Friend says Menken was willing participant in blackmail scheme
January 29, 2014
Andrew Menken testifies at his extortion trial in Sac City this morning that he had no part of the blackmail scheme for which he faces three felonies. He has repeatedly said that a friend planned the scheme, and that when the friend asked whether Menken wanted to take part, Menken immediately declined.
Andrew Menken did not know about his best friend's scheme to blackmail a Lake View farmer until the night the farmer was set to make a cash payment, the friend confirmed today in court during the second day of Menken's felony extortion trial.
But what the jury determines happened next on that April 2013 night will likely decide the case.
Menken and his defense attorney contend that Menken, 37, of Carroll, immediately declined to take part in the scheme. But the friend, Jason Heffelmeier, 39, of Buckingham, said Menken helped Heffelmeier plan and execute it.
"He was surprised," Heffelmeier testified about Menken's response that night. "Then he started asking me some details about it. ... After that, we started talking about what we were going to do in Boone."
Sac County Attorney Ben Smith's witnesses have laid out in the past two days how the extortion scheme played out in April 2013.
Randy Aschinger testified Tuesday about his four-year-long sex affair with Elizabeth Aschinger that ended in 2011 before she married his son, Steve.
"It was a mutual agreement," Randy Aschinger said. "My son and her were going to be married, and we decided it just wasn't right."
But then, Aschinger testified, his daughter-in-law began demanding thousands of dollars to keep her from revealing the relationship to his wife.
He paid her $5,000 cash at one point to keep quiet, but when she asked for more money in March 2013, he said he declined.
"I said this has got to end," Randy Aschinger testified he told Elizabeth Aschinger. "I said there is going to be no more threats, no more money. I said I'm done with this."
And then a couple of weeks later on April 8 he got a call from a man with a deep voice who claimed to be a neighboring farmer named Bob.
The man - later identified as Heffelmeier - said:
"You listen, and you listen good. I know what you've been doing or what you're trying to do with your daughter-in-law. I have your phone messages. I can monitor your phone and her phone. How much do you think it would be worth to not have those messages seen by your wife?"
"Well," the man continued, "I like the number 'five.' ... I like, five, five, five, five, five."
Heffelmeier testified this morning that he tricked Elizabeth Aschinger into revealing her father-in-law's phone number by posing on the phone as a crop-seed salesman. Heffelmeier and Menken had previously discussed harassing Randy Aschinger anonymously about the affair using a pre-paid cellphone, but Heffelmeier initially acted alone, he testified.
After the initial threatening phone call, Aschinger tried to call his daughter-in-law. And then there was a text message from Bob:
"Don't (explicit) with me, Randy. It'll cost you $5,000 more if you do."
Aschinger drove to see his wife at work and confessed the affair, and the pair went to the Sac County sheriff to get help.
Sheriff Ken McClure testified later on Tuesday that he put a covert voice-recording device on Randy Aschinger and told him to talk to Elizabeth Aschinger at Anytime Fitness, the Carroll gym she co-owned and managed.
Elizabeth Aschinger denied any involvement and said to "get the hell out of my office." But later, she called and said she wanted to meet again.
Randy Aschinger again went to Anytime Fitness, where Menken was exercising at the time, and Elizabeth Aschinger asked to see the threatening text messages on her father-in-law's phone. She began deleting them without his knowledge and accused him of "trying to pin this on me," Randy Aschinger testified.
Menken sent a text message to Heffelmeier to tell him about the Aschingers' argument.
McClure, having heard the argument, interviewed Randy Aschinger further about the blackmail scheme, wondering whether he indeed had tried to implicate his daughter-in-law in a false scheme that he concocted. Aschinger had previously told McClure that he suspected Menken had a sexual relationship with the daughter-in-law, which Menken denies but Heffelmeier testified today was true. Aschinger might be jealous, McClure thought.
But during that interview, Aschinger received another threatening text message, which wiped away McClure's suspicion.
The man who called himself Bob later told Aschinger to get some cash to deliver on that Saturday - April 13, 2013. McClure put together a team of law officers and a plane for aerial surveillance to nab the extortionist.
The April 13 money drop is where stories diverge.
Smith, who is prosecuting the case, alleges that Menken was a willing participant, that he was the driver who dropped his friend Heffelmeier at a city park in Boone to grab the money. Menken said in a videotaped interview with the sheriff - which was replayed in court Tuesday afternoon - and in testimony this morning that he was an unwitting accomplice who, when he learned of the scheme, immediately declined to participate.
"This is really the first time that Andy gets any indication that there is a plot afoot to extort Randy Aschinger," Menken's attorney Charles Schulte said in his opening remarks Tuesday morning.
