A trial date has been set in November for the suspect in the brutal rape and killing of an 18-year-old Etowah woman whose body was found July 4, 2017, in a downtown residential area.
Joseph Wielzen, a 17-year-old at the time of the crime, will be tried as an adult in McMinn County Criminal Court on Nov. 13 on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in the death of Kelsey N. Burnette, according to the 10th Judicial District District Attorney's Office. Officials in the office said a status hearing on the case is set Nov. 12 to address any last-minute issues or motions.
Deputy District Attorney Shari Tayloe, the prosecutor handling the case, couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.
Wielzen's lawyer, Andrew "Andy" Brown, of Cleveland, Tennessee, said Thursday that he could not comment on the case.
A Dec. 17, 2018, Order for Transfer to Criminal Court obtained from the McMinn County Circuit Court Clerk's Office by the Times Free Press describe events leading to Burnette's slaying. The document details a hearing that led to the transfer of Wielzen's case to adult court by Juvenile Court Judge R. Wylie Richardson.
On June 30, 2017, Burnette and Wielzen were among several others, including Burnette's boyfriend, who attended a party at a home on Athens Pike in Etowah, according to court records on the hearing. By 5 a.m. the next day, July 1, 2017, only four people remained at the home including Wielzen, Burnette, her boyfriend and another male.
Burnette's boyfriend was asleep in Burnette's car, the other male was asleep on the couch inside the home and Wielzen "was awake and walking around the house," court records state. Wielzen's "own statement places himself as the last person to be with Ms. Burnette at the house on the morning of July 1 before she went missing."
Etowah police detective Jim Shaw testified during the 2018 hearing that during the search for Burnette, he recovered a metal baseball bat from the yard where the party was held and other party attendees testified that the bat was "kept at the house, and generally stayed out on the front porch," records state. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation analysis of the bat since its recovery showed blood on it matched Burnette's DNA.
Burnette's body was found July 4, 2017, by a passerby "stuffed in a trash can in a nearby alley," records state. The final autopsy report showed fragments of her skull contained remnants of red and black paint officials said was consistent with the paint on the recovered bat. Burnette "was likely beaten to death using the baseball bat ," according to documents.
The autopsy showed that the main cause of her death was blunt-force head trauma including "multiple severe blows to the head," and she had a "penetrating wound" on her left arm, documents state. The autopsy also showed Burnette had injuries the pathologist said were "evidence of sexual assault," records state.
A SIM card from Burnette's cellphone was found July 1 by her boyfriend in a toilet in the home where the party took place, documents state. Wielzen suggested to authorities that Burnette had " put it in there to run away so it wouldn't be tracked," records state. Her phone was found in some bushes behind the same home. Wielzen also told authorities he'd taken a shower about 5 a.m., the same time others in the house testified that they saw him outside the bathroom where the SIM card was found.
At first, Wielzen denied to authorities that he had any kind of sexual contact with Burnette, but later "changed his story to acknowledge that he had 'pop kissed' Ms. Burnette," documents state. "Eventually, when the defendant was presented with the likelihood of DNA evidence on Ms. Burnette's remains," Wielzen admitted having sex with her. The indictment charging Wielzen states he was armed with a knife during the assault.
The court found that the logical conclusion from his actions was Wielzen "was attempting to mitigate or cover up the true nature of his sexual encounter with Ms. Burnette," documents state.
Court documents also state that some evidence in the case might be missing.
Lawyers for the parties in the case told Juvenile Judge Richardson "that some evidence collected during the investigation could not presently be located by some members of the investigation," documents state. "The State advised the court that it would continue to search for the evidence and would advise counsel for Defendant in the event that it is located.
"This Court recognizes that the ability of the State to provide said evidence to the defense could have a significant impact on the outcome of this cause," documents state.
Tayloe was not available to explain further on Thursday but the issue could come up in future hearings held in preparation for trial.
Wielzen, now 19, was indicted July 16 on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in Burnette's death.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.
This story was updated Nov. 12, 2019, to reflect the correct date of the discovery of the victim's body on July 4, 2017.