An Arbela Township man accused of murdering his roommate avoided trial by accepting a plea deal Wednesday.
Aaron Michael Eby, 24, pleaded no contest in Tuscola County Circuit Court to second-degree murder, and one count each of lying to a peace officer investigating a violent crime and possession of a dangerous weapon.
Eby is accused of killing 33-year-old Neal James Ellis in April 2018. He originally was charged with open murder which, if the case had gone to trial, could have resulted in a conviction of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or manslaughter. He also was charged with 11 counts of possession of a dangerous weapon and four counts of lying to a peace officer investigating a violent crime.
As part of the plea agreement, all remaining counts in connection with Ellis’ death – as well as all counts in a separate file in connection with Eby’s assault of a Tuscola County Jail guard – were dismissed.
Ellis’ remains were discovered April 28 in a shallow grave on the property of 3782 Hanes Road in Vassar Township. The following day, Eby was arrested in connection with the death.
Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene said Eby and Ellis were roommates in a home at 3257 Willard Road, which has a Clio mailing address but is in Arbela Township on Tuscola County’s southern border with Genesee County. He added that Ellis was a tenant in the home and paid rent to Eby, the property owner.
An investigation discovered that Ellis was killed at the Willard Road address, and then transported to the Hanes Road property, which also is owned by Eby, according to Tuscola County treasury records.
Ellis died of multiple stab wounds, Reene said.
“The (Tuscola County) Sheriff’s Office was actually called to a dispute at the (Willard Road) residence Tuesday (April 24, 2018),” Reene said. “The victim was in the process of being evicted, and (deputies) came and explained it was a civil matter, and that Eby had to go through the (eviction) process.”
At some point between April 24 and 27, Ellis was killed. He was reported as missing by a friend on April 27, 2018.
“It is our understanding, based on the investigation, that sometime later, Mr. Eby killed the victim,” Reene said. “There are still things that are unclear (such as when, exactly, Ellis was killed), but we know he was taken to the other property.”
Reene and Eby’s defense attorney – Jeffrey Clothier of Flint – each told Judge Amy Grace Gierhart they had agreed to a plea deal, and that Eby should be sentenced within plea guidelines, which would call for a minimum sentence of between 225 and 375 months (18 years, nine months and 32 years, three months) in prison.
Gierhart accepted the plea deal, but told them this was not a Cobbs agreement (an agreement between the court, defense and prosecution which outlines a likely sentence if a defendant would accept a plea agreement), but rather an agreement between Reene and Clothier. Gierhart is not required to stay within the guidelines at Eby’s to-be-determined sentencing.
“We’ll obviously be seeking the very top end of the minimum (at Eby’s sentencing),” Reene said.
The maximum possible sentence for a second-degree murder conviction is life imprisonment.
The Tuscola County Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices were assisted by the Michigan State Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
On Dec. 21, Eby racked up additional charges when he allegedly attacked a guard at the Tuscola County Jail.
According to the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office, Eby attacked corrections Deputy Cody Neuville at around 5:30 a.m. while Neuville was giving medications to the inmate. When other deputies arrived, Eby was on top of Neuville and still assaulting him. A taser was used in an attempt to subdue the inmate, but had little effect. He eventually was subdued and Neuville was taken to a local hospital for treatment of his injuries.
Neuville was one of two deputies who escorted Eby from the jail to the courthouse. Outside of the courtroom, five additional law enforcement officers were on standby in case an incident occurred.
The murder of Ellis was the third homicide in less than a month in Tuscola County, following the double-murder of Peter Brodick Jr. and Wendy Brodick. The suspect in that case, Adam Balcer of Millington, was found guilty by a jury in January of two counts of first-degree murder and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
John Schneider is editor of The Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.