UP drug kingpin’s appeal rejected

KENNETH BRUNKE

MANISTIQUE — A convicted cocaine kingpin and former murder suspect who was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for the transport and sale of more than 1,000 grams of cocaine in Schoolcraft County had his request to have his fines reduced heard by the Michigan Court of Appeals recently. However, the court disagreed with his claim that the fines didn’t fit the crime.

Kenneth Daniel Brunke first became a household name in Schoolcraft County after the bodies of sisters Heather Aldrich, 25, and Carrie Nelson, 31, both of the Newberry area, and Jody Hutchinson, 42, of Gould City, were found on April 17, 2015, inside Hutchinson’s Oldsmobile Bravada, which had been lit on fire, on County Road 436, also known as “River Road” in Doyle Township.

Brunke was initially charged with 14 felonies related to the homicides, but in exchange to pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer during a violent crime investigation and testifying against codefendant Garry JC Cordell, the 12 remaining charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to up to five years in prison on the two charges.

Multiple accounts given by witnesses indicate Aldrich had stolen cocaine from Brunke prior to her murder, and Cordell had been with Carlson at Brunke’s home the day of the murders to guard the home against theft. Despite admitting to offering Aldrich morphine by text message to get her to come to his home, Brunke claimed in court the drugs never existed and the stolen items were bottles of change.

Aldrich came to Brunke’s home with Nelson, and Hutchinson on April 16, 2015, in search of the promised morphine and were met by Cordell and Carlson. After being tied up and drugged, the victims were suffocated. When Brunke returned home from work that day, he, Cordell, and Carlson drove the bodies to River Road in Hutchinson’s Oldsmobile Bravada and lit the vehicle on fire.

Cordell pleaded guilty to the murders and is now serving three life sentences

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in Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, Mich. While Brunke was cleared of the murders by Cordell’s plea, the evidence against him for bringing cocaine to Schoolcraft County was enough for new charges to be filed against him the same day he was sentenced for lying and obstruction.

On April 3, 2017, Brunke pleaded no contest to one count of delivering less and 50 grams of cocaine, one count of conspiracy to deliver 450 to 1,000 grams of cocaine, and one count of conspiring to deliver at least 1,000 grams of cocaine.

At his sentencing in May of 2017, 11th Circuit Court Judge William Carmody sentenced Brunke above the minimum state guidelines for the two charges relating to the conspiracy and distribution of 1,000 grams or more of cocaine. The state guidelines recommended 11 to 30 years in prison for the charges, but Carmody ruled that Brunke should spend between 18 and 30 years and pay $250,000 for each count. He was charged an additional $25,000 fine for the smaller delivery charge.

According to the Michigan Court of Appeals unpublished opinion released Feb. 7, Brunke claimed the fines were excessive, that the circuit court never explained how the fines were proportionate and exaggerated how much of a role he played in the county’s drug problems, and that he is indigent and never profited enough to live more than a modest lifestyle.

Witness accounts from both the murder and cocaine investigations suggested Brunke had been running his cocaine operation in Schoolcraft County for more than 20 years. In one three-year period, he acquired one kilogram of cocaine a month on average from Chicago, separated the cocaine into smaller portions, and sold it in Schoolcraft County through dealers — including Cordell and one of the victims. County Prosecutor Timothy Nobel estimated that at one kilogram of cocaine a month, Brunke was making between $25,000 and $50,000 in profits monthly.

“The trial court clearly believed that defendant was a major trafficker in cocaine, to the detriment of a great number of people, including the families and children of those to whom he dealt the cocaine. We do not find this conclusion unreasonable from our reading of the record,” wrote the appeals court.

The opinion also stated $525,000 in fines is consistent with state law and argued it was irrelevant that Brunke had no prior criminal record before being arrested for murder.

“We recognize defendant’s argument that he had no criminal history prior to his arrest, and though it is apparently accurate, under the circumstances, we find it somewhat disingenuous,” said the court.

This is not the first time Brunke has appealed a court decision. In February of 2018, the court issued an opinion that Brunke would not need to pay $2,001 in restitution related to burning Hutchinson’s car. The court found that because he had not been charged with burning the vehicle as part of his obstruction charges the payment was unfounded.

His 40 to 60 month sentence for obstruction and lying to a police officer during a violent crime investigation, which was also challenged in the 2018 appeal, was upheld.

Ilsa Matthes can be reached at imatthes@dailypress.net.

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