by April Scheinoha
It’s been over a year and half since Alexandra Jo Ellingson, 23, was found dead in a fire-damaged Thief River Falls duplex. Devon James Pulczinski was sentenced Friday, Oct. 16 for Ellingson’s murder and the related arson.
Pulczinski, 24, Thief River Falls, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release for the felony charge of first degree murder – premeditated. That sentence is to be served concurrently with a 68-month prison sentence for felony first degree arson. No sentence was pronounced for the felony charge of second degree murder. While announcing the sentence, Judge Tamara Yon noted the conviction of second degree murder and the aggravating factors that had been presented by the state.
“These families are ripped apart and suffering,” Yon said.
Pulczinski was given credit for 568 days served in jail. He was also ordered to provide a DNA sample. Pulczinski was ordered to not use or possess firearms, ammunition or explosives. He was ordered to pay a total of $185 in fees and fines. A certificate of restitution has been filed for $10,551.40; however, the right to restitution remains open for 30 days. Assistant Minnesota Attorney General John Gross told Yon that more restitution may be requested in the case. If more restitution were requested, Pulczinski would have 30 days to file an objection.
Ellingson’s family has also requested no contact with Pulczinski. The Minnesota Department of Corrections will have to rule on that request.
Ellingson, 23, Thief River Falls, was found dead after Thief River Falls firefighters extinguished a fire March 27, 2019, at 307-1/2 Arnold Ave. S. She was found in the kitchen of Pulczinski’s upper level apartment.
An autopsy determined that Ellingson died from asphyxia due to plastic bags that had been placed over her head. The manner of death was homicide. A plastic bag, secured with a cord, had also been placed in Ellingson’s mouth.
A Pennington County jury found Pulczinski guilty of the charges Thursday, Sept. 24. The jury had listened to seven days of testimony before starting deliberations Wednesday, Sept. 23.
During the sentencing hearing Friday, Gross requested that Yon follow the statutory mandate – life imprisonment – for the charge of first degree murder. Gross, who prosecuted the case with Pennington County Attorney Seamus Duffy, asked that Yon note the verdict for second degree murder. He indicated that the charges would involve an automatic appeal.
For the arson charge, Gross requested 48 months in prison to be served consecutively with the sentence of life imprisonment. In making that request, he said Ricardo Martinez and his three children were at home in the downstairs apartment and may have also perished in the fire. Gross also cited the risk to Pulczinski’s next-door neighbors. Their home sustained melted siding in the fire. Finally, he referred to the emotional damage inflicted upon Ellingson’s grandmother and great aunt, who were waiting for her outside the home and then saw the flames.
Pulczinski’s attorney, Anthony Bussa, told Yon that this case may not have occurred but for the use and abuse of drugs by both Pulczinski and Ellingson. He noted the ripple effects this case has had on both families. Prior to sentencing, Bussa had apparently provided four witness statements, noting that his client is a nice, caring person but for this infectious disease. He also referred to his client’s lack of a criminal history as well as Pulczinski’s age and Ellingson’s age.
Bussa added that he couldn’t make an argument for a prison sentence related to the murder charge. With regard to the arson charge, Bussa requested that Yon sentence his client to concurrent sentences. He said the same incident and behavior were involved in both charges.
Yon then gave Pulczinski an opportunity to speak. Pulczinski declined to say anything.
Then Yon announced the sentences. She said that Pulczinski probably thinks if only he had taken the train to drug treatment. Days before Ellingson’s murder, Pulczinski’s mother and stepfather had driven him to the Amtrak station. From there, he was supposed to go to drug treatment in Illinois. Instead, Pulczinski contacted a friend, who brought him back to Thief River Falls at his request.
Victim impact statements were also read prior to sentencing. Read what Ellingson’s relatives had to say in the next edition of The Times.
During the trial, many individuals testified that Pulczinski was angry with Ellingson and others. In particular, he was angry with her because he believed she had stolen from his unlocked apartment shortly after it had been raided for drugs. A wooden stick featuring Ellingson’s name and the names of three men was found in the apartment after the fire. Multiple people testified that those names belonged to people with whom Pulczinski was angry. Neither Pulczinski nor Ellingson were involved in the raid, which took place five days before her death.
Both Pulczinski and Noah Hawkins testified in connection with the case. Pulczinski said Hawkins accidentally killed Ellingson with a choke hold and Pulczinski decided to make it look like a robbery gone bad since people believed Pulczinski would be leaving for drug treatment. Pulczinski testified that he grabbed plastic bags, an electrical cord and duct tape, telling Hawkins to tape up her head. A partial fingerprint belonging to Hawkins was found on tape affixed to the plastic bags. Hawkins, who was given use immunity for his testimony, testified that he had handled plastic bags while folding laundry in the messy apartment earlier that day. The plastic bags contained nothing suitable for further fingerprint examination.
Hawkins testified that Pulczinski killed Ellingson in front of him. He said that Pulczinski initially used a cord to choke Ellingson and then switched to a choke hold. He noted Pulczinski was responsible for what happened to Ellingson’s body afterward.
Hawkins admitted doing nothing to prevent Ellingson’s death. He lied and omitted information in two previous statements, eventually telling law enforcement two months later that he had been at the apartment. However, he hadn’t been told about the partial fingerprint at that time.
Both men said a rear naked choke hold was used to kill Ellingson; however, the chief Ramsey County medical examiner testified that a choke hold wouldn’t necessarily be seen in an autopsy. Choke holds are used in Mixed Martial Arts. Both men have experience in MMA with Hawkins having more experience in the sport.
Other evidence, including Facebook messages, text messages, jail video visits and jail phone calls, was presented.
Two friends had contacted law enforcement about Pulczinski’s whereabouts and made arrangements for authorities to stop their vehicle four hours after the fire. At that time, Pulczinski admitted that it was him, not his friends, that law enforcement was seeking. No one had told him why the vehicle had been stopped.