Ex-boyfriend of Jermain Charlo appears in federal court

Michael Defrance pleads not guilty to illegal possession of firearms

By: - August 2, 2021 7:23 pm

The Russell Smith Federal Courthouse. (Tommy Martino, for the Daily Montanan)

The ex-boyfriend of Jermain Charlo, a Missoula woman who went missing in June 2018, appeared in federal court Monday on a charge of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.

Michael Blake Defrance, 28, pled not guilty to a charge of a prohibited person in possession of firearms and ammunition in U.S. District Court in Missoula. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine and three years supervised release.

Charlo’s family members have pushed for a resolution in the missing person case of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes member. They see her disappearance as connected to the broader issue of missing and murdered indigenous men and women. They also believe Defrance may have answers about what happened to Charlo.

In charging documents, prosecutors said Defrance possessed a firearm and ammunition on or about June 27, 2018, as well as on Oct. 2, 2018. The indictment was filed July 28, 2021.

FBI spokesperson Sandra Barker said she could not comment on why the charges came more than three years after prosecutors allege Defrance illegally possessed a gun. U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Clair Johnson Howard also declined to comment on the timing of the charges. 

Defrance is prohibited from owning a gun because he was convicted of misdemeanor partner or family member assault on May 6, 2013, in Sanders County. The victim in that case was Charlo, who was 17 years old at the time, according to court documents cited in the Gimlet Media podcast about Charlo’s disappearance. Charlo told investigators Defrance had hit her multiple times in the face, according to court documents. 

Defrance appeared in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen DeSoto, who appointed Deputy Federal Defender Michael Donahoe as Defrance’s attorney. Donahoe was the first defense attorney appointed to represent Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. 

DeSoto ordered Defrance released pending trial. Defrance must comply with court ordered conditions, which included he not leave Montana, submit to pretrial supervision and not possess a passport. Missoula County’s jail roster showed Defrance was released at about 2:45 p.m. Monday. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Clark did not make a recommendation as to whether Defrance should be held prior to trial. Donahoe argued in favor of Defrance’s release and said Defrance was employed, living with his parents and should be allowed to get back to work.

Before Defrance’s hearing began, Donahoe walked into the courtroom and, seeing it was crammed with reporters as well as a few of Charlo’s family members, asked, “So, what’s the interest in Defrance?”

‘The interest’

After 23-year-old Charlo went missing on June 16, 2018, her friends and family told police Defrance was the last person to see her, according to a search warrant filed in Missoula County District Court in 2018.

Defrance could not be reached for comment Monday. The Daily Montana requested comment via his Facebook page; later, the Daily Montanan could no longer locate his page. Donahoe did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday in a message left with his office.

A Missoula County District Court judge granted Missoula County Sheriff’s deputies permission to search Defrance’s home and car on June 27, 2018, the same day the indictment shows he may have possessed firearms. The search warrant also showed Verizon Wireless had turned over cell phone location information to law enforcement that placed Charlo’s cellphone “at or near Michael Defrance’s residence” between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m. on the morning she disappeared.

Family and friends of Charlo have demonstrated outside the Missoula Police Department demanding a resolution in her case. Charlo’s aunt, Valenda Morigeau, filed the first missing person’s report with the Missoula Police Department. 

After Defrance’s hearing, Charlo’s family gathered outside the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse and Morigeau took questions from the press. She said Charlo’s case initially wasn’t taken seriously by police.

“When somebody disappears, regardless of their race, gender or color, it needs to be addressed right away,” Morigeau said.

“If somebody says somebody’s missing, get up on it and go find them, and (in) the best case scenario you find them and they’re safe.”

Since filing the initial report, Morigeau said she has had better communication with the lead investigator on the case, Det. Guy Baker with the Missoula Police Department. Baker told the Missoulian in June he’d dedicated at least 1,800 hours of work to investigating Charlo’s case. He also said he believes Charlo is no longer “with us.”

Baker was not available for comment on the development in federal court as he was out of the office Monday, said Lydia Arnold, public information officer for the Missoula Police Department. 

Morigeau said she hoped the firearms charge against Defrance would lead to more answers about Charlo. She also said she was glad to see more people paying attention to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people. 

But the family was not happy Defrance was released prior to trial, Morigeau said. 

“If you’re charged with beating somebody, and you’re carrying a firearm, obviously you’re not a very safe person to be in the community,” Morigeau said. 

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Ashley Nerbovig
Ashley Nerbovig

Ashley Nerbovig is a journalist whose previous stops include the Missoulian, The Billings Gazette and the Detroit Free Press, where she covered the 2020 election and the topics of misinformation and disinformation. She went to the University of Montana's school of journalism.