St. Paul wife convicted, gets life in Guardsman husband's murder
By EMILY GURNON | (St. Paul, Minn.) Pioneer Press | Published: May 28, 2014
There was no other way out of her marriage. If Heather Leann Horst divorced her husband, she would lose her home, her pets and the financial security he provided. She needed him gone -- for good.
"I want him dead," she told her friends.
A Ramsey County jury agreed with the prosecution Tuesday. It took just two hours to convict Horst of aiding and abetting first-degree murder in the Aug. 5 shooting death of her husband, 25-year-old Brandon Horst.
She was sentenced right after the verdict to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the mandatory sentence.
-Heather Horst, 25, told friend Aaron William Allen that Brandon had a $1 million life insurance policy. She would pay Allen 10 percent of that -- an amount she later upped to 25 percent -- if he killed Brandon.
"Put at least two or three rounds into him," Allen testified Heather Horst told him the night of Aug. 4, just hours before the murder. That, prosecutor Karen Kugler said Tuesday morning, was the "final directive" from Horst when she dropped Allen off at the Horst home in St. Paul.
Allen put one bullet into Horst's head as he lay sleeping.
Heather Horst had another reason to get rid of her husband: a lover.
Marcus Strombaugh testified at trial that he and Horst were devoted to each other, Kugler said. They had been having an affair since before the Horsts married. Brandon knew about it and was ready to file for divorce himself, Kugler said.
Horst's attorney argued Tuesday that Allen acted alone, carrying out a longstanding murder fantasy.
Horst showed no emotion as the verdicts, which included second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit the crimes, were read. Given a chance to speak, she declined.
Judge Salvador Rosas ordered her into custody immediately.
Brenda Horst, Brandon's mother, pressed his military dogtags to her chest as she spoke after the hearing.
The grief and anger at her firstborn son's death at Heather's direction were overwhelming, she said.
"You don't want to think that someone in your family is capable of such things," she told reporters. "And if there were signs, we missed them."
She had been a single parent for the first seven years of Brandon's life and they were very close. When she married Mark Horst, he adopted Brandon.
"He had this goofiest grin and he could make you smile no matter what," she said of her son. "He just always looked for the good in people, and always looked toward the future."
Kugler, the prosecutor, told reporters that justice was done Tuesday.
"We are absolutely elated that the jury came back with a swift and just verdict on behalf of Brandon Horst," she said.
Horst was a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard and served in Saudi Arabia. He was shot and killed shortly after midnight Aug. 5 at the Horst home in the 400 block of Bellows Street. Allen, 26, confessed to being the shooter and pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.
Defense attorney Deborah Ellis said in her closing argument Tuesday that the case "begins and ends with Aaron Allen."
Allen and his friends fantasized for hours about how to kill people, she said. They talked of ways of getting rid of a body -- such as dumping it at a pig farm or immersing it in lye. It was no game, Ellis said.
He didn't need Heather Horst's help to get into the house; the back door was broken. After he shot Brandon Horst, "he needs to save himself," Ellis said. That was why he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, thereby avoiding first-degree murder, she said. Both sides agreed he would be sentenced June 10 to the maximum allowed under state law: 40 years in prison.
"He got himself an out date," she told the jury. "He got himself the deal of all deals."
But the jury didn't buy it.
Kugler said plenty of evidence, including testimony from others, corroborated Allen's story.
Allen was to wait in the basement until Brandon Horst fell asleep. He sent Heather Horst several emails during the two hours he spent there, telling her to hurry and remarking worriedly that the dog was barking.
He then committed a "cold-blooded execution just after midnight ... at the request and direction of this defendant out of her selfishness and her greed," Kugler told the jury.
Meanwhile, Horst went with her friend Angela Penoncello -- who was also Brandon Horst's step-sister and Allen's fiancee -- to Walgreens to cement her alibi, Kugler said. Horst couldn't have been at the house when Brandon was murdered, she told St. Paul police Sgt. Jake Peterson, because she was captured on the store's surveillance video.
The jury saw the video, which showed Horst and Penoncello "meandering" through the store, leaving, then returning over a period of 20 minutes. Their pace picked up sharply, Kugler said, when Heather Horst got a text message from Allen.
It said, simply, "Done."
The text came in at 12:35 a.m. The two women were seen pulling out of the Walgreens parking lot at 12:37.
Allen testified that Heather Horst complained to him about her husband, alleging that he physically abused her and caused two miscarriages by beating her. Allen himself was abused as a child, and had seen his mother beaten. He had no time for bullies.
Others heard Horst's complaints, too, Kugler said. They included Steven Koderick and his girlfriend Zubrina Phillips, who stayed with Allen and Penoncello at their South St. Paul apartment. Penoncello also heard about Brandon Horst's alleged abuse -- which culminated, Heather Horst announced Aug. 4, with a beating that ended her most recent pregnancy.
She came to Allen's apartment that morning, about 14 hours before the murder, and said she had miscarried.
Allen became enraged and "saw red," he testified. The two decided that Allen would kill Brandon Horst, that night, Kugler said.
Allen initially thought he would have help. He got two would-be conspirators, friends Koderick and Sean Keppers, to agree to hold Horst down while Allen slit his throat. Heather Horst took them to Kmart, where she bought them black clothes, gloves and shoes, the prosecutor said.
The two men testified about the plan and Horst's involvement. They pulled out of the scheme as the time grew nearer. They were not charged in the crime.
Kugler said Horst showed no emotion throughout her questioning by police, through a ride in the back of a squad car with Penoncello and throughout the trial.
Ellis, Horst's attorney, said Horst was in shock after her husband was murdered. She did cry during questioning, but the interview was not played for the jury, Ellis said. Penoncello was the truly unemotional one, considering Brandon Horst was her step-brother, the attorney said.
Several members of the jury re-entered the courtroom as family and friends read statements about what Brandon Horst meant to them.
Sgt. John Echert, a senior chaplain with the Air National Guard, said Horst's death affected the members of his unit more than the death of any other member had.
"We lost a highly respected member and a friend to many," Echert said.
Heather Horst's grandparents left with her attorney after the hearing. They declined comment.
Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522. Follow her at twitter.com/emilygurnon.