MONTICELLO — A Piatt County judge found a Springfield man guilty of murder in the January 2021 fatal shooting of a Hammond homeowner who discovered an early-morning burglary in progress in his garage.

Following a bench trial, Judge Dana Rhoades pronounced Jerome Schmidt, 19, guilty Tuesday morning at the Piatt County Courthouse.

“The evidence does not support that Jerome Schmidt was acting in self-defense, or that he made an overt act of withdrawal from the commission of a forcible felony,” Rhoades said.

Two other defendants, Blayton Cota, 20, and a juvenile, 17, were also charged with the first-degree murder of Michael Brown, 64.

Cota still faces trial and is due in court Jan. 23. The 17-year-old testified against Schmidt in exchange for pleading guilty to residential burglary.

Testimony in Schmidt’s trial was that Schmidt, Cota and the juvenile were burglarizing garages and buildings in central Illinois on the morning of Jan. 26, 2021, Rhoades said.

Around 3 a.m., Mr. Brown’s wife, Linda, received an alert from their security system on her iPad and discovered that three people were peering into the detached garage on their property.

She told her husband, who put in his hearing aids, put on his glasses and took his Glock pistol to the garage, according to testimony.

There, the 17-year-old testified that Mr. Brown confronted Schmidt and Cota and forced them to raise their hands and get on their knees in a corner.

When the juvenile, who was trying to hide, made a noise, Mr. Brown was distracted, and Cota tried to escape.

Schmidt testified that Mr. Brown fired once at Cota, missing him, and then Schmidt, who was still on his knees in the corner, fired at Mr. Brown with a stolen 9 mm gun.

The first shot apparently hit Mr. Brown in the right arm, forcing him to drop his weapon.

Schmidt then fired more than a dozen times, hitting Mr. Brown at least six times, the testimony revealed.

Rhoades said the fact that the three defendants carried a weapon disqualified them from the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

“Michael Brown had three gunshot wounds to his back, which contradicts the testimony given by Jerome Schmidt,” she said.

“He had one gunshot wound to the right back and two gunshot wounds to the left lower back. This contradicts Jerome Schmidt’s testimony that Mr. Brown had turned around to aim his firearm at Jerome Schmidt.”

Schmidt looked down at the table as the judge read her verdict.

Rhoades said she found it difficult to sort the truth from lies from the stories the three defendants told police.

Schmidt testified in his own defense.

The juvenile was offered the plea deal in return for his testimony against Schmidt, and Cota invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself by testifying.

However, an hourlong interrogation of Cota by police was part of the evidence Rhoades heard.

Cota was initially evasive about what happened Jan. 26 but eventually told police it was Schmidt who fired the shots that killed Mr. Brown because Mr. Brown had fired at Cota and that Schmidt “feared for his life.”

“He (Schmidt) told me he loved me” after the shooting, Cota told Eric Greenleee, a state police crime-scene investigator who would become the lead detective on the case.

After the verdict, Linda Brown hugged family members in the courtroom.

Rhoades set Schmidt’s sentencing hearing for Feb. 23.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).

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