August 9, 2021

Episode 9: An Arrest (S1 The Search for Jermain)

by Stolen

Background show artwork for Stolen

We find out Jermain’s ex-boyfriend has been arrested and is facing an unusual charge in federal court. Does this mean police are closer to solving the mystery of her disappearance?

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Connie Walker: It's been four months since the last episode of Stolen: The Search for Jermain came out. If you haven't listened to it, I suggest you start at the beginning. Over eight episodes we investigate the disappearance of Jermain Charlo, a 23-year-old mother of two and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in Montana. Jermain went missing in 2018 after a night out in downtown Missoula.

Connie: We dive deep into the police investigation of Jermain's disappearance, and uncover new information about her relationship with Michael Defrance, an ex-boyfriend and the person Jermain was last seen with.

Connie: We've been watching to see if there are any developments in Jermain's case, and on Friday, July 30 there was a big one—Michael Defrance was arrested. I found out from a text message. It said Michael was in the Missoula county jail, and that I should look at the jail roster. So I did. When I clicked on his name, Michael Blake Defrance, what came up was a large photo—his mugshot. Michael is looking straight into the camera, wearing the classic orange jumpsuit. He has a serious expression on his face, and his mouth is set in a thin straight line.

Connie: We don't know what happened to Jermain Charlo, but what we do know is that on the night of June 15, 2018, Jermain was last seen on surveillance footage walking alongside Michael in an alley, leaving a downtown bar. That is the last confirmed sighting of Jermain.

Connie: Michael told her family and police that he dropped her off in downtown Missoula, but detective Guy Baker told us that he determined that wasn't true, and that Michael changed his story and said he dropped Jermain off in a different location. According to search warrant documents, Jermain's phone was traced to Michael's house that night. Police have searched his property at least twice that we know of, but Michael has never been charged or officially named as a suspect in Jermain's disappearance.

Connie: But now, three years later, Michael was in jail—and Guy Baker arrested him. But we don't know if this arrest had anything to do with Jermain's disappearance. The Missoula County Jail roster didn't say what Michael is charged with, only that it's a federal hold.

Connie: I texted Guy to try to find out more. He told me that he arrested Michael, and that his first court appearance would be the following Monday. But he wouldn't tell me what the charge was, or if it had anything to do with Jermain.

Connie: The next day, I got a copy of the indictment. It said Michael was being charged with a federal firearms offense, that he was a prohibited person in possession of firearms and ammunition. The indictment said Michael had guns, and that was illegal because he had a conviction of what they call "a crime of violence." The maximum penalty he faces is 10 years in a federal prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. But first, he has to go to court. So after spending the weekend in jail, Michael had a court appearance last Monday afternoon.

[phone rings]

Connie: Hi, Ashley.

Ashley Nerbovig: Hey, Connie. How you doing?

Connie: I'm okay. How are you?

Ashley Nerbovig: Good. He got released.

Connie: He was released.

Ashley Nerbovig: Yeah.

Connie: From Gimlet Media and Spotify, this is Stolen: The Search for Jermain. I'm Connie Walker.

Connie: Michael's hearing took place in a federal courtroom in downtown Missoula. No one was allowed to record inside, but we talked to reporter Ashley Nerbovig right after she left the courtroom.

Ashley Nerbovig: It's a smaller courtroom. It's kind of cramped, and just very quiet. So we walked in, and there were four people outside who were part of Jermain's family and they were waiting. And then there were a ton of press people. There were, like, at least nine press, I think. Actually, his defense attorney came in, Michael Donahoe, and he looked around and was like, "What's the interest in Mr. Defrance? And, you know, everyone was kind of quiet. The family stayed really quiet.

Connie: So what's the interest in Mr. Defrance?

Ashley Nerbovig: Yeah. And one of the radio guys said, you know, "It's a long story." And then I walked over to grab the spelling of his name and he asked me again, you know, what's the interest in Mr. Defrance? And I said, you know, there's a belief that there's a connection to a missing persons case.

