A 23-year-old Denham Springs man admitted Thursday he shot the ex-wife of Baton Rouge automobile dealer Hamid Ghassemi multiple times in the head in 2015 as part of a murder-for-hire plot allegedly orchestrated by Ghassemi and admitted he also targeted Ghassemi's son Hamed Ghassemi.
Tyler Lee Ashpaugh pleaded guilty to manslaughter in return for a future 40-year prison term in the killing of Taherah Ghassemi.
Ashpaugh claims the 54-year-old woman was already dead when he shot her in St. Helena Parish after helping abduct her from her Baton Rouge home on April 11, 2015, according to a chilling factual basis contained in a written plea agreement signed by Ashpaugh, his attorneys and prosecutors and filed into the court record Thursday.
A forensic pathologist, Dr. Yen Van Vo, has previously said Taherah Ghassemi was still alive but likely unconscious when she was shot, according to a court filing last year by one of the East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors, Dana Cummings.
Ashpaugh, who told state District Judge Lou Daniel he was in the U.S. Air Force for almost two years, also admitted injecting insulin in Taherah Ghassemi's neck at her home in an attempt to render her unconscious.
Ashpaugh's plea agreement requires him to testify truthfully against any or all of his co-defendants: Hamid Ghassemi, 67; Daniel Humberto Richter, 36, of Walker; and Skyler Williams, 20, of Denham Springs. All three men are charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty against Ghassemi if he is found guilty as charged.
The agreement also says Ashpaugh will testify about correspondence he received from Williams and Richter in August and September of 2015 “pressuring him to recant his initial statement to law enforcement and to give an untruthful version of events.”
Ashpaugh, too, was charged with first-degree murder and faced a life prison term if convicted on that charge, his plea agreement states.
One of Ghassemi’s lawyers, Tommy Damico, said Ashpaugh’s plea could have been expected.
“I’m not surprised that this guy would say or do anything to try to avoid a life sentence or the death penalty,” Damico said.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III called Ashpaugh’s plea “an important step toward moving the case to trial.”
“Tyler certainly regrets his actions and the role he played that night,” Lindsay Blouin, one of Ashpaugh’s attorneys, said after court. Jim Boren also represents Ashpaugh, who was 20 at the time of the killing.
Authorities claim Ghassemi paid $10,000 to have his former wife killed following their bitter divorce. He had paid her $1 million in a divorce settlement. Taherah Ghassemi’s body was found May 16, 2015, in a heavily wooded area of rural St. Helena Parish. She had been missing for more than a month.
Ashpaugh told detectives in a December 2015 videotaped statement that he went with Richter and Williams to Taherah Ghassemi’s North Laurel Creek home and kidnapped her, authorities have said. She was put in the trunk of her car and driven to the wooded area. Her car was later found burned in Baton Rouge. Williams was 17 at the time.
The factual basis in Ashpaugh’s plea agreement says he received a call from Williams on April 11, 2015, asking if he wanted to “do a lick.” Lick is slang for a robbery or armed robbery. When they met later that day, Williams was accompanied by Richter, who informed Ashpaugh of the plan’s details, the document states.
Richter once worked at one of Ghassemi’s auto dealerships, authorities have said.
“Richter informed Williams and Ashpaugh that Richter’s boss,`the old man,’ was going to pay them to kidnap and murder Taherah Ghassemi and her son Hamed," the factual basis reads. Richter, Williams and Ashpaugh "prepared for the attack throughout the day and looked for their targets. They additionally dug a grave for the intended victims in St. Helena parish during daylight hours.”
Richter directed Ashpaugh and Williams throughout the day and provided them with an EpiPen of insulin and guns for the attack, the factual basis adds. When Taherah Ghassemi came home that evening, Richter sent Williams and Ashpaugh to execute the plan. Williams and Ashpaugh approached Ghassemi outside her residence and forced their way inside, according to the document.
“They held guns on Taherah while waiting for Hamed to come home. Richter became impatient and entered the residence. He and Williams held Taherah and Richter instructed Tyler to inject her in the neck with the EpiPen. A few minutes after the injection, Taherah collapsed to the floor of her kitchen but was still moving until Richter hit her in the neck several times,” the factual basis says.
Ashpaugh contends she stopped breathing at that point, the document states.
Richter ordered Ashpaugh and Williams to put the victim in the trunk of her Jaguar and follow him to the gravesite in St. Helena, the factual basis says.
“When they arrived at the site, they were unable to locate the grave that they previously dug. Richter ordered Williams and Ashpaugh to take the victim from the trunk and then instructed Ashpaugh to shoot her in the head,” the document says.
After the shooting, Richter, Ashpaugh and Williams covered Taherah Ghassemi’s body with brush, according to the factual basis.
Williams and Ashpaugh, still in the Jaguar, then followed Richter to Hamid Ghassemi’s house. Ghassemi came outside and gave Richter $10,000 to pay Ashpaugh and Williams for their roles in the murder and also provided a gas can to use to burn his ex-wife’s car, the document states. Ashpaugh and Williams burned the vehicle and each were given roughly $5,000.
Williams and Richter are set for trial Aug. 27 and Oct. 22, respectively. Hamid Ghassemi does not have a trial date.
David Rozas, who represents Williams, said he had no comment when reached by phone. Richter's attorney, Jeffrey Heggelund, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Hamid Ghassemi owned Import One and Import One Elite on Airline Highway at the time of Taherah Ghassemi's death.
Hamed Ghassemi is suing his father, Richter, Ashpaugh and Williams for monetary damages over the death of his mother. He declined comment Thursday through Cummings, the prosecutor.