Thomas Howard Wendt was bound over for trial Wednesday on first-degree murder charges in the shooting deaths of three Mount Pleasant residents.
In a preliminary hearing, County Prosecutor Larry Burdick requested that the charges filed against the triple-homicide suspect be amended from three counts of open murder to three counts of premeditated first-degree murder.
If convicted, Wendt faces life in prison for each count.
Wendt also is charged with three counts of a felony firearm violation.
According to police, Wendt used a shotgun March 5 to kill his ex-wife Vicki Keller-Wendt, 45; her niece, Brandie Lea Keller, 20; and Keller-Wendt’s friend, Douglas McCoy, 50, outside the Isabella County Trial Court building, 300 N. Main St.
A formal arraignment is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. April 5 in front of Presiding Judge Paul H. Chamberlain, said Lance Dexter, the court’s administrator.
The prosecution called five witnesses to testify at Wednesday’s hearing. The defense did not call any witnesses.
In a preliminary hearing, prosecution presents evidence to try to convince the judge there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it.
Rhonda Young, Wendt’s former co-worker, said she had known Wendt for only one year, but three months into their working relationship, he began to make statements about harming his ex-wife.
“He said he was going to kill the bitch,” Young said.
She testified that Wendt made similar statements about six or seven times during their yearlong friendship.
In late February, Young said she was leaving work when Wendt approached her at her car, visibly upset.
“He was upset and afraid he was going to do jail time,” she said. “He said he wasn’t going to do jail time for her. He was going to kill her first and kill himself.”
Before Keller-Wendt divorced her estranged husband in 2000, she obtained a personal protection order to keep him away. In court records, she said Wendt followed her, slashed her tires and called her dozens of times a day.
On Sept. 19, Wendt pleaded no contest to an obscene phone call charge. He was sentenced to four months probation and ordered to have no contact with Keller-Wendt. In early January, Keller-Wendt notified police that as she was talking on her cell phone in her car, Wendt yelled obscenities at her and Keller, who was with Keller-Wendt at the time.
Because contact with Keller-Wendt was a violation of his probation, a probate court hearing was scheduled for 11 a.m. March 5.
The three victims were on their way to testify against Wendt when they were shot.
Officer Charlie Lyon of the Mount Pleasant Police Department said the four were to give testimony in regard to a probation violation. Wendt had a history in the courts, including a domestic violence charge.
Young said that weeks prior to March 5, Wendt told her he would cause harm to Keller-Wendt during the March 5 hearing.
“In court, he was going to jump over the bailiff, snap her neck and make the cops shoot him,” she said.
During cross-examination by Wendt’s court-appointed attorney Mark G. Kowalczyk, Young said Wendt was a leader at their place of work, PAULSTRA, an Ithaca-based company that makes anti-vibration products for cars.
She said Wendt tried to organize the factory employees to bring in a union.
Young said she believes Wendt was singled out to take a drug test in retaliation for his involvement with union talks. Wendt failed the drug test and was subsequently fired.
Detective William Griffin of the Mount Pleasant Police Department said when he arrived in the parking lot after the shooting, he spoke with Ed Williams, who was to serve as a character witness for Wendt that day.
“He was very upset, bordering on hysterical,” Griffin said of Williams. “He kept saying ‘I can’t believe he did this. I can’t believe he did this.’”
Williams told Griffin he was in the parking lot at the time of the shooting, but did not see it happen. He only heard the shots.
The shots, Griffin said, came from a 12-gauge shotgun that fired 32-caliber, buckshot pellets. Buckshot differs from regular bullets, or slugs, in that it is comprised of several small steel bearings that spray in a fan-like manner when fired.
Sgt. Scott Hrcka of the Michigan State Police Lansing Forensic Laboratory said one shotgun shell was found in the parking lot. Because it was snowing that day, tire tracks also were found at the scene exiting the lot.
Hrcka said police tracked Wendt to his home in Weidman and found a shotgun shell in a gold-tan Suburban registered to Wendt.
After Wendt’s arrest, authorities found a shotgun in his home at 7820 Wilderness Drive. The weapon was loaded with one round still in the chamber.
Police also found a notepad containing a four-page letter, signed by Wendt, addressed to his mother and sister. Burdick asked that Hrcka read the letter in full for the record.
“‘Vicki will never bother you again,’” Hrcka read. “‘I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done.’
“‘The whore has taken it out on you. ... I promise no one will look at the whore’s face again. She won’t have one. ... You will not have to live in fear of the junky whore.’
“‘If I went to jail, the whore would still be alive to torment you,’” Hrcka read. “‘After today, have no fear, she will be dead and I will be free of my pain and suffering. ... Please don’t grieve for me.’
“‘If I still had my job, I might be able to get through this. ... I can’t fight it anymore. ... The court system can’t do anything to her, so I will.’
“‘I would give anything to start over, ... but I can’t.’
“‘Hopefully, I will be able to kill Doug McCoy,’” Hrcka read.
Other witnesses included CMU Police Officer Leo Mioduszewski and Mount Pleasant Police Detective David Tuma.