Connie: It's like, he didn't—he didn't have any idea?

Ashley Nerbovig: He didn't have any—no, he had no idea.

Connie: And what was—when Michael walked in, like, how would you describe him?

Ashley Nerbovig: You know, really composed. He was just—you know, he was wearing orange, the orange jumpsuit. They took off the handcuffs, and he came and stood next to his lawyer. He was really polite. He said, like, you know, maybe a couple—he said less than 20 words. Most of it was, "Yes, I do," or "No, I do not." I mean, I could literally as I was taking notes, it was like, "No, I do not." "Yes, I do." "Yes, I do." He didn't seem scared. He didn't seem angry. He didn't really display any emotion. And he pretty much just talked to the judge. He just kind of stayed focused on what was happening up front.

Ashley Nerbovig: And the judge says, "You know, this is your initial appearance. Have you had a chance to look over the indictment?" And he says, "Yes, your honor." The judge says, "You know, I've reviewed your financials, and see that you're lacking the means to pay for a lawyer, so I'm going to assign Michael Donahoe." And he says, "Okay."

Ashley Nerbovig: And then she read out the charges, him being a prohibited person from owning a firearms and ammunitions. She read out the maximum sentence he could get, which is 10 years and a $250,000 fine, plus three years of supervision, and plus a $100 one-time charge if he's found guilty or if he pleads guilty.

Connie: And what was his reaction to her reading the charges?

Ashley Nerbovig: He didn't really seem to—he didn't do anything. He acted like a defendant who kind of knew, you know, not to interrupt the judge, to just follow with the proceedings, to be really professional in his behavior in the courtroom.

Ashley Nerbovig: Then finally, she got to the point where she asked how he would be pleading, and his attorney spoke up there and said that he would be pleading not guilty to the possession of the firearms charge.

Connie: So he pled not guilty right then and there?

Ashley Nerbovig: Right then and there, yeah. So then the judge asked about release, and the prosecution said that it deferred to the court. In any case, the defense moved for release. His defense attorney said that Defrance was employed, that he lives with his parents and that he'd like to see him get back to work. And the judge agreed to release him, subject to certain conditions.

Connie: So Michael was released, but with strict conditions and under close supervision. He's not allowed to move or change his phone number without notifying the court. And he cannot leave the state or country without permission. He's not allowed to possess any guns or weapons. If he slips up, he'll go back to jail. And although Michael's lawyer didn't seem to know that Michael had been the subject of another investigation by state police, he brought it up during the hearing.

Ashley Nerbovig: And then the defense attorney Donahoe said, you know, it took me kind of by surprise how many press were here, and that if there was any cooperation going on between the federal government and the state in this case that he'd like to know about it. He was kind of—I think he was pressing to see how clean the lines were between these two cases.

Connie: That's a question I have too. Are these two cases related? Ashley says the prosecutor didn't give a clear answer.

Ashley Nerbovig: And at that point, she called a recess and he was re-handcuffed to be taken out to be released.

Connie: After Michael left the courtroom, Ashley turned her attention to Jermain's family. Vicki Morigeau, Jermain's yaya or grandmother, was there with her daughter Valenda Morigeau and her sister Eileen Morigeau.

Ashley Nerbovig: When we walked out of the courtroom, Eileen and Vicki just hugged for like a solid minute. It clearly was a lot for Vicki to come down, and she, you know, had a walker with her. And so there's just a moment of just them all kind of greeting each other, and clearly really emotional about being in the courtroom, about seeing everything that had happened. And then Valenda came out.

Connie: Valenda stood outside the courthouse doors, and the reporters who were there gathered around her and began to ask questions. The first one? Why are you here today?

Reporter: Now you're here for something besides a firearms charge.

Valenda: I'm here because he is the last person to see Jermain before she disappeared, and we—our family believes Michael is the one that is responsible for her disappearance.

Reporter: Okay. And so with this charge, he's been released on his own recognizance. What are your feelings about that?

