Andrew Menken cries after a jury found him not-guilty on Wednesday of his alleged role in a scheme to blackmail a Lake View farmer last year.
Andrew Menken cries after a jury found him not-guilty on Wednesday of his alleged role in a scheme to blackmail a Lake View farmer last year.
January 30, 2014

Sac City

Two words made Andrew Menken, a hulking man who said he was wrongly entangled in the extortion of a Lake View farmer, sob on Wednesday.

Not guilty.

A Sac County jury deliberated four hours before returning the verdict after a two-day trial that laid out the lurid details of the April 2013 blackmail scheme, the victim of which was a farmer who had a four-year sex affair with a Carroll woman who later married his son.

Menken, 37, of Carroll, was charged with three felonies for his alleged 11th-hour role in the scheme, but two of the charges were dismissed by a judge Wednesday, and the jury acquitted him of the third.

Menken continued to sob - his cheeks wet with tears - in the minutes that followed the verdict as he walked out of the courtroom and courthouse.

It was vindication for a man who vehemently protested for months to the Daily Times Herald that he was wrongly accused.

"I wish I could show everyone here what I have to show my innocence, but it has to be played out," he wrote in an August 2013 email. "The justice system is intact. So is my faith in God. Neither will allow me to (be) punished for the wrongdoings of another man."

The blackmail case pitted the words of two men - former best friends - against each other.

The friend, Jason Heffelmeier, 39, of Buckingham, testified in court on Wednesday that he engineered the extortion scheme and invited Menken to take part the night he expected to acquire a $55,555 payment from the farmer, Randy Aschinger, 59.

Menken testified Wednesday that he befriended the farmer's daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Aschinger, 24, at Anytime Fitness, a Carroll exercise gym that she managed, and that Aschinger told him about the affair.

Menken later told Heffelmeier about the affair - and about subsequent allegations that Randy Aschinger harassed his daughter-in-law for more sex - and the two talked about retaliating against Aschinger with anonymous, threatening messages and calls from a pre-paid cellphone that could not be traced back to them.

Heffelmeier said he acted alone when he bought the cellphone and used it to try to extort money from Aschinger in April 2013, threatening to reveal the affair to Aschinger's wife. Heffelmeier told Aschinger to take the money to a Boone park on April 13.

The events of that night are where Menken and Heffelmeier's stories differed.

Heffelmeier testified that the two met in Ames and that he revealed the scheme to Menken, who was "surprised" but agreed to drop Heffelmeier at the park to get the money. But Menken testified that he immediately declined to take part and drove Heffelmeier's car to a Boone restaurant and waited while Heffelmeier tried to grab the money.

Aschinger had reported the attempted extortion to Sac County Sheriff Ken McClure, who readied a team of law officers and a plane to nab whomever grabbed the bag that contained $2,900 cash, but a police car spooked Heffelmeier after he retrieved the bag. He ditched the cash, fled and eluded arrest.

Sac County Attorney Ben Smith, who prosecuted the case, insisted that Menken's timeline of the events that night didn't jibe with Menken's cellphone records. Smith questioned why Menken didn't report the scheme when he learned of it and why Menken drove on an extended detour back to his Carroll home that night to avoid law officers that might want to arrest him.

"He was my best friend," Menken answered and added that he worried the scheme would point to him because Elizabeth Aschinger told him - not Heffelmeier - about the affair.

Menken and Heffelmeier talked for about an hour by cellphone after the botched money grab, phone records revealed. Smith alleged that the two were collaborating about what story to tell investigators if they were arrested, but Menken insisted, "I (was) listening to him talk about how he screwed up."

The 12 jurors declined to talk about their verdict Wednesday night, but their deliberations in the jury room were clearly audible from the courtroom and were contentious at times.

One juror said Smith didn't prove his case. Another said Menken, who was on-call at the time for his job as juvenile court officer for Carroll and Sac counties, should have reported the extortion immediately.

One juror wondered what would have happened had Heffelmeier successfully retrieved the money. Would he and Menken have split the cash and been apprehended together?

But in the end, the jurors acquitted Menken of aiding and abetting felony theft. District Judge William Osterlund dismissed the other two extortion charges after testimony concluded Wednesday without publicly stating why. In general, a judge will dismiss a criminal charge if there is no evidence to support it.

Smith lamented Menken's acquittal but said he found solace in the fact that investigators were able to uncover the scheme and that two of the three people implicated had pleaded guilty.

"It's disappointing," Smith said this morning. "I'm not going to say I don't care, but at the same time, it's (the jury's) decision.

"They knew (Menken), who has yet to tell the same story on the stand, is sitting in a car, waiting for his buddy - a buddy he knows is committing multiple felonies - and then they exchange phone calls and text messages, and then (Menken) gives (Heffelmeier) directions to the car," he said. "If (jurors) decide that's not aiding and abetting, that's up to them."

Heffelmeier and Elizabeth Aschinger pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit extortion and were given deferred judgments, which means they will not be felons nor serve prison time if they abide by the terms of their probations. They agreed to testify at Menken's trial as part of their plea deals. Aschinger was briefly in the courtroom on Wednesday but never testified.

The farmer, Randy Aschinger, questioned his choice to report the extortion in an August 2013 interview with the Times Herald because, he said, no one would go to prison for the crime.

"All it's done is caused problems with my wife and family," he said at the time.