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A Woman Unknowingly Moved In With A Group Of Friends Called 'The Unforgiven' Before She Disappeared
Tera Lewandowski was looking for a fresh start when moving in with a town council member who led a double life.
A Colorado woman thought she was reclaiming control of her life when she rented a room from a locally-known town council member, unaware of the double life he led behind closed doors.
Tera Lewandowski, 34, and her beloved dog moved to the small town of Pierce with big hopes. Those who knew her best described her as a woman who never stopped smiling, despite two life-changing car accidents in her teens that caused her to undergo back and hip surgeries. An avid lover of animals, she began pursuing her dreams of one day becoming a veterinarian, but the collisions, both caused by drunk drivers, took a long-lasting and undesirable toll.
“Tera, from the accident, was in a lot of pain,” her mother, Vonda Holt, told “Buried in The Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “They had the different surgeries, so their answer was to just give her more pain pills, which she became addicted to.”
In September 2015, following a stint at a drug rehabilitation center, Tera seemed to be on dry land in her recovery and made the acquaintance of Daniel “DJ” Meyer. Meyer, a fellow addict, met his girlfriend, Crystal Griffin, at the same rehab center, and when it was time for them to leave the facility, the couple invited Tera to stay with them at DJ’s home. Tera saw it as a fresh start to be with like-minded people who kept their sobriety as a primary focus.
Tera rented an upstairs room with her trusted sidekick, a chihuahua named Diablo. Just nine days after moving in with DJ and Crystal, Vonda paid Tera a visit. Things seemed to be in order, despite Tera fighting a chest cold. The following morning, Vonda received a strange text from her daughter, saying, “Stay by your phone. I think something’s going to happen.”
There was cause for concern when Tera didn't answer Vonda’s calls. The worried mother also called Tera’s pain specialist, who said Tera hadn’t arrived at her scheduled appointment. Vonda then visited Tera’s new home, where DJ and Crystal claimed Tera left to go to urgent care. But what struck Vonda as strange was when the couple showed Vonda an empty downstairs bedroom where they said Tera stayed, but Vonda knew that her daughter slept in an upstairs bedroom.
When she left, Vonda called authorities.
Body-worn camera footage showed interviews with DJ Meyer at the station, as well as a police walkthrough of DJ’s home. He changed his story from what he first relayed to Tera’s mother and told authorities he dropped Tera off in Greeley, Colorado, where she hoped to score drugs.
However, there was nothing to support those claims, and there were no reports of Tera ever visiting the urgent-care center.
Vonda sprung into action and posted missing person flyers, which included a photo of Tera’s dog, Diablo. The idea paid off when a farmer called authorities to report Diablo wandering onto his rural property.
“He was out in the middle of a county road, out in the dirt by Pawnee grasslands, north and east of Pierce,” said Weld County Assistant District Attorney Robb Miller. “The fact that he survived with coyotes and other sorts of predators out there was amazing.”
Could Tera be nearby? A search of the area proved fruitless.
On Oct. 7, 2015, authorities obtained a search warrant for DJ Meyer’s home. Although they found bottles of bleach and cleaning products, there was nothing to prove any foul play had taken place.
“They really didn’t have any criminal history that we could find,” said Det. Dan Boyle. “But we knew something was up in that house.”
Investigators found it peculiar that DJ, a member of the town council in his 30s, seemed to hang out frequently with young adults and teenagers at his home, including locals Michael Vassil, Chad Iler, and Karly Hanchett. During Tera’s brief stay at DJ’s house, Tera found it disrespectful when they would come and go as they pleased. On one occasion, Karly interrupted Tera’s TV program to blast her music, causing Tera to retreat to her bedroom upstairs.
Weeks went by without answers, until Crystal Griffin’s brother called authorities to say he knew what happened to Tera. Hoping to get ahead of the brother’s revelations, Crystal agreed to speak with investigators. She told them there was another side to her boyfriend, DJ.
“She describes that this group of friends: DJ, Chad, Mike, and Karly had formed their own little gang,” said ADA Miller. “They refer to themselves as ‘The Unforgiven’ or ‘The 21 Gang.’”
The friends, some of whom were as young as 18 years old, had an obsession with knife play.
“DJ was part of the town board for the town of Pierce,” said Weld County Det. Ben Endreson. “But she said he had [the] drive to portray himself as some kind of gang member.”
