg hit LaFramboise’s chin or orbital bone, killing her and breaking his hand. An expert witness said Falkenberg’s break was consistent with punching something narrow enough to only break the area around two of his fingers.
Five hours later, Falkenberg’s pickup bed was covered with a tarp, with the body stowed underneath, when he went to a convenience store and told a witness that he hurt his hand punching an icicle.
Falkenberg traveled to Michigan, where he told a doctor that he punched an icicle. Later, he told Mary LaFramboise, the victim’s mother, and then a second doctor that he fell on the hand and broke it.
En route to Michigan, Falkenberg was forced by inclement weather to stop in Tomah, Wisconsin, at the AmericInn.
“He calmly ordered a pizza and soaked in the hot tub while the body of the woman he said he loved was out in the back of his pickup truck,” Kempema said. “The only worry he had was that he couldn’t take his beer into the hot tub.”
Once he arrived in Menominee, Michigan, Falkenberg removed LaFramboise’s clothing and disposed of it in a dumpster.
Her body was discovered in Menominee County, Michigan, on March 16. According to court documents, the body was dismembered in an effort to hide her identity, and dumped in the Little River about a mile from the farm of Falkenberg’s brother, Paul Falkenberg.
After the discovery of the body, police in Michigan searched the landfill and found the clothes LaFramboise had been wearing at the time of her death: white Capri pants, a Harley Davidson T-shirt, a yellow Columbia jacket and a sequin-covered painter’s-type cap.
During that part of the investigation, Falkenberg told his former fiancé, Terri Thurman, “Whatever’s happening in Michigan is not good for me,” according to prosecutors.
Kempema also kept a tally of the number of lies Falkenberg told during the search for LaFramboise. Kempema said he counted each of LaFramboise’s still-missing severed limbs as a lie. By the end of his closing argument, the tally was between 10 and 20 lies.
Kempema reminded jurors that they could consider domestic confidential information in their deliberations.
“He said, ‘I love you’ in the (jail) video,” Kempema said. “This was not an act of love; it was an act of murder.”
In the defense’s closing argument, attorney Clint Sargent argued that the state didn’t prove its case, that there was no proof of cause of death and that the jury should question why, if Falkenberg said he was attacked on March 1 with a bat, did the prosecution not have any bats in evidence.
Also, Sargent said, if Falkenberg transported the body to his truck, why were there no witnesses, why were there no graphics to support that claim and why did they not canvas the neighborhood to prove that?
There is no evidence that the crime occurred in LaFramboise’s apartment, and not a block away at Falkenberg’s shop where that bats are, Sargent said.
Sargent said that LaFramboise dressing in the clothes she did at the time of her death was not dressing up.
However, information about the crime and the circumstances surrounding the crime were provided to investigators by Falkenberg, Kempema later told the jury.
Sargent reviewed evidence presented by his defense team that LaFamboise had a history of substance abuse dating back to 1994, that methamphetamine made her violent and could not be ruled out as a cause of death, and that homicide in cases of self-defense is not a crime.
“You promised during jury selection by a showing of hands that you would only deliberate on what happened in Yankton County,” Sargent said. “The dismemberment took place in Michigan. That’s a Michigan issue.”
Finally, Sargent circled around to expert testimony that Falkenberg is missing parts of his brain due to a traffic accident, so what a normal person would consider as common sense would not necessarily occur to Falkenberg.
Kempema later countered that the witness testimony involved no photos of Falkenberg’s brain and the expert did not interview anybody that was in touch with Falkenberg on a day-to-day basis.
LaFramboise could have died from the effects of meth in her system, a brain aneurysm, a brain hemorrhage or a heart arrhythmia, Sargent argued, and she could have attacked his client with one of the baseball bats police found in Falkenberg’s shop.
During his rebuttal, Kempema stated the evidence does not support self-defense:
• The bats found in Falkenberg’s shop were dusty from not having been touched in a long time.
• A defense witness testified that he observed LaFramboise attack Falkenberg outside his shop once, and she did no damage. The defendant laughed and mocked her vain attempts to hurt him, the witness testified. He should never have hit her because she could never have truly hurt him, Kempema said
• Without LaFramboise’s head, which Falkenberg disposed of separately, some causes of death, like a brain aneurysm or hemorrhage, cannot be determined. Two doctors testified that the victim’s heart was healthy and that, in the event of a blow to the head, the blow — not meth — would be the likely cause of death. The head was likely dumped separately to cover up the cause of death, Kempema said.
• Also, the defendant went 27 years with injuries sustained to his brain in a 1994 car accident. It wasn’t a problem for him until he was standing over a dead body, Kempema said.
“When it’s self-defense, you call the cops,” Kempema said. “You don’t hide the weapon. You don’t lie and you don’t do postmortem what he did.”
It took the jury just over three hours to come to a verdict.
Before the verdict was read, the judge warned those in the courtroom to respect proper decorum, regardless of the verdict.
Though there were no outbursts, Falkenberg, who had remained quiet and focused during the proceedings, turned to the gallery and pointed at one of his supporters saying, “I love you. Don’t ever forget that.”
Families and friends on both sides wept openly after the verdict was read.
Afterwards, Kempema told the Press & Dakotan he was pleased with the outcome of the trial and thanked law enforcement in South Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin for their roles in the investigation.
For LaFramboise’s family, the victory was bittersweet.
“My daughter is not the only victim: her children and his children (are),” Mary LaFramboise, the victim’s mother, told the Press & Dakotan. “He tried to make her a monster, and he was the monster.”
LaFramboise’s son, Ron Sedillo, who with his sister and grandmother was also present for every day of the trial, added, “It’s good to know that the jury knew what happened. What he did was wrong and he’s going away.”
The court ordered a pre-sentence investigation report, which is expected to take a few weeks to complete.
A sentencing hearing is set for 2 p.m. March 2 at the Yankton Safety Center and Courthouse.