Supreme Court upholds Wapiti man’s murder conviction

CJ Baker, Powell Tribune via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 8/5/21

Citing the “overwhelming” evidence against him, the Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld a Wapiti man’s years-old murder conviction.

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Supreme Court upholds Wapiti man’s murder conviction


POWELL — Citing the “overwhelming” evidence against him, the Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld a Wapiti man’s years-old murder conviction. 

Dennis Klingbeil shot and killed his wife, 75-year-old Donna Klingbeil, in August 2018 amid a dispute over how to divide their multi-million dollar estate. 

Dennis Klingbeil claimed it was an accident, but a 12-member Park County jury convicted him of first-degree murder in 2019; District Court Judge Bill Simpson later ordered Klingbeil to serve the rest of his life in prison. 

Klingbeil, who is now 79, appealed his conviction last year on two different points. He contended that Judge Simpson improperly allowed the jury to hear about an earlier dispute with Donna and that Park County prosecutors acted improperly when they had a medical expert say the death appeared to be a homicide rather than an accident. However, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that — even assuming Klingbeil was correct and those two pieces of evidence should not have been presented in court — it’s unlikely they would have made a difference. 

“The overwhelming evidence in this case precluded a reasonable probability of a more favorable verdict” for Klingbeil, Justice Kari Gray wrote in a portion of the 13-page decision. 

Klingbeil and Donna had been married for 43 years at the time he killed her, and Klingbeil said he loved her. However, they had been arguing bitterly over their $14 million estate, made up of rental properties around Cody and in Florida. 

It was not a new dispute: In May 2011, Donna summoned deputies from the Park County Sheriff’s Office to the couple’s Wapiti home. She told authorities then that, although he had made no threats, Klingbeil had gotten out a pistol amid an argument about money and a potential divorce. 

Judge Simpson found the incident was similar enough to the fatal shooting that jurors could hear about it, but Klingbeil argued on appeal that the judge was wrong. 

For its part, the Supreme Court sided with Simpson, saying Klingbeil’s complaints “do not establish the district court abused its discretion.”

Further, Justice Gray said Klingbeil was unable to show he was prejudiced by the decision, given the evidence against him. 

The Klingbeils’ dispute culminated on the night of Aug. 5, 2018. Around 7:40 p.m., Donna called 911 and hung up. When the Park County Sheriff’s Office called back, she assured a dispatcher that everything was OK, but less than two hours later, Dennis Klingbeil called his son and reported he’d shot Donna in the head. 

Klingbeil attempted to kill himself by swallowing a mixture of medications after the shooting, but survived. 

At trial, Klingbeil claimed he had accidentally shot his wife as he contemplated killing himself. 

However, Dr. Thomas Bennett, a forensic pathologist, testified that Donna Klingbeil’s death appeared to be a homicide and not an accident. 

On appeal, Dennis Klingbeil contended that it was inappropriate for the Park County Attorney’s Office to have the doctor offer that opinion. 

However, the Supreme Court held that there was little indication that remark changed the verdict. 

Justice Gray noted the testimony about the couple’s disintegrating relationship — including a reported comment from Klingbeil earlier in the day that he was “going to put an end to this tonight” — and Klingbeil’s own conflicting statements after the killing. 

“In later conversations with various people, he never alleged the shooting was accidental,” Gray wrote. “Instead, his versions of events were inconsistent and contradictory, ranging from a claim of temporary insanity to ‘I don’t remember.’” 

Further, the court noted Bennett’s finding that Klingbeil had shot his wife at point blank range, firing straight into her head. Even without the challenged testimony from the pathologist and the accounts of the 2011 argument, Justice Gray said the evidence “was sufficient to secure the jury’s verdict.” 

Justice Keith Kautz went further in a concurring opinion, saying there was nothing to indicate that the Park County Attorney’s Office acted improperly in asking Bennett about the manner of death. 

The county attorney’s office was represented at trial by Mike Blonigen, a veteran prosecutor from Casper brought on to assist with the case. Blonigen had offered Klingbeil a deal ahead of the trial, in which the defendant could have pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. 

However, Klingbeil rejected the offer and instead went to trial. 

At his later sentencing — where he received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole — Klingbeil said he wished he had taken the deal. 

Although he held millions of dollars worth of assets at time of the murder, Klingbeil generally lost control of his assets following the crime. He was represented on appeal by court-appointed public defenders.