Minnesota jury finds babysitter guilty of manslaughter after infant died in fire
VIRGINIA, Minn.—After less than two hours of deliberation Thursday, Sept. 13, a jury in State District Court in Virginia found Jesse Lee Bonacci-Koski guilty on all counts, including one charge of manslaughter/child endangerment, another of manslaughter/child neglect plus theft of a motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance in the fifth degree.
The 26-year-old Hibbing man's convictions stem from the death of Bentley Koski, his 11-month-old nephew. The child was presumed to be in his care but was left unattended when a house fire claimed the boy's life on the morning of Aug. 2, 2017.
The prosecution rested its case Thursday morning after calling four St. Louis County Sheriff's deputies to the witness stand, as well as a man who discovered the Jeep that Bonacci-Koski allegedly stole from a neighbor to flee the fire scene.
Bonacci-Koski decided not to testify, nor did the defense call any witnesses of its own, choosing instead to send the case directly to the jury.
More details emerged Thursday about the events of Aug. 2.
Three officers testified that Bonacci-Koski told them after his arrest that he had walked to a nearby bar called the Benchwarmer to access Wi-Fi service that morning, as none was available in his brother's Tower home, where he had agreed watch over Bentley. Tower is about 87 miles north of Duluth.
Apparently, the boy's mother and father — Krista Swanson and Cody Koski — had been expected to return home by 6 a.m. but were overdue when Bonacci-Koski walked to the bar in an effort to contact them.
But Sgt. Steve Borcher of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office testified that Bonacci-Koski confided that he had left the boy behind to go get high. A spoon found in a knapsack Bonacci-Koski took with him tested positive for traces of methamphetamine, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Borcher said Bonacci-Koski still appeared to be under the influence of a controlled substance after he was apprehended. He noted the suspect couldn't stand still, was "very fidgety," spoke in a rapid-fire fashion and was constantly licking his lips — a sign of a dry mouth that often accompanies the use of methamphetamine. Borcher also described Bonacci-Koski as "bug eyed," explaining that he looked like he was stuck in a startled state.
A recording of a call Bonacci-Koski made after his arrest to a woman identified as his girlfriend also was introduced as evidence. In it, the suspect adamantly denied an officer's account that he had admitted to leaving the boy alone to go get high.
Bonacci-Koski told the woman he had been without sleep for about a week prior to the fire and had "blacked out."
When she asked him what had happened, Bonacci-Koski told his girlfriend: "I made a terrible f---ing decision. I made the decision to leave, and something f---ing terrible happened."
In her summation, Assistant County Attorney Jessica Fralich said: "The issue is not if he left to get high or to get Wi-Fi. The issue is the fact that he left. Period."
She also noted that, according to the account of events he told to law enforcement officers, Bonacci-Koski returned to the home upon hearing sirens but panicked when he saw firefighters and police on the scene.
Fralich said Bonacci-Koski didn't tell anyone that Bentley had been left in a crib on the second floor of the house, and the boy was only later discovered unresponsive on the scene after the fire had been extinguished. Firefighters thought the residence was empty at the time and testified they would have approached the situation differently had they known of an infant on the second floor.
The fire appears to have started in the kitchen, but the exact cause was never determined.
Fralich said that knowing there were outstanding warrants for his arrest, Bonacci-Koski "covered his butt and ran" when he saw officers on the scene that day.
Bonacci-Koski's public defender, J.D. Schmid, agreed his client had made poor choices but contended Bonacci-Koski could not have reasonably foreseen the house fire would occur during his brief absence. He also suggested Bonacci-Koski may well have perished in the fire's thick smoke, as well.
"The state hasn't proved that if Mr. Bonacci-Koski had made the choice to stay in the house that this child would be alive," Schmid said. For that matter, Schmid said it's also unclear that notifying firefighters of Bentley's presence in the burning house would have resulted in his successful rescue either.
Schmid said his client had owned up to stealing a car, possessing drugs and leaving his nephew alone in the house.
"He acknowledged that was a mistake, and that's a mistake he's going to have to live with the rest of his life. There's an urge to speculate about what would have happened if Mr. Bonacci-Koski would have made all the right choices," Schmid said, adding that his client would face those questions forever.
But he told jurors: "Speculation is different than proof, and you need to make your decision based on proof."
Fralich agreed that Bonacci-Koski had no way of knowing the house would catch fire while he was gone but suggested he was wrong to leave an 11-month-old alone in a crib. She said that if only he had taken Bentley with him, the boy would likely be alive today.
Bonacci-Koski's sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 24.