Valenda: I'm not happy with the outcome, but I mean, he's beat Jermain multiple times, and has a partner-family member assault and should not have been carrying a firearm.

Reporter: Does the family see this case as sort of a stepping stone to solving what happened to Jermain?

Valenda: Yes, I think so. I hope so.

Connie: Is that true? Is this case connected to Jermain and her disappearance? Jermain has been missing for over three years. That is three years her children—who are now five and seven—have not seen their mother. Three years since her family last spoke to her.

Connie: Jermain wasn't mentioned in this courtroom or in the indictment, but as I read through the details of the charge, I could see just how connected she was to it. The federal law says that certain criminals are prohibited from having guns because they're too dangerous: felons, drug users, fugitives and some domestic abusers who commit violent crimes.

Connie: Jermain and Michael met when she was 14 years old, and dated for eight years. Their relationship was marred by violence. Michael was arrested at least twice for partner or family member assault against Jermain, and another time for assaulting her aunt Valenda. He was also convicted twice for partner or family member assault. We weren't able to access the court documents for one of his convictions, but the second conviction is cited in the indictment, and it's the reason it's illegal for him to have a gun.

Connie: It says Michael was convicted of a crime of violence in May, 2013. I know from our reporting that was a few weeks after he was arrested for assaulting Jermain. The police documents we found in our investigation lay out in great detail what happened that night. Jermain told police that Michael hit her in the head and face four times and spat on her while she was on the ground. Michael admitted to the police that he hit Jermain. He said it was three times, twice with a fist.

Connie: The officer photographed Jermain's injuries. Her face was red and starting to swell. What struck me looking at these photos was how young Jermain was—only 17 years old. The officer charged Michael with partner or family member assault. He spent 36 hours in jail. After he was released, Michael got a lawyer and tried to fight the charge, but a few weeks later he pleaded guilty.

Connie: In one of the court documents it says: "On April 14, 2013, in Sanders County, I caused bodily injury to my girlfriend. I understand my rights and enter a plea of guilty. I understand that other possible consequences of a guilty plea are loss of firearms rights." The document is signed by Michael Defrance on May 6, 2013.

Connie: A conviction of a partner or family member assault, even though it was a misdemeanor, meant that if Michael possessed a firearm he would be violating a federal law, and the indictment alleges that he did—twice. But what's interesting is when the indictment says that happened. It wasn't recently, but I recognized the dates: June 27, 2018, and October 2, 2018.

Connie: We know from search warrant applications and from our interviews with Detective Guy Baker that on both of those dates police searched the Defrance property looking for Jermain and her belongings. They didn't find Jermain, but the indictment alleges they found Michael to be in possession of firearms.

Connie: Police didn't charge him for having guns then, but it sounds like they took them away. After police searched his house in October of 2018, Michael posted about losing his guns to the police on Facebook. He sounds frustrated by what he describes as "Messed up and crooked feds." Michaels writes: "I can legally own a gun by Montana laws, but federal does not recognize state laws, so therefore, according to the federal laws, I cannot be in possession of any firearm or they will confiscate it and leave me with nothing. This system is so corrupt it's pathetic."

Connie: A month later, Michael posted photos from a hunting trip. There's a picture of a dead deer with a large rifle leaning against it. His caption says, "Got my buck and bull this time. Good way to end the season." Someone asked for more photos, and Michael commented, "I didn't take any more. I went hunting by myself and didn't have a selfie stick." And Just last year, Michael posted another photo of himself in hunting gear and propping up the head of a dead animal.

Connie: But Michael's certainly not the only hunter with a criminal record in the state using firearms. Montana has the highest gun ownership rate in the United States. According to a recent analysis of gun records, two thirds of Montana adults live in households with guns. For some of them, it's legal to own a gun under state law, but not federal law.

Connie: So I wanted to know how common are these kinds of federal firearms charges? And if police found Michael with firearms in 2018, why did they wait three years to charge him? I reached out to Colin Stephens. He's an attorney and president of the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Connie: I'm curious if you had a chance to look over the indictment.

