Man who killed grandfather with hatchet convicted of first degree murder

January 17, 2019

By Pat Maurer

In a penalty hearing last Friday, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Evans issued a nine-page written opinion that concluded James Kuhns, 36 of Farwell, committed premeditated first degree murder when he used an hatchet to kill Leonard Hempel, the grandfather of his children with Hempel’s daughter Angela.

Leonard Hempel was reported missing April 26, 2016 but he had not been seen since April 9. Family and friends searching for him discovered a “disturbed” area in the garden behind his home on South Road and Stonehenge Drive in Surrey Township May 1. They found clothing believed to be Leonard Hempel’s and notified police.

Kuhns was charged with open murder in May, 2016 for killing Hempel. He pled guilty to the charge on June 12, 2018.

According to a post by Clare County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis, “After striking Leonard in the head several times with a hatchet, killing him, the defendant buried him in the backyard. The defendant and Ms. Hempel then acted in concert to further cover up Leonard’s death by lying about his whereabouts as law enforcement, family, and friends searched for him.”

She said a plea of open murder makes a penalty hearing necessary, where evidence is presented to the court so the Judge can “determine the degree of the crime and render judgement accordingly.”

James Kuhns at his hearing in Clare County.

James Kuhns at his hearing in Clare County.

That hearing was held July 10th before Judge Evans. Ambrozaitis presented the testimony of witnesses including Angela Hempel and submitted evidence.

Judge Evans took the matter under advisement.

In his opinion presented last Friday, Ambrozaitis said, “Judge Evans concluded that there was an “abundance of evidence from which [to] conclude that [the] defendant murdered the victim with premeditation.” That evidence includes, but is not limited to, the following: (1) Defendant asked to be dropped off a distance from the house; (2) Defendant circled around the house to obtain the murder weapon – the hatchet – before approaching the victim; (3) Defendant continued to approach the victim, despite the victim ordering Defendant to stay away; (4) Defendant struck the victim in the head repeatedly with the hatchet; (5) Several seconds, if not minutes, elapsed between Defendant striking the first blow and the final blow(s); (6) The striking of the final blow(s) were prompted by the victim gurgling or making other noises, indicating that he was still alive; (7) Before or after the victim’s death, Defendant inflicted chop wounds on the body consistent with an attempt to dismember the body preparatory to concealing it; (8) Defendant buried the body in the backyard in an attempt to conceal it; (a) Defendant talked about building a greenhouse over the body to further conceal it; (9) Defendant had argued with the victim the night before the murder and “jokingly” spoke of how he would murder the victim; (10) Defendant used a weapon to commit the murder; (11) Defendant pursued the victim into the house.”

Ambrozaitis said that she was “very pleased with last Friday’s finding. “Many of the facts that supported Judge Evans’ decision were facts supplied by Angela Hempel, who was also charged and convicted for her part in the cover up. Without that testimony, we might have had a different result. But, she filled in the gaps to the defendant’s confession to law enforcement leading to this conclusion of first degree murder.”

Angela Hempel

Angela Hempel

In mid-June, 2016, Angela Hempel, then 31, pled guilty to lying to police, concealing death and as an accessory after the fact in connection with her father’s murder in April. In late August she was sentenced to one year in jail for her part in the murder.
A sentence date for Kuhns has not been scheduled yet.

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