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Northern Minnesota man to stand trial in baby's death following house fire

DULUTH, Minn.-A Hibbing man who left his infant nephew home alone can face trial on manslaughter charges in the boy's fire death, a judge ruled.Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski, 25, faces four charges in connection with the death of 11-month-old Bentley J...

Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski
Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski
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DULUTH, Minn.-A Hibbing man who left his infant nephew home alone can face trial on manslaughter charges in the boy's fire death, a judge ruled.

Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski, 25, faces four charges in connection with the death of 11-month-old Bentley Joe Lewis Koski in Tower.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Gary Pagliaccetti this week found probable cause to support two counts of second-degree manslaughter, denying Bonacci-Koski's motion to dismiss the felony offenses.

Bonacci-Koski was babysitting overnight for the boy's parents when he allegedly left the residence for several hours to purchase drugs. After returning and finding the house on fire, authorities said he stole a neighbor's vehicle and fled the scene.

The judge rejected a defense claim that the boy's death was not "reasonably foreseeable" because house fires are relatively uncommon and there was no evidence that Bonacci-Koski was responsible for the blaze, writing that the boy was nevertheless "completely dependent" on his uncle for his care and safety.

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"While house fires are not a frequent event, making a determination of willful negligence or child endangerment is not limited to just the danger of fire but must take into consideration all the potential dangers to the child," Pagliaccetti wrote in a 17-page order and memorandum.

"Leaving an eleven month old baby unattended in a place where no one could hear the infant for a significant amount of time could lead a person of ordinary care and prudence to entertain an honest and strong suspicion that the person is guilty of neglect or endangerment."

In separate motions, Pagliaccetti ruled that incriminating statements made by Bonacci-Koski could be introduced into evidence and said prosecutors could seek an above-guideline sentence if he is ultimately convicted.

Bentley was declared dead at the scene of the fire at 813 Third St. N. in Tower, Minn., on the morning of Aug. 2, 2017.

A next-door neighbor, a volunteer firefighter, had arrived home at 7:45 a.m. and found the house on fire, according to court documents. The back door was unlocked and open but no one responded to his knocking.

Fire crews made entry and found significant fire in the kitchen. A sweep of the residence found Bentley in an upstairs bedroom, unresponsive in a crib. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead from inhalation of products of combustion.

An investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office was inconclusive. It was determined that a kitchen countertop, cabinets, stove and wall containing an electrical outlet were all extensively damaged. Officials said they could not rule out cooking, electrical issues or smoking as the cause.

Bonacci-Koski was arrested later that afternoon in a car reported stolen from a neighboring residence shortly after the fire broke out.

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Defense attorney J.D. Schmid wrote in a brief that Bonacci-Koski had left Bentley alone for about two hours in order to go to a nearby business, Benchwarmers Grille, and access their wireless internet.

Upon returning, Schmid said, Bonacci-Koski saw fire trucks and "panicked," stealing the car and later hiding from law enforcement in the woods. He said the defendant admitted to using methamphetamine and that he had been awake for six days.

In unrecorded statements to deputies in a squad car and at the jail, Bonacci-Koski allegedly admitted that he was "guilty of neglecting" the infant in order to go "get high" and acknowledged that he stole the neighbor's car upon finding the house on fire.

The defense sought to have the statements suppressed, arguing that they amounted to illegal interrogations without a Miranda warning. But Pagliaccetti wrote in his order that it was Bonacci-Koski who voluntarily initiated both conversations, making the statements admissible at trial.

The judge partially granted a defense motion to preclude the state from seeking an aggravated sentence, writing that Bentley's "zone of privacy" was not invaded because Bonacci-Koski was tasked with his care during the time he was asked to babysit.

However, the judge ruled that prosecutors could contend to a jury that the case is more egregious than the typical manslaughter case. That determination would be made by a jury only after a finding of guilt.

"Defendant knew that the home was on fire and the victim was in a closed room incapable of getting out of the crib on his own, yet failed to alert the first responders that the child was in the home," Pagliaccetti wrote. "Therefore ... the court finds that there is sufficient evidence for the state to seek an aggravated sentence based on the particular vulnerability of the victim."

In addition to the manslaughter charges, Bonacci-Koski is accused of felony theft of a motor vehicle and gross misdemeanor fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance.

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Pagliaccetti ordered a scheduling conference later this month to set a trial date.

Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski
Bentley Joe Lewis Koski, 11-months old, of Tower was killed in a house fire at his home in Tower. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

Related Topics: HIBBINGTOWERIRON RANGEFIRES
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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