Colin Stephens: Yeah, I have.

Connie: Okay. And what are your initial thoughts, if any?

Colin Stephens: I mean, I was talking to another friend of mine this morning about how weird this case is because, you know, it's rare in Montana that—we're a pretty gun-friendly state, right? So we don't go out of our way to charge people with felony federal gun counts who committed misdemeanor offenses. And we certainly don't do it from what, three a half years ago? So it's really strange. I mean, it's obviously a placeholder to sort of pin him down, it seems like, if they're gonna charge him with anything related to the disappearance of Miss Charlo.

Connie: Like, how do you explain the timing? Because wouldn't it have been like, you know, if that was their intention, more advantageous for them to do it closer to, you know, when they were conducting these searches?

Colin Stephens: Right. Or when they found the gun. Yeah, I have no idea. I think maybe they have—you know, they've been building a case. Guy's been fucking relentless on this case, so yeah, it's very strange. I mean, one could speculate all day long about why they decided to pull the trigger, so to speak, now.

Connie: Yeah, so what do you think is the strategy behind it?

Colin Stephens: I think it is honestly just a placeholder to get some charges, get some supervision on him, get, I guess, put the federal boot on his neck and see what'll happen.

Connie: I'm curious about, like, just how common these kinds of charges are.

Colin Stephens: Well, the 922 and the 924 charges are relatively common. So a guy's caught with 10 pounds of meth and a gun and he's got a prior felony, yeah 922, 924 charges come up with some frequency. You know, a convicted felon is found in possession of a firearm. That's relatively common.

Connie: But Colin says what is uncommon is for this to be the only charge a defendant faces, especially if the crime they're convicted of is for domestic violence. Because not every domestic violence abuser loses their right to own a firearm. They have to be convicted of a violent assault. I explained to Colin what happened the night Michael was charged with assaulting Jermain.

Connie: That incident where Michael was charged and then pled guilty to assaulting Jermain. And in those documents, he admitted to, you know, hitting her three times and twice with a fist.

Colin Stephens: Yeah, that'd pretty much do it.

Connie: Yeah.

Colin Stephens: Hitting with a first is pretty much bodily injury. So, yeah, then it's a clean 922 conviction. And it doesn't matter how old it is.

Connie: But Colin doesn't expect this to be an open and shut case. He says Michael Donahoe, the defense attorney who was appointed to represent Michael Defrance, is a brilliant lawyer.

Colin Stephens: He's got, in my opinion, one of the best lawyers in the state of Montana defending him, so he will fight this case tooth and nail. As he would have any other case. I don't know. For him, the publicity on this case will not matter one iota.

Connie: Michael's lawyer, Mr. Donahoe, isn't a stranger to media attention. In the 1990s, he was the first lawyer appointed to represent The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. According to the Montana Standard, he's well known in the state for his "Animated, almost volatile courtroom defense of his clients." Colin also speaks highly about the prosecutor in this case, Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Clark. She used to be a county attorney in Missoula who worked in the special victims unit, focused on prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence cases.

Colin Stephens: She's a very good prosecutor. I mean, US attorneys don't hire idiots, so anybody they're gonna assign to the case is gonna be very good.

Connie: Mr. Donahoe and Ms. Clark faced off in court earlier this year on another federal firearms case. She won. The defendant was a convicted felon who was found to be in possession of a firearm. He eventually pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

Connie: Do you think this case is likely to go to trial?

Colin Stephens: Statistically, I think 97 percent of all federal cases plead out. I think those are the most recent stats, give or take a percentage. So if you just base it on stats, no, But given the other issues in the case, it may go to trial. You know, normally these cases are like pregnancy, right? You either are or you aren't. You either have been convicted of a felony, your rights haven't been restored, you're in possession of a firearm, therefore, you're guilty of this charge.

Connie: If he's acquitted, obviously, that seems straightforward. But if he is convicted or pleads guilty, what—like, I mean, the indictment says a penalty of 10 years and $250,000. That seems pretty severe.

