Ex-boyfriend of missing Jermain Charlo is charged with illegally possessing guns after prior conviction.
MISSOULA — In a bench trial, April 26 and 27, Michael DeFrance, the ex-boyfriend Jermain Charlo, and father of their two sons, was found guilty by U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen of multiple firearms crimes, including being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm and three counts of false statement during a firearms transaction. While the trial was not related to Jermain Charlo’s disappearance, it did highlight the nature of her relationship with DeFrance in 2010 to 2013.
DeFrance, who is not currently in custody, faces up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release on each count. His sentencing is scheduled for September 2023. While this verdict is not directly related to Jermain Charlo’s disappearance, the timing of their tumultuous relationship was key to the trial.
During the trial, Jermain’s family, supporters, and the entire courtroom had to come to terms with the fact that Jermain herself could not speak on her own behalf. Instead, they had to rely on witnesses and evidence presented in court to piece together the relationship DeFrance and Charlo had leading up to the PFMA charge in 2013.
The court documents read, “Charlo had not been located as of the date of the order, and her disappearance was being treated as an open case, making her ‘unavailable to testify at trial.’”
“These verdicts are victories for Montana women, domestic partners, and families,” said U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich. “The verdicts show that those like DeFrance who illegally possess firearms despite having been convicted of a domestic violence crime and make false statements on firearms forms so he could obtain guns at a pawn shop will be held accountable for their actions. I thank Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jennifer S. Clark and Timothy J. Racicot, along with the FBI, for their extraordinarily hard work in this case.”
The trial centered around the relationship between DeFrance and Charlo during 2010-2013, with a focus on the Partner Family Member Assault (PFMA) that occurred in 2013.
On April 13, 2013, the Sander Office County Sheriff’s Office received a call from dispatch to the Dixon agency involving Charlo and DeFrance. According to Charlo’s Police interview, DeFrance had yelled at her and physically assaulted her by shoving her into a van, holding her down, punching her in the ear, temple, and cheekbone, throwing her to the ground, spitting in her face, and verbally abusing her before walking off. DeFrance admitted to police his violence towards Jermain on that night.
On April 15, 2013, DeFrance appeared before Justice of the Peace Donald Stine in Sander County Justice Court for his initial appearance. During the appearance, DeFrance was informed that a conviction for certain offenses may result in the loss of various rights regarding firearms under state and federal laws. DeFrance acknowledged this by signing and dating the form.
On May 6, 2013, Justice Strine approved a plea agreement between the State of Montana and DeFrance. As part of the agreement, DeFrance pleaded guilty to the PFMA charge. During the guilty plea hearing on May 6, Justice Strine reviewed with DeFrance the information contained, which included a checkmark next to the statement that read: “I understand that other consequences of a guilty plea are the loss of firearms.” The form also stated that DeFrance was pleading guilty to the charge because he had caused bodily injury to his girlfriend on April 14, 2013, in Sanders County. DeFrance signed and dated the form.
During the bench trial, DeFrance’s court-appointed lawyer for 2013 PFMA case stated that he did not inform DeFrance whether he had lost his firearm rights because of the conviction, and he believed that his representation was ineffective because of this. Justice Strine also testified that any advice he gave DeFrance about his firearm rights would have been based on Montana law rather than federal law.
Cash 1 Pawn is a federally licensed firearms dealer and customers who want to purchase firearms at their Missoula store are required by law to fill out a 4473 form. This form is then sent to the National Instant Criminal Backgroud Check System (NICS) operation center, which conducts background checks on individuals who wish to own a firearm. NICS performs a background check on the buyer to verify they do not have a criminal record or any other disqualifying factors.
If the background check reveals that the person attempting to purchase a firearm is potentially prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law, the transaction may be delayed to allow for further investigation. Additional research may involve contacting other sources such as courts or law enforcement agencies for more information or documentation. However, according to court documents, sometimes investigations may fail to resume or complete before the NICS system “purges” the information after 88 days.
Steven Feuerstein, a witness in the case, testified that NICS conducted over 300 million background checks for firearms purchases last year.
According to court documents, DeFrance completed a 4473 form at Cash Pawn in Missoula on February 24, 2018, March 2, 2018, and August 25, 2018
DeFrance responded “no” to the question on all three 4473 forms regarding whether he had ever been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, according to court documents. On February 24, 2018, NICS issued a “Delay” response, which was later changed to “Proceed” on March 1, 2018. On March 2, 2018, DeFrance acquired a Stevens Arms 200 rifle and completed a second 4473 form for a Smith & Wesson 60 Lady Smith revolver. Once again, he responded “no” to the question about misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. On March 3, 2018, NICS issued a “Delay” response, and since no additional response was provided within three business days, DeFrance retrieved the gun on March 10, 2018. On August 25, 2018, DeFrance filled out a 4473 form to redeem a Remington 770 rifle and, for the third time, answered “no” to the question about misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. On August 25, NICS issued another “Delay” response, which was later changed to “Proceed” on August 30, 2018. According to court documents, the NTNs (NICS Transaction Number, the unique number that will be assigned to each valid background check inquiry received by the NICS) associated with DeFrance’s 4473 forms were not in the database of the Denial Enforcement and NICS Intelligence Branch of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, indicating that none of his transactions were denied.
