AITKIN — A 36-year-old Swatara man admitted Thursday, April 15, to being the one responsible for the strangulation death of a 35-year-old Outing woman during a plea hearing in Aitkin County District Court in Aitkin.
Joshua Karjala pleaded guilty to second-degree unintentional murder in the death of Michelle Mae in front of Judge David F. Hermerding in an in-person courtroom hearing. A jury trial for the Swatara man was scheduled to begin June 14. However, Karjala pleaded guilty to the murder charge in an amended criminal complaint.
Unintentional murder is causing the death of a human being without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense other than criminal sexual conduct in the first- or second-degree with force, the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office stated in a news release.
Karjala will be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. June 1, where the maxiumum sentence he could receive is 27 1/2 years in prison — or 330 months — for Mae’s murder.
Law enforcement became involved when Mae was reported missing when her family had no contact with her after Oct. 3, 2019. Upon the location of Mae’s black 2004 Jeep Liberty on Oct. 4, an investigation was started and searches began. On Oct. 5, Karjala was arrested for violating his probation and was taken into custody.
Karjala was charged Nov. 7, 2019, with felony second-degree murder in connection to Mae’s death.
The plea agreement hearing
Hermerding asked Karjala if he had enough time with his attorneys — Steven L. Bergeson and Charles Frey — to go over his plea agreement, if he understood the murder charge and that he was giving up his rights to go to a jury trial of his peers. Karjala stated he did. Hermerding had Bergeson go over the plea agreement with Karjala, talking about the night of Mae’s death.
Before they began, according to court transcripts, the court acknowledged Karjala didn't have a perfect recollection of everything that happened that night and was not making any claims that he was innocent.
Bergeson asked Karjala about the night of Oct. 2, 2019, when Mae came over to his house. Karjala said they used drugs and engaged in what he called rough sex, including him choking her.
“At a certain point I realized that she was ... not responding to me. I said something to her, and she did not respond. At that point I, I panicked. I sat her up and tried to revive her … she didn’t seem to be breathing at that point. I panicked. I laid her down at the edge of my bed, after sitting her up and shaking her. ... I assumed at a certain point that the police would be coming to my house because Michelle had a safety net and stuff in place, that if she didn’t call her friend at a certain time her friend was instructed to call the police. Apparently this is something she does,” Karjala said, according to court transcripts.
Karjala continued, “... I assume the police were going to be coming to my house. I grabbed all my drugs and I tried eating them. I ate probably roughly 2 grams of meth laced with ecstasy, and I blacked out. ... When I woke up I panicked. I tried hiding her body. I picked her up and I put her in her jacket and tried moving her ... away from the bed and she fell to the floor. ... I decided to move her without her jacket because it was impossible to do so with the jacket.
“I brought her to my back bedroom and lowered her down through a trapdoor with the intentions of hiding her because I didn’t want ... cops to see her. ... I ended up dropping her slightly into the hole with the trapdoor. ... A couple days later I finally moved her into the final place where she was found by police.”
Karjala admitted to intentionally choking her, but not with the intent to cause her death. He said he had no recollection of the other injuries and bruises to her body.
Karjala’s attorney asked him if he understood the sexual encounter may have started out as consensual, then at some point when he damaged her neck it became non-consensual. Karjala said he did understand. Karjala also stated he understood hiding her body from police is considered an aggravated factor.
The prosecutors — Daniel R. Vlieger, assistant attorney general, and Lisa R. Rakotz, senior assistant Aitkin County attorney — were satisfied with Karjala’s testimony and had no further questions.