GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — It’s been more than two years since St. Paul resident Ricky Balsimo Jr. was murdered on Father’s Day, driven hundreds of miles north, dismembered and callously tossed in Lake Superior, where those responsible believed he’d never be found.
The plan likely would have succeeded if not for the persistence of the Balsimo family, who felt shunned by police and spent weeks pursuing their own investigation, ultimately helping bring the offenders to justice.
Still, time has done little to heal the trauma, as evidenced by a pair of sentencings Tuesday in Cook County District Court.
“I have to learn how to love and trust again,” his sister, Raquel Turner, said. “After this, I don’t know how to be a normal person. I don’t know how to get through a day without anger and hate.”
Two Northland residents who played active roles in covering up the murder after the fact were the first to receive their punishments, ahead of the killer’s sentencing next month.
Robert Thomas West, 43, who reportedly masterminded the dismemberment plot and disposed of the remains in several buckets, was handed a 15-year prison term from Judge Michael Cuzzo, who cited the South Range, Wis., man’s “particular cruelty and disregard for life.”
Meanwhile, 33-year-old Tommi Lynn Hintz, of Duluth, was given five years of probation, which could include jail time, for her role that included commissioning the boat that was used for the disposal.
The lingering impact of the crime was described by Balsimo family members in a trio of emotional statements to the court — though they expressed differing levels of hope for the two defendants.
“He was my hero,” Turner said of the 34-year-old father of three. “What they did to him can’t be undone. Nothing can ever bring Ricky back.”
Varying levels of involvement
Both West and shooter Jacob Colt Johnson, 37, of Superior, Wis., were convicted at separate trials earlier this year, while Hintz was the lone defendant to enter into a pretrial plea agreement last year.
The central facts of the killing and its aftermath were largely undisputed across all three cases. Rather, the key issue was a legal question as to whether Balsimo was shot in self-defense — a claim made by both West and Johnson and rejected by both juries.
According to court documents and testimony, Balsimo and Johnson were with two women in a moving car in the Twin Cities area when the killing occurred on June 20, 2021.
Defense attorneys pointed to evidence that the victim was impaired by methamphetamine, making threats and waving around a knife at the moment when Johnson fired at least four shots. But prosecutors portrayed Johnson as angry and annoyed with the victim, arguing there was no imminent threat that justified the taking of a life without so much as a warning.
West and Hintz were both contacted by Johnson later that same morning as he was driving north and indicated he needed gas and didn’t want to encounter police. He eventually arrived at West’s home and they placed a blanket over Balsimo’s body in the back seat of the car, leaving it parked in downtown Superior as Johnson attended a birthday party.
West later admitted that he recommended dismemberment, even going to Menards to purchase supplies including a new saw and cement. Johnson reportedly completed the dismemberment at an RV in the Bennett area, about 20 miles south of Superior, while West assisted in the destruction of evidence.
Hintz acknowledged that she took a trip with Johnson to the Hinckley casino the following night, discovering bullet holes in the passenger seat of Johnson’s Audi on the way back. And later, when contacted by West, she made arrangements to charter a boat out of Grand Portage.
Both Hintz and West drove to the small community near the Canadian border and West disposed of Balsimo’s remains in several 5-gallon buckets and a large tote, telling the boat operator he was getting rid of his grandmother’s belongings and a dog.
The encased remains were ultimately recovered several weeks later after the Balsimo family became frustrated with law enforcement and turned to private investigators at Duluth’s Applied Professional Services for assistance with their missing person report.
“I just wanted to know where my baby was,” mother Kim Balsimo said Tuesday. “When you look at the Earth, you don’t realize how big it is, yet how empty it is.”
West ‘treated the body like it was garbage’
In sentencing West, the judge pointed to what he described as a clear lack of remorse. He noted a “disturbing” statement the defendant made about having a long-established plan for what he would do if he ever needed to get rid of a dead body.
“You’ve done virtually everything but pull the trigger,” the judge said. “You treated the body like it was garbage. You showed absolutely no responsibility for that spark of like that used to exist. I’m at a loss of words for how to describe it.”
Rick Balsimo Sr., likewise, described West as a “sick individual.” The defendant at one point in the family’s investigation had even driven the victim’s father around in the same truck he had used to transport Balsimo’s body to Grand Portage.
The 15-year sentence was the maximum term that could be sought by Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Dan Vlieger and Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken after West entered a post-conviction agreement to testify in Johnson’s trial.
Defense attorneys Mike Ryan and Steve Hynum suggested a four-year prison term was more appropriate under the circumstances, noting his client had come forward to provide critical evidence to investigators on his own volition and had not actually participated in the killing.
While acknowledging the wrongfulness of his conduct, Ryan said West was acting under the belief that the killing was in self-defense.
The defendant, who was convicted of accomplice to second-degree murder and interference with a dead body, also addressed the court and Balsimo’s family, describing Ricky as a friend.
“I’m sorry for your loss and I wish I could take my involvement away,” West said, adding he believes in God and “it’s something I’ll face in the afterlife.”
But the Balsimo family, like the judge, wasn’t buying his last-minute claim of remorse.
“I hope you see his face when you go to sleep at night,” Turner said. “I hope it haunts you.”
Hintz given a second chance
Sentencing for Hintz was less dramatic, owing to the fact that her punishment was largely negotiated in advance as she pleaded guilty to aiding an offender.
Hintz remained in tears throughout much of Tuesday’s hearing, and received a measure of compassion from the Balsimo family, who maintained she should have been hit with stiffer charges but nonetheless gave her well wishes in the hallway afterward.
“I hope you find a way to change your life and be a better person,” Turner said. “Your child needs a mother. My brother has three kids who will never have a father.”
Vlieger and defense attorney Keith Shaw agreed that her conduct largely stemmed from the throes of addiction to methamphetamine, which Shaw said robbed her of her humanity. She has since maintained nearly 500 days of sobriety, been reunited with her young child and held stead employment at a motel.
“Nothing I can say is going to take a day of your pain away,” Hintz told the family. “I do apologize for my actions, and I’m sorry for your loss.”
Cuzzo, who will retire in October, stayed a four-year prison term in favor of five years of supervised probation. As a condition he ordered two 90-day jail stints, but said Hintz can argue to have those waived if she demonstrates to another judge that she is maintaining sobriety and a productive lifestyle.
The sentencings were the first opportunity for the Balsimo family to directly address the defendants. They will have another opportunity when Johnson appears for sentencing Sept. 11 before Cuzzo in Grand Marais.
While an end to the legal journey appears near, there is still additional business in Douglas County, Wis., where Johnson and West both face charges of mutilating a corpse.
“I’ve never hated life as much as I hate it today,” Rick Balsimo said. “I’ve been a loving person all my life, but I’ve become so hateful. That’s not me. That’s not who I want to be.”