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Inmate charged with murdering cellmate inside Indio jail pleads not guilty

Luke Hanchette
Riverside County Sheriff’s Department
Luke Hanchette

A felon accused of bludgeoning his cellmate to death at the John Benoit Detention Center in Indio pleaded not guilty today to a murder charge.

Luke Hanchette, 42, of Hemet is charged with killing 48-year-old John Leo Hemmer of South Dakota, who was found dead Wednesday in a cell the two shared, according to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

Hanchette was arraigned at the Larson Justice Center in Indio before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Burke Strunsky, who ordered the defendant held without bail at the Indio jail. He's scheduled to return to court for a felony settlement conference on Aug. 3.

Along with a murder charge, Hanchette faces a sentence-enhancing allegation of using a weapon -- a metal crutch -- during the commission of a felony.

Sgt. Ben Ramirez said correctional deputies doing a routine safety check about 7:40 a.m. found Hemmer unresponsive, and that he appeared to have suffered significant injuries. Despite first responders' attempts to save him, Hemmer was pronounced dead soon afterward.

There was no word on what provoked the attack.

Hanchette was in custody awaiting trial on a 2018 charge of assault on a person causing great bodily injury, court records show. He has prior felony convictions in Riverside County, including assault with a deadly weapon.

In addition, the defendant has an active arrest warrant out of Oklahoma on charges including battery on a peace officer, Strunsky said on Friday.

Hemmer, meanwhile, was awaiting trial on allegations that he physically abused and choked his girlfriend into unconsciousness during a road trip in 2019. He was charged with nine felonies, including torture, attempted murder, criminal threats and several spousal abuse counts, and faced potential life sentence if convicted.

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