Aschinger said he received a text message that told him to take a cash payment to Boone. He drove to the spot, in Herman Park, and dropped a bag with the cash alongside a road. The bag had a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device in it.
Earlier that day, Menken traveled to Des Moines with his ex-wife and children. On the way back, they stopped in Ames where Menken ate dinner with his family and Heffelmeier. The two had planned to watch a fight on TV that night, as the friends often did.
After dinner when Menken got into Heffelmeier's car, Heffelmeier revealed the scheme to Menken.
"This is going to point to me," Menken testified that he told Heffelmeier at the time. "There's no way this is going to look good. This is crap."
But Heffelmeier said Menken agreed to help and the two drove to Boone to find a place for Aschinger to drop the money. They drove around Boone for about 30 minutes before they found the spot in Herman Park, he said. Heffelmeier called Aschinger and gave him the location for the money drop.
Heffelmeier said Menken later drove Heffelmeier's car and dropped him in the park so that he could get the cash.
Heffelmeier retrieved the cash bag but ditched it when he saw a police car speeding toward the location of the drop. Heffelmeier fled and, in a cellphone call with Menken, arranged to meet him in a nearby apartment complex, he said, and together they drove back to Ames.
"We talked about what happened, what might happen," Heffelmeier testified. "We talked about if there was any idea they knew it was us."
Heffelmeier said Menken left and that Heffelmeier went back to Boone, hoping to find the cash but couldn't. Then he drove home to eastern Iowa.
In Menken's videotaped interview with McClure - which was recorded weeks after the incident after McClure obtained cellphone records that indicated Menken was in the area when the money drop happened and that Menken's personal cellphone had dialed Randy Aschinger's cellphone earlier in April - Menken initially said he spent the day with his ex-wife and children in Des Moines, that she dropped him off at his car that was parked in Ames, and that Menken drove home to Carroll.
McClure, who knew Menken because he was the juvenile court officer for Sac and Carroll counties, took him to task on the apparent lie.
"I'm not bull-(explict) you," McClure said in the interview. "I don't want you digging yourself into a (explict) hole. You're my friend. This is very uncomfortable for both of us.
"Our investigation clearly shows that you are the one who extorted Randy."
That led to this exchange:
McClure: "You (explicit) up. You (explicit) up."
Menken: "I didn't do anything."
McClure: "You did things you wouldn't normally do."
Menken: "I didn't do anything."
McClure: "Our evidence shows what you did."
Menken: "Your evidence is wrong."
Menken eventually recanted his previous story but said he was duped into participating briefly in the blackmail scheme. He claimed that Heffelmeier had gone behind his back with information about the Aschingers' affair that Menken had divulged in confidence.
In the interview, Menken said that in the two years he exercised at Anytime Fitness in Carroll, he befriended Elizabeth Aschinger, who told him about the affair and how she was unhappy in her marriage to Steve Aschinger. She allegedly told him about her bouts of anxiety and depression, and Menken said in the interview that he took Aschinger to a hospital three times when she was suicidal.
Elizabeth Aschinger was expected to testify today in defense of Menken.
Menken said he told Heffelmeier about the situation because Heffelmeier was his best friend, and that Heffelmeier, who was newly married and needed money, acted alone when he tried to blackmail Randy Aschinger.
"I'm going to (explicit) my best friend," Menken told McClure in the interview when he changed his story, "so take notes."
'MY BEST FRIEND'
Menken said in the videotaped interview that Heffelmeier took him to his car in Ames after he declined to take part in the scheme and that Menken drove home. He drove on Iowa Highway 141, a route that is at least 30 miles longer than if he drove on U.S. Highway 30, because he was afraid of being stopped by a law officer and implicated in the scheme, he said.
That story apparently conflicts with the one Menken's attorney laid out in his opening remarks Tuesday, in which the attorney, Schulte, said Menken drove Heffelmeier to the park but got a call from his work and left.
Schulte said Heffelmeier later met him at a restaurant parking lot in Boone and revealed that the money drop was under surveillance by law officers.
"Andy decides to go home," Schulte said. "He had to go home. The evening, as far as he was concerned, is shot."
Smith contested Menken's story about that night because he said the timeline doesn't jibe with the timeline he reconstructed from cellphone records.
Menken is charged with three felonies for conspiracy to commit extortion, extortion and theft. All three are punishable by up to five years in prison.
Menken said in court today that he didn't report the crime before he was questioned by the sheriff - and that he initially lied to the sheriff - because he was trying to protect Heffelmeier.
"He was my best friend," Menken said today.
Testimony was expected to conclude in Sac City today, after which a jury of 12 Sac County residents will decide whether Menken is guilty of charges against him, or of other, lesser charges.