The Sturgis man accused of hiring two men to kidnap and murder his ex-girlfriend Jessica Rehfeld in 2015 has admitted to his role in her stabbing death.
Law enforcement and Rehfeld's family members, one wearing a shirt with her photo that reads Justice for Jessica, listened Friday at state court in Rapid City as Jonathan Klinetobe pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting first-degree manslaughter.
In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors dropped charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated first-degree kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
If Klinetobe had been found guilty of the murder charge, he would have faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole after prosecutors, at the request of Rehfeld's family, took the death penalty off the table. The new charge carries a maximum sentence of life without parole and prosecutors have vowed to seek that sentence.
This plea deal is "clearly a benefit" to Klinetobe since there would be "no discretion whatsoever" in sentencing if he'd been convicted of the murder, Judge Heidi Linngren said.
Klinetobe, 30, is accused of hiring Richard Hirth and David Schneider, both of Rapid City, to kill Rehfeld, a 22-year-old from Rapid City, on May 18, 2015. He's also accused of moving Rehfeld’s body two weeks later with the help of Garland Brown and Michael Frye, both of Rapid City.
During Friday's change-of-plea hearing, Linngren told Klinetobe that he's not accused of killing Rehfeld or being present when she was stabbed to death. But according to the aiding and abetting charge, the judge said, he's "just as responsible" as those who killed her.
Linngren asked Klinetobe if he knew Rehfeld would be killed. "Yes," he answered. The judge also asked if he was involved in the murder and if Rehfeld was killed at his request. "No," he replied.
A family member sighed and Linngren told Klinetobe to look at the six-page factual basis statement he signed and asked him more questions based on the document. Klinetobe said he admitted to having conversations with those involved in the kidnapping and murder, being aware of the plan and having a role in the killing.
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It's unclear exactly what Klinetobe admitted about his role since the factual basis document and all court records related to the case are sealed, and lawyers and the family members are under a gag order and told not to speak to the media.
Hirth, who is accused of stabbing Rehfeld, is awaiting trial while Schneider is waiting to being sentenced to life without parole after pleading guilty in 2017 to first-degree murder. According to the Department of Corrections, Brown has been released from prison after receiving a four-year sentence in 2016 to four years for being an accessory to the murder. Frye, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to being an accessory, has not been sentenced.
In a 2017 hearing, a Rapid City Police Department detective testified that he believed Rehfeld's killing was related to her filing a report that Klinetobe had assaulted her, as well as her seeking a protection order against him. In her application for a protection order less than a week before she disappeared in May 2015, Rehfeld said she feared for her life after Klinetobe threatened to kill her.
Meanwhile, Frye had told police Klinetobe wanted to kill Rehfeld “because she threatened to tell everybody that he beat the (expletive) out of her,” the detective said.
Hirth and Schneider were charged with killing Rehfeld while giving her a ride.
Klinetobe is expected to return to court at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 21 for a status hearing and at 9 a.m. Dec. 2 for a sentencing hearing. His defense lawyers said they may need up to five days for the sentencing phase and that they plan to have experts testify on behalf of their client.
Rehfeld was considered a missing person "not in immediate harm" until police announced a year later that an informant led them to her makeshift grave near Rockerville in May 2016.
Experts told the Journal at the time that they advise against declaring missing people safe unless they are positive about it, while some of Rehfeld's loved ones said they believe it was a mistake for the police department to publicly announce that she was not in immediate harm and were skeptical if investigators continued to look for her after that point.
Police said they were working on the case the entire time.