Colin Stephens: Yup. And he will not do 10 years.

Connie: Mm-hmm. What would be a typical sentence for just a firearm offense like this?

Colin Stephens: I mean, that's gonna totally depend on his criminal history. I've had individuals charged with these who get probation or time served, right? Like, they get two days. And then we have other people who get three, four years. It just depends on who they are as individuals.

Connie: How would that look to a court? You know, two prior convictions of PFMA and two other arrests.

Colin Stephens: Of violence?

Connie: Yeah.

Colin Stephens: Not good. I mean, you know, that's kind of the reason the statute was created in the first place is to, you know, protect spouses, et cetera from gun-carrying nutcases.

Connie: After Michael was released on Monday afternoon, he posted on Facebook. He said, "Well, that was complete bullshit, but I'm finally out." Eye roll emoji. We reached out to Michael, but he didn't respond.

Connie: You know, do you think he's likely to face jail time if he's convicted?

Colin Stephens: I think so, yeah. I mean, I can't tell you how much, but I mean, obviously, prison is a risk any time you're charged with a federal offense, and it's rare that you don't go.

Connie: I still want to know what led to these charges now, eight years after Michael's conviction and three years after police say they found Michael's guns while searching for Jermain. Why charge Michael with this now?

Connie: Do prosecutors and police listen to family in these cases, or bow to the pressure of family, especially in high profile cases like Jermain's?

Colin Stephens: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. The family, especially when the families not only just yapping in the prosecutor's ear, but also if they're making noise in the media and obviously the, you know, the missing and endangered Indigenous person is a deal and frankly, largely because of Jermain Charlo.

Connie: We reached out to Michael's lawyer and the federal prosecutor. They both declined to comment. We also reached out to Guy Baker. He's been investigating Jermain's disappearance for the last three years, and has spent a lot of time looking into Michael. Guy has searched Michael's phone, his truck and his property. Guy arrested Michael for these firearms charges, but didn't go to his hearing on Monday—he was out of town. I talked to him when he got back two days later.

Connie: Can you tell us anything about where he was arrested or what the circumstances were?

Guy Baker: Not really.

Connie: How are you involved in that case?

Guy Baker: That case is just part of this investigation, so it was just submitted to the US Attorney's Office for federal charges.

Connie: So it's connected to Jermain's disappearance, or your investigation into Jermain's disappearance?

Guy Baker: Yes.

Connie: So you guys—like, is there like, state and federal kind of cooperation in this case?

Guy Baker: Well, yeah. Everybody's working together to figure out what happened to Jermain.

Connie: How are you hoping that this case, this federal charge, you know, helps your investigation into Jermain's disappearance?

Guy Baker: That's just another piece of the puzzle that's slowly being assembled. So don't have all the pieces yet, but got the probable cause for that federal violation and proceeded with charges on that.

Connie: How did you feel about his release? Was that expected or unexpected?

Guy Baker: It didn't surprise me. I was hoping he would be remanded, but it didn't surprise me he was released.

Connie: And in terms of, like, being now released with these conditions, which seem kind of, you know, strict, I don't know if you agree or not, and it seems like there's a lot of supervision in terms of his release, does that also give police more opportunities to connect with a suspect or conduct searches?

Guy Baker: Yes, that's true. It could.

Connie: Sorry, can you say that again?

Guy Baker: I said, "You're right. Yes, it could."

Connie: Do you feel like you're any closer than the last time we talked to solving the mystery of Jermain Charlo's disappearance?

Guy Baker: Possibly. But there needs to be a few more things, a few more pieces of the puzzle need to be obtained. Jermain's case, it's as active as it ever has been. We've continued to follow leads. There's been quite a lot of activity actually since the spring of 2021 on things we've been working on. And it's never been closed, it's never sat on a shelf with no one watching it. It's been open and active the entire time I've had it.

