A Minnesota woman has been convicted of the murder of her 6-year-old son, just 10 days after regaining full custody of him. The case, which took place in Hennepin County District Court, raises concerns about the actions of child welfare workers.
Julissa Thaler, a 29-year-old resident of Spring Park with a history of mental illness and drug abuse, asked a store clerk for ammunition that would “blow the biggest hole.” The jury took less than two hours to find her guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Eli Hart.
Given the seriousness of the case, crisis counselors were made available to the jurors. This information was reported by CBS Minnesota.
The charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 16.
Investigators said Eli was shot inside his mother’s car in a parking lot at Lake Minnetonka Regional Park in Minnetrista. Police found the body in the trunk May 20 after pulling her over for a traffic violation.
During closing arguments, defense lawyer Bryan Leary said she participated in the boy’s death but was not the one who shot him. He said no eyewitnesses, photos or videos connected her to the killing, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
“She’s not charged with the crime they have proved,” Leary said. “She destroyed evidence, lied to police, ran away, but they have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the gun was in her hands when it was fired nine times into her son.”
Thaler did not testify, and her defense called no witnesses.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Dan Allard said overwhelming evidence, including cellphone data linking her to all the sites involved in the death, showed Thaler killed her son, either for life insurance money, because of her mental health or after the stress of a custody battle with the boy’s father.
He noted that the boy’s DNA was found in Thaler’s hair and on her skin and clothes. If if she didn’t shoot him, Allard said, why didn’t she tell police when pulled over, “Oh my God, someone shot my son – he’s in the trunk!”
Her ex-boyfriend, Tory Hart, a bait and tackle shop manager from Chetek, Wisconsin, has filed a lawsuit alleging that child welfare workers ignored warning signs before his son’s death. He had filed a petition seeking custody shortly before the killing and at trial told jurors his son was “everything to me.”
Hart’s lawsuit and other documents obtained by the Star Tribune spell out a string of issues.
Among other things, police responded to Thaler’s Farmington home 21 times in 10 months, she was arrested for stealing drugs from a health clinic and had to find a new drug-testing facility because of “bizarre behavior.”
Thaler lost custody of Eli twice, first in October 2020 and then for most of 2021.
Robert Pikkarainen, another ex-boyfriend of Thaler, testified at trial that she and Eli had an argument the night before he died because he didn’t want to go to bed.
She left the apartment and put a recently purchased shotgun in the car, grabbed her son and went downstairs, he said.
Pikkarainen, who was not charged, said he fell asleep and asked where she had gone when he woke up the next morning.
“She was kind of like, ‘I had to go do something,'” Pikkarainen said.
Later that day Thaler was stopped while driving with one tire completely gone, the rim scraping the road and the back windshield blown out.
Officers escorted her home before they continued searching her vehicle. Eli’s body was in the trunk wrapped in a blanket.
A judge determined that Thaler was mentally competent to stand trial and can assist with her own defense. She was offered a plea deal soon after, but rejected the offer to plead guilty to the second-degree murder charge and serve 40 years in prison. In Minnesota, it’s a formality that if you’re found guilty of first-degree murder, you spend the rest of your life in prison without parole.
CBS Minnesota reported that Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty released a statement soon after the verdict was announced, saying in part: “Eli’s brutal murder is one of the most horrific cases I have encountered in 30 years working in the criminal legal system. Nothing will ever fill the emptiness Eli’s father and other loved ones now live with every day, but I’m hopeful this verdict will make it just a bit easier to remember Eli as the toothless, happy, smiling little boy we have seen in photos.”