One of two men charged in connection with the 2018 murder of a Yankton woman is expected to change his plea to guilty later this month.
Joseph James was headed to trial for the November 2018 murder of Phyllis Hunhoff, but on Jan. 8, a text order issued by Magistrate Judge Susan Bazis cancelled the Norfolk, Nebraska, man’s scheduled trial status conference. A second text order scheduled a change of plea hearing for James on Jan 29.
James pleaded not guilty to a charge of arson in December 2018, and last February, he pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, felony murder and carjacking resulting in death.
There is no immediate indication as to how or if this change of plea will affect the case against Ramon Simpson, who has also been arrested in connection with Hunhoff’s murder. Simpson was charged last July with conspiracy to commit kidnapping and kidnapping resulting in death.
The charge of kidnapping resulting in death carries a minimum mandatory sentence of life in prison, and a possible death sentence if prosecutors elect to pursue it.
However, in a letter dated Jan. 3, Attorney General William Barr authorized U.S. Attorney Joseph Kelly to not seek the death penalty against Simpson.
As of this writing, James is still eligible for the death penalty.
According to court documents, at least two days prior to the newly scheduled hearing, James’ attorney must submit to the judge a petition to enter a guilty plea, a copy of any plea agreement and a copy of any charging document not yet on file.
At this time, it is not known if there is a plea agreement in place.
Hunhoff, 59, was reported missing by her mother on Nov. 4, 2018, after she left her mother’s Utica farm early that night and never arrived home.
Extensive multijurisdictional searches conducted over the next three days found no trace of Hunhoff or her white Honda Accord.
On the afternoon of Nov. 7, Yankton police received a call about a body found in a white car in a rural area of the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska, 35 miles from Yankton.
There was evidence that the body and the car had been burned.
The body was later identified as Phyllis Hunhoff.
James was arrested on Nov. 21 for arson after surveillance camera footage from the Feather Hill gas station, on the Santee Reservation taken during the early morning hours of Nov. 5, connected James to the murder.
According to court documents, James, driving Hunhoff’s car, purchased gasoline twice in the span of 6-7 hours. The second time, he filled a 1-liter soda bottle with just over $2 worth of gas, which he paid for inside the station. A similar bottle was found inside the burned vehicle and was determined to have been the source of the fire, court documents said.