Cash 1 Pawn was not aware of all the relevant historical facts and the court concluded that the false statement on each 4473 forms led Cash 1 PAWN into believing the firearms could be lawfully sold to DeFrance, according to court documents.
On October 2, 2018, Detective Baker and the Missoula Police Department executed a search warrant at DeFrance’s home to locate a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver. During the search, the police also seized a .243 caliber Remington rifle and a .22 Keystone Arms rifle. DeFrance claimed ownership of the .357 revolver but stated that the .243 rifle belonged to his father and was next to his bed.
According to court documents, Baker asked DeFrance, “And you know you’re not supposed to have guns, right?” and DeFrance responded, “I was never clear on that.”
Because DeFrance admitted to owning the fully loaded Smith & Wesson revolver and acknowledged the presence of the Remington rifle next to his bed, the court concluded that he knowingly possessed the Smith & Wesson revolver, the ammunition inside the Smith & Wesson revolver, and the Remington rifle on October 2, 2018.
Furthermore, since all three firearms seized during the October 2, 2018 search were not manufactured in the State of Montana, the court concluded that these firearms traveled in interstate commerce to arrive in Montana.
“Similarly situation to a spouse of Charlo”
Based on court documents, at the time DeFrance was accused of possessing the firearms and ammunition, and when the Second Superseding Indictment was filed, “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” was defined by federal law as a misdemeanor offense that involves the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, by a current or former spouse, parent or guardian of the victim, someone who shares a child with the victim, someone who has cohabited or is cohabiting with the victim as a spouse, parent or guardian, or a person similarly situated to a spouse, parent or guardian of the victim.
Neither party presented evidence that at the time of the PFMA on April 13-14, 2013, DeFrance was Charlo’s spouse, former spouse, cohabiting with her, had cohabited with her as a spouse, or shared a child in common with her.
During the trial, the prosecutor called witnesses, such as Charlo’s family members, who testified that Charlo spent a significant amount of time on DeFrance’s property before and after the PFMA in 2013, stayed overnight, left items and a pet there, and became pregnant at some point, although the pregnancy was terminated. Some of Charlo’s family members and friends also testified that DeFrance was the father. However, DeFrance’s parents testified otherwise.
According to court documents, Charlo told her mother, aunts, and others that DeFrance was the father.
During the trial, Jennifer and Shawn DeFrance, father of Michael DeFrance, testified that they did not believe that DeFrance was the father of the child. When questioned about being aware of the pregnancy or his thoughts on the situation, he said he didn’t believe it was Defrance’s.
Shawn DeFrance denied that Charlo kept any items at his house except for art supplies, and he also denied that Charlo spent the night in the camper or that she was living in it. The court documents state, “The court finds that this testimony is not credible based on the witness’s manner while testifying, other evidence contradicting the witness’s testimony, and the reasonableness of the witness’s testimony in light of all the evidence.”
Jenifer DeFrance denied that Charlo lived in the DeFrances’ house at any time in 2012, denied that Charlo spent time in the camper with DeFrance, and even denied recalling that she occasionally visited him at the camper. The court documents state, “This testimony, which is contradicted by voluminous evidence, including her husband’s testimony and her own testimony on cross-examination, has no credibility in the court’s view. Additional factors that affected Jennifer DeFrance’s credibility are the opportunity for her to see or hear the things she testified to, her manner while testifying, and the reasonableness of her testimony considering all the evidence.”
The court concluded that the evidence presented at the trial proved beyond a reasonable doubt that on April 13-14, 2013, DeFrance was in a similar situation to a spouse of Charlo. The Court determined that DeFrance and Charlo were in a serious and long-term romantic relationship at the time of the PFMA. The court also found that their family and friends were aware of their romantic relationship. Additionally, the Court concluded that it was highly unlikely that their relationship would have continued in the same manner after the PFMA if it was just casual and non-committal.
The court concluded its verdict on May 1, 2023. The government proved beyond reasonable doubt DeFrance is guilty of the firearms violations.
DeFrance has not been arrested or charged in connection to Jermain’s disappearance.
A Measure of Justice for the Family of Jermain Charlo
Despite five years passing since Jermain Charlo’s disappearance in June 2018, the investigation into what happened to her is ongoing.
The podcast “Stolen,” hosted by Connie Walker, offers insight into the life of Charlo. Through ten episodes, the podcast presents a timeline of events leading up to her disappearance in June 2018, and after, featuring interviews, official documents, and other evidence that paint a vivid picture of Jermain’s life.
According to the podcast, Charlo was on the path to gaining her independence and had ended her relationship with DeFrance a year before she went missing in June 2018.
Jermain’s loved ones, family, and officials continue to search for her remains, as they have concluded that she is no longer alive. Despite the devastating loss, their determination to find her and bring closure to the case remains steadfast. Jermain’s family sees DeFrance’s recent guilty verdict as a small piece of justice.
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