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Bail hearing for Hammond man charged with killing woman inside her Merrillville apartment

A few weeks before she died, Jéla Cooper started dating Malik Bunch’s wife, a detective testified Wednesday in a two-hour bail hearing.

Bunch, 26, of Hammond, was indicted by a grand jury in September for Cooper’s March 2022 death. He is charged with two counts of murder and one count of theft. Court records also accuse Bunch of stealing her iPhone and jewelry.

He has pleaded not guilty.

Cooper, 25, was last seen alive around 6 p.m. on security video at the Merrillville Walmart on March 26, 2022. Her last text messages were around 6:40 p.m. Her body was found inside her Merrillville apartment at the Whitcomb Terrace Apartments on March 28, 2022 after officers did a welfare check when she didn’t show up to work, Merrillville Police Det. Joshua Miskus said.

She was found face down in her bedroom, wearing a grey tank top and nude from the waist down. She was holding a nearly empty wine bottle that had Bunch’s fingerprint on it. A broken lanyard was under her body.

A pathologist’s examination found the cause of death was at first undetermined. Later — with more facts Miskus gave from the investigation and noting marks on her face and neck — her cause of death was changed to homicide. She was likely strangled, the pathologist concluded. A rape kit turned up nothing, leading Miskus to conclude the crime scene had been “staged,” he said.

A toxicology report said she had no alcohol or drugs in her system.

Bunch is currently being held without bond. He has petitioned for bail, which is typically only granted if the prosecution’s evidence is weak.

No decision was made. A pathologist is scheduled to testify in another hearing on April 10.

The bail hearing was before Lake Superior Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan, with Deputy Prosecutors Michelle Jatkiewicz and Jessica Arnold assigned. Defense lawyer Joseph Roberts is representing Bunch.

There were no signs of forced entry and no signs of struggle in the apartment, Miskus told Jatkiewicz, although a screen was later found damaged.

Bunch’s wife admitted they were in a relationship. Around the time of Cooper’s death, the woman got texts from her saying Cooper wanted to break up. It didn’t sound like her, but as if someone else was sending it.

Cooper’s phone was never found, Miskus said.

Police learned Bunch appeared to be near Cooper’s apartments around March 23, 2022. He called the dispatch that evening looking for his wife. He appeared to be located just west of Cooper’s apartments.

A police officer found him and told him to go home.

A few hours later, a witness called police saying a man in dark clothes was knocking on doors in another building in the complex. The wife later walked out of a building and a police officer told her and Bunch, in dark clothes, to leave.

At one point, Bunch tried to recruit another woman to “beat” Cooper, giving her “instructions” on how to get inside the apartment, Miskus said. The woman declined.

Cooper’s frequently used iPad was found in a kitchen cabinet, which was unusual, the detective said. No DNA was able to be pulled from it. DNA was not found under her fingernails.

Witnesses said Bunch’s relationship with his wife was rocky at the time. He enlisted someone to deliver flowers and a teddy bear to her work, since she wasn’t speaking to him.

Bunch appeared to Google various topics before and after Cooper’s death.

Before her death, he googled how to improve his marriage, how to file for divorce, as well as “Jéla Cooper” several times. After she was found, he googled, how to tell if your phone is tapped, what is happening in Merrillville, Indiana, and does Indiana have the death penalty, Miskus said.

The detective later said in questioning by Roberts that Bunch changed his number and phone right after Cooper’s death. Roberts asked if Bunch could have referred to something else happening in Merrillville.

Cooper had just moved into the Merrillville apartment about five months before her death, her stepfather Bobby Sanders told the Post-Tribune previously. She was at the point where she was “just exploring life” and figuring things out, her mother Tamia Burnett said.

Jéla was “super ambitious” and willing to try new things, said Sanders, a Gary West Side basketball coach, who said he raised her since she was a toddler. Cooper graduated from West Side with honors, he said.

She worked at Lear Corp. and had gone to a beauty school for makeup. She did lashes and massages, Burnett said. Cooper was also starting her own clothing line.

She loved her many siblings, godmother and dogs, they said. She was “really goofy,” loving and would “do anything to help anybody out,” he said.

A GoFundMe after Cooper’s death also described her as “kind,” “hard-working,” with a “heart of gold.”

“Her death has been one nobody saw coming and has taken its toll on all of us,” it said.

mcolias@post-trib.com