Duluth woman pleads guilty in dismembering case
Tommi Hintz described how she became increasingly suspicious of her two friends, eventually learning of the homicide but still assisting in the disposal of Ricky Balsimo's remains in Lake Superior.
DULUTH — A woman admitted Tuesday to helping a friend dispose of a homicide victim's remains in Lake Superior last summer.
Tommi Lynn Hintz, 32, of Duluth, pleaded guilty as an accomplice after the fact to felony murder, agreeing to cooperate in the prosecution of two co-defendants charged in connection with the killing and dismemberment of Richard "Ricky" Anthony Balsimo Jr.
Hintz herself was never accused of playing any role in the death of the 34-year-old St. Paul man. But she admitted that she had good reason to know a friend, Jacob Colt Johnson, had committed a murder and that another friend, Robert Thomas West, planned to deposit the remains off the shore near Grand Portage.
Hintz also testified that she helped conceal evidence of the crime by handling a backpack that she understood to contain the firearm used to kill Balsimo.
The plea, entered at a remote hearing of State District Court in Grand Marais, is the first among the three defendants charged last year in a multi-jurisdiction case that has spanned several counties and two states.
Under the terms of an agreement, Hintz is expected to receive a probationary sentence in exchange for truthful testimony in court and cooperation with law enforcement and prosecutors in the ongoing cases against both Johnson and West.
Numerous family members and supporters of the Balsimo family joined the Zoom hearing, adhering to Judge Michael Cuzzo's request to keep their audio and video off for the duration of the emotional hearing. They have been outspoken over the course of the past year, organizing memorial events and sharply criticizing police for alleged failures to act when Balsimo first went missing.
"We had conversations with the family members in regard to this agreement," Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Dan Vlieger said. "The family is not in agreement with this negotiation. However, that is the negotiation that the state has entered into with Ms. Hintz."
Bullet holes, paranoid behavior
Hintz, appearing by video with defense attorney Keith Shaw, told the court that she received a call from Johnson around 4:30 a.m. June 20, 2021. He was looking for gas and didn't want to get caught with drugs, she said. After initially asking her to go to the Finlayson area, they ended up meeting at West's residence in South Range.
Hintz said Johnson seemed to be trying to keep her away from his Audi SUV, but she gave him some gas and he left. She later ran into him at another friend's house, where Johnson was driving a Buick and asked the friend for a backpack.
The defendant said she and Johnson met up again on the night of June 21, driving to Hinckley to gamble before getting a room to sleep for a few hours. On the way back to Duluth, she said she noticed bullet holes in the front passenger seat of Johnson's Audi and "the whole back seat was full of stuff, like he had packed up his whole life in the car."
"He said, 'Don't worry about it, Tommi,'" Hintz testified. "I started to panic a bit."
Hintz got dropped off at her West Duluth home and later that day, June 22, got a call from West asking if she knew anyone with a boat. She responded that she had a friend in Grand Portage, and agreed to drive there with West following her in his pickup truck.
Tired from driving late at night, Hintz testified that she "stopped to get high" and asked West why he seemed paranoid.
"He said, 'You would be too if you had a dead body in the back,'" Hintz recalled.
While acknowledging that she had a reasonable suspicion of the crime that had occurred, Hintz nonetheless continued escorting West to Grand Marais, where he eventually met up with her friend and allegedly disposed of Balsimo's remains in two 5-gallon buckets and a large tote.
On the way back to the Twin Ports the next day, she said West told her that Johnson had shot the victim, whose name she did not know and whom she had never met. She said she also witnessed him burning the lid of one of the buckets that had been used for the remains.
Johnson was arrested June 24 in Douglas County on unrelated charges, and Hintz said she had a phone call with him from jail in which he "told me to go get the backpack because it had the thing in it." Hintz said she understood that to mean the gun. And while she said she never looked in the bag, she acknowledged retrieving it from the friend's residence and handing it off to West.
Trials still to come for Johnson, West
Under the terms of Hintz's agreement, a second felony count of interference with a dead body will be dismissed. Judge Cuzzo tentatively scheduled sentencing for Feb. 28 at the Cook County Courthouse, but that is subject to change pending the resolution of her co-defendants' cases.
Cuzzo this week scheduled a three-week trial for West to begin Jan. 24; he also faces accomplice to murder and interference with a dead body charges. Johnson, who is charged with intentional second-degree murder, has an Aug. 22 court date; a trial has not yet been scheduled.
In Wisconsin, West is facing additional felony counts of party to mutilating a corpse, harboring or aiding a felon and possession of a firearm by a felon.
A complaint in Douglas County Circuit Court states that he told sheriff's office detective that Johnson showed up to his South Range home on June 20 with bullet holes in the front passenger seat and Balsimo's body in the back seat. Johnson allegedly said he shot Balsimo in self-defense.
The charges state that West and Johnson then brought the body to an RV in Bennett, where Johnson cut up the body. West allegedly said he went to Menards in Superior to buy additional tools, as well as the buckets and cement to put the body parts in. He and Johnson later burned their clothes.
Dive teams located Balsimo's remains in the cement-weighted buckets in Lake Superior on July 15-16. His family said the discovery came only after they hired private investigators, who obtained information identifying him as a likely homicide victim.