May 16, 2013

Two of the three people accused of trying to blackmail a Lake View farmer for more than $55,000 last month applied for court-appointed attorneys because they claim they cannot afford to pay for them, court records show.

A judge granted the request for Andrew Menken, 36, of Carroll, who quit his job as juvenile court officer for Carroll County after he was charged with two felonies for the alleged scheme. Menken wrote that he paid $800 child support each month and has an $800 mortgage payment for a house he bought in Carroll this year.

"Most likely will be filing bankruptcy," wrote Menken, who earned $42,000 annually as a court officer.

But the judge denied Elizabeth Aschinger, 23, of Carroll, who allegedly gave Menken information about her father-in-law, Randall Aschinger, that Menken and another man threatened to reveal in an attempt to extort $55,555, according to court records.

Elizabeth Aschinger, a co-owner of Anytime Fitness in Carroll, wrote that she earns $1,000 each month from the business but has monthly expenses of about $3,900.

She wrote that she pays $1,000 for a mortgage, $1,000 for a car, $600 for unspecified living expenses, $500 for medical expenses, $500 for credit card debt and $300 for a student loan.

Iowans who face criminal charges are generally eligible for a court-appointed attorney if they earn up to 125 percent of the federal poverty level, which is determined each year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Aschinger and her husband would have to earn $19,400 or less each year to meet that threshold, but her husband Steve earns $50,000, she wrote.

Court-appointed attorneys are paid up-front by the state, but defendants can be ordered to repay some or all of those costs after their cases conclude.

Judges have leeway to appoint an attorney for people charged with felonies if they face "substantial financial hardship" regardless of their income, according to Iowa law.

The third person accused in the blackmail scheme, Jason Heffelmeier, 39, of Buckingham, did not request a public defender.

Heffelmeier and Menken each face two felony charges for theft and extortion, which are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Aschinger is charged with felony conspiracy to commit extortion. She faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

Aschinger allegedly provided damaging information about her father-in-law and his cellphone number to Menken and Heffelmeier.

The men allegedly used a prepaid cellphone starting on April 8 that wasn't registered to anyone to anonymously send threatening text messages to Randall Aschinger and to instruct him where to leave money.

Aschinger left $2,900 at McHose Park in Boone on April 13. A law-enforcement surveillance team attempted to capture the alleged extortionists at the park but failed. They recovered the money, Sac County Sheriff Ken McClure said.

Cellphone records showed that the prepaid cellphone and Menken's personal cellphone called Aschinger that day, and that both phones operated off of the same cell tower near Boone.

Menken and Heffelmeier exercised at Anytime Fitness, but a court-issued protective order now forbids the men from going there or having contact with Elizabeth or Randall Aschinger.