Crystal told investigators that Tera got into an argument with Karly Hanchett, saying, “I think that they killed her because she messed with the wrong person.” She stated the group of friends went upstairs and murdered Tera in her bed. Although Crystal denied any involvement in the murder, she said she joined the group when they disposed of Tera’s body in the neighboring state of Wyoming.
Meanwhile, Karly Hanchett, Michael Vassil, and Chad Iler denied knowing anything about Tera’s disappearance. In videotaped interviews, DJ blamed his girlfriend, Crystal, claiming she was the one who killed Tera and disposed of her body.
Investigators obtained a second search warrant, this time to search a home owned by Thomas Vassil, where his son, Michael Vassil, and Michael’s girlfriend, Karly Hanchett, resided. Crystal Griffin told detectives that was where they burned some of Tera’s personal belongings.
They found Tera’s burnt iPad in a burn pit in the backyard. It was enough for investigators to get warrants to collect the suspects’ phones for examination.
Crystal Griffin was brought in for a second round of questioning, adding a new name to the mix: Scott Hanchett, the brother of Karly Hanchett, who came to visit Karly from Rapid City, South Dakota. Crystal said he was the one who gave Tera the fatal blow during the attack. Around this time, investigators found evidence of blood in the bed of DJ Meyer’s pickup truck.
“Everything was adding up,” said Det. Dan Boyle.
Although investigators had yet to find Tera Lewandowski's location, there was enough probable cause to charge six people with her murder, including DJ Meyer, Crystal Griffin, Karly Hanchett, Michael Vassil, Chad Iler, and Scott Hanchett.
“Finding out there was so many people involved was really, really shocking,” said Tera’s sister, Morgan Carlone. “I think that none of them had a conscience to come forward or stop anything from happening.”
It would be Karly’s brother, Scott Hanchett, who would confess to everything.
Scott described the horrifying murder, where he stabbed Tera as she slept in her upstairs bed as Karly beat her with a bat and DJ stabbed her in the chest. It was an all-out ambush as a defenseless Tera pleaded with her attackers not to hurt her dog. Scott said he stabbed her in the back in an attempt to sever her spine so she wouldn’t suffer any further.
“Scott was supposed to kill Diablo,” said Det. Endreson. “And he said it was strange to him after having just stabbed Tera, but he was unable to kill the dog. They just set it free.”
The cell phone records finally came back to authorities, and they were telling in the investigation. They showed all the suspects’ phones at DJ’s house were turned off at the same time on the night of the murder. All, that is, except for Michael Vassil’s.
“Because Mike Vassil left his cell phone on, you could see the path they took to dump Diablo,” said ADA Miller. “And then they came back and took Tera to Wyoming.”
Finally, on April 13, 2016, 187 days after the murder, a small search team used what few details were offered by the suspects and came upon the body of Tera Lewandowski in rural Wyoming. The snow had begun to melt from the Rocky Mountains, revealing her body wrapped in carpet and buried underneath logs and brush.
“There was a fallen tree, and her body was laid by the fallen tree, and there was a stream running alongside there, and wildflowers, and it would have been a place that she felt at peace in,” said Tera’s mother. Vonda Holt. “It helped to tolerate it better, knowing that she laid there for seven months.”
Based on Scott Hanchett’s confession, authorities found the murder weapons in a pond near Pierce, Colorado.
Authorities couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around how this band of kids who called themselves “The Unforgiven” went from having no criminal history to becoming cold-blooded murderers. In the so-called-gang, it was discovered that Mike Vassil’s ailing father, Thomas Vassil, was considered the “president” of this unorganized group. Thomas Vassil claimed to have ties to biker gangs back in the 70s but was then dependent on an oxygen tank and rarely left his home, making his son next in hierarchical terms, leaving the role of “enforcer” to DJ.
“When Tom was told about the squabble between Tera and Karly, Tom said, ‘You gotta handle it,’” said Miller. “And ultimately gave the command to kill her.”
Authorities believed Tera heard the group’s plan to harm her, prompting Tera to send that final text to her mother.
“These people stripped the world of a really beautiful, loving soul,” said Tera’s sister. “She’ll be greatly missed.”
Diablo continues to live with Tera’s family.
Daniel “DJ” Meyer is serving a life sentence at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex in Colorado. Crystal Griffin accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 12 years in a halfway house for accessory to murder. The remaining suspects all pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder and are serving terms that range from 12 to 50 years behind bars.