Cloquet man gets probation in fatal fight at vets home
The 59-year-old was ordered to maintain sobriety and share his story with community groups — or face a longer prison term.
CARLTON — Joel Jay Ammesmaki said he has not had a drink since Sept. 14, 2021.
That was the day he killed Clyde "Jody" Atwood during an early-morning fight at the veterans home on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet.
It was a "senseless act" that permanently deprived a family of their loved one, Judge Rebekka Stumme said Monday. But it's also a tragic tale of how a 59-year-old U.S. Army veteran with little to no criminal history spiraled into addiction and came to end the life of one of his best friends.
In a unique sentence, the judge departed from state sentencing guidelines and placed Ammesmaki on five years of supervised probation for his second-degree manslaughter conviction. But if he slips up, Stumme warned, Ammesmaki will go to prison for the longest allowable term, 57 months.
"The ball is in our court," she told the defendant. "You have a lot of opportunity to affect change in your community."
The judge ordered Ammesmaki to spend 180 in jail as a condition of probation, but the balance of the sentence will give him an opportunity to prove his commitment to sobriety and make a difference in the lives of others. It came as the judge heard competing recommendations from both attorneys and requests from Atwood's two sisters to impose prison time.
Ammesmaki earlier admitted to striking Atwood in the face at least two times during the argument at the Fond du Lac Veterans Supportive Housing building, 1569 Zhimaaganishag Road, where both lived.
The men had been watching a football game and movie before Ammesmaki claimed Atwood called him the name of another resident and became aggressive. The defendant knocked the victim to the ground and delayed calling 911 for some 40 minutes, telling officers he believed Atwood as sleeping.
Officers arrived on the scene and found Ammesmaki standing near a couch, with Atwood lying face-up on the floor with blood around his nose. The victim, unresponsive and not breathing, was pronounced dead.
Eighteen months later, Dawn Schulze said she feels sick to her stomach and wants to cry every time she thinks of her brother.
"My life will never been the same because of his murder," said Schulze, a mental health practitioner who described feelings of suicide in the months after his death. "There is this hole inside me where Jody belongs. Jody didn’t deserve this."
Atwood served in the U.S. Navy from 1981-85 and earned a bachelor's degree in accounting. His family said he struggled with alcoholism for many years, but was known for his humor and generosity, even when he didn't have much to give.
Atwood had turned 60 just a month before his death — an occasion marked by his sisters taking him to the casino. He was "in a good place and happy," said Kim Spoor, who saved and frequently plays a voicemail message left by her brother the following day.
"I keep thinking about my brother in his final moments and not knowing what he felt, not knowing if he lingered for a bit, wondering whether he suffered," Spoor said. "He didn’t deserve that."
Chief Deputy Carlton County Attorney Jeff Boucher also focused on the 40-minute delay in Ammesmaki seeking help, and said he was concerned that the defendant has continued to minimize his actions and portray Atwood as the aggressor. He argued the presumptive prison term of four years was appropriate.
"Every positive change that (Ammesmaki) has made in his life is a positive change that (Atwood) will never get the opportunity to make," Boucher told the court. "Because of defendant's actions, (Atwood) is deceased, and death is permanent. As defendant looks forward to a sober and productive future, it cannot be lost that (Atwood's) life ended on the floor of defendant's apartment due to defendant's actions."
Defense attorney William Gatton, however, filed the motion for a break from sentencing guidelines. He said his client is a father to two, stepfather to five and spent 17 months in Korea while enlisted in the Army from 1982-88. Ammesmaki entered the Tagwii Adult Outpatient Treatment Service just days after his arrest and completed the program five months later.
Arrowhead Regional Corrections Officer Dawn LeDoux joined in the recommendation for probation, and a psychologist, James Ammerman, wrote: "He has demonstrated remorse and sadness over the death of Mr. Atwood that was clearly evident nearly a year after successful outpatient treatment and therapy. This remorse and sadness, plus the realization of alcohol as the significant contributor to the death of Mr. Atwood, has provided significant motivation for continued sobriety."
The defendant himself told the court Monday: "I’m very sorry that my best friend died. I’m so sorry for his family. He was a great friend; I loved him. I’m so sorry this happened.”
Ammesmaki was taken into custody as the hearing ended to immediately begin serving his stint in the Carlton County Jail or Northeast Regional Corrections Center. Once that is completed, the judge ordered him to spend 150 hours speaking at probation-approved community groups and functions to share his story.
Stumme said he has done everything expected of a defendant on pretrial supervision, but he will have to prove that or face the prospect of a prison term even longer than that sought by the prosecutor.
"It’s a bigger hammer over your head," the judge said. "A bigger incentive to keep doing what you’ve been doing over the past few months."