Connie: Guy often describes trying to solve Jermain's case like trying to put together a puzzle. But so much of this feels like a chess match, a long, drawn-out game where a move is made every six months or so. But for Jermain's family, this isn't a game. The stakes couldn't be more real, especially for her Yaya, Vicki.

Connie: Vicki was at the hearing. She was there next to her daughter Valenda outside the courthouse, but she didn't speak to the reporters. I called her a few days after.

Vicki Morigeau: Hello?

Connie: Hi, is this Vicki?

Vicki Morigeau: Yeah, this is Vicki.

Connie: Hi, Vicki. How are you?

Vicki Morigeau: I'm good.

Connie: I wanted to ask, you know, just about the arrest, like, if that gave you any more hope or, you know, that Jermain's case is going to be solved.

Vicki Morigeau: I'm hoping so. I really am hoping that this would spring up. Out of the blue, all of a sudden it's like because we had no idea what was going on, or I didn't know.

Connie: I have a vivid memory of the first time I met Vicki. We walked around her yard looking at her garden. She was quiet and soft spoken, but I quickly learned that, despite her small stature, Vicki is a force to be reckoned with. She's a fierce protector of her family. When Jermain went missing, it was Vicki who was immediately worried. She called Jermain's new boyfriend Jacob, and when he told her that Jermain was with Michael on the night she went missing, Vicki called to interrogate him.

Connie: Vicki is determined to find her granddaughter, and her quest to bring Jermain home has become more urgent. You heard earlier that at the hearing, Vicki was using a walker. That's because a few months ago she was diagnosed with cancer, and since then has been undergoing aggressive treatment.

Connie: How are you doing?

Vicki Morigeau: I'm doing okay. Yeah, because they did 10 days of radiation, and then when they did do a chemo it just hit real hard. It just makes me really tired.

Connie: And how is your treatment going?

Vicki Morigeau: Oh, they're actually not bad.

Connie: Oh, good. Oh, good.

Vicki Morigeau: I'm not giving up on that, either. That's another thing, you know? Like, I'm not ready.

Connie: I spent a year getting to know Jermain through talking to her family and friends. I witnessed their pain and grief over losing her. Their trauma is compounded because nobody is being held responsible for Jermain's disappearance. I know that her family has imagined this moment: someone being arrested in relation to Jermain's case. But how do they feel knowing it's for a firearms charge? I called Jermain's Aunt Dani Garcia after the hearing.

Connie: What was your reaction when Guy told you that Michael had been arrested?

Dani Garcia: About damn time, and why did it take three years? It was bittersweet, Connie, because this should have happened three years ago. So we just hope that there's more going on behind the scenes, and that we have answers soon, because right now we still don't have answers. We still don't have her home. And we want to find her. We want her home. One way or another she needs to come home. And my mom's been sick, and it's hard watching my mother be sick and her hurt so bad not only with her illness, but with everything else going on.

Dani Garcia: My mother's health is not good. She has stage four cancer. My mother is such a strong woman. She believes she can overcome it. And my mother always said she's not leaving where she's at until she finds Jermain. My mother put her life on hold to find her grandbaby, and to be there. From my side, I don't want my mother to die without having closure. I can't even imagine the torment this causes for her.

Connie: We'll be following this case and any developments in the investigation into the disappearance of Jermain Charlo. If you want to go back and listen to what we know about Jermain's relationship with Michael Defrance, start at Episode 3: The Dark Horse.

Connie: If you or someone you know has been affected by abuse and needs support, free, confidential help is available 24/7 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline

at 1-800-799-7233, or by texting LOVEIS to 22522.

Connie: Stolen is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Connie Walker.

Connie: Our producers are Meg Driscoll, John White and Anya Schultz. Our editor is Devon Taylor. Additional help from: Ashley Nerbovig, Jennifer Fowler, Nicole Pasulka, and Heather Evans. Theme song by Emma Munger. Mixing by Peter Leonard and Catherine Anderson. Original music by Emma Munger and So Wylie. Special thanks to Lydia Polgreen, Collin Campbell, Reyhan Harmansee and Rachel Strom.