Written by John Plestina
The photos include two undated photos of Kim Nees of Poplar, who was murdered in 1979, and a bumper sticker on an SUV that is owned by a Poplar resident.
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series exploring the murder of Kim Nees of Poplar in 1979 and the controversy over whether a jury convicted the guilty person. A clemency hearing for Barry Beach is scheduled for April 29.)
Languishing in the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge for most of his adult life, 52-year-old Barry Beach continues to try to prove his innocence of a crime he was convicted of 30 years ago.
Just 17 years old when his Poplar High School classmate Kim Nees was beaten to death, Beach has maintained his innocence for 35 years. He now awaits a clemency hearing Tuesday, April 29, before the Montana Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The seven-member panel could decide at that time whether to accept Beach’s application for clemency or they could render a decision within 30 days. In that event, the board would have 90 days to set a hearing date for formal testimony a determination if a recommendation for clemency would be sent to Gov. Steve Bullock.
The board could recommend commuting Beach’s 100-year sentence to a shorter period with time served or reduce the length of the sentence and make Beach eligible for parole.
Bullock responded to a question from The Herald-News by saying, “This is still in the parole board’s hands. For now, I’m going to refrain from comment.”
A growing number of supporters of freeing Beach say his conviction for the 1979 murder lacked forensic evidence linking him to the crime scene. Beach’s attorney has alleged misconduct by the prosecution and several local people have assigned guilt to a group of then teenage girls, a theory that remains unproven in court.
Now, nearly 35 years since Nees’ bludgeoned body was found at the Poplar River, allegations of a cover-up have complicated the case. A police evidence room was broken into the day after Nees was killed, contaminating crucial evidence, making it inadmissible in court. Evidence is also missing from the Montana Crime Lab and a tape of a confession that is said to have been coerced was erased.
Beach was one of many young people police interviewed about the case in 1979. Nearly four years later, Beach had gone to Monroe, La., to live with his father. His stepmother, believing he was encouraging her daughter to run away, had him arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and told Louisiana authorities that
Roosevelt County Sheriff’s investigators had questioned him about the Nees case in 1979. Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s detectives interrogated Beach and he confessed to killing Nees. That confession is alleged to have been coerced with abusive tactics against the then 20-year-old Beach.
In April 2008, Dateline NBC broadcasted a two-hour investigation of the Beach case narrated by Keith Morrison and titled The Killing at Poplar River.
The Dateline transcript has former Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s detective John “Jay” Via saying, “My feeling from talking to Sheriff [Dean] Mahlum was the fact that [Beach] was a viable suspect.”
Mahlum was Roosevelt County’s undersheriff in 1979 and led the investigation. He was serving as sheriff at the time of Beach’s trial in 1984.
Via and Commander Alfred Calhoun are alleged to have interrogated Beach for seven hours continuously with no food. Beach told Dateline NBC that Louisiana detectives yelled at him during the interrogation, threatened him with the electric chair with graphic details about what happens to a human body during electrocution and became very accusatory about unrelated murders of three Louisiana women, later proven to have occurred at times when Beach was not in that area.
The Missoulian reported that during a previous clemency hearing in 2007, Beach broke down and cried while testifying, saying, “I was so scared I would have said anything to get away from them. I was 20 years old. I just wanted to get out of that interrogation room.”
Beach’s mother, Bobbi Clincher of Laurel, said her son told her Louisiana detectives claimed they would come to Montana and help him prove his innocence in the Nees case, an investigation tactic that led Clincher to suspect wrongdoing.
The tape recorded confession was gone before Beach went on trial, alleged to have been mistakenly erased by a custodian of records in Louisiana.
Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J., investigative agency that has freed more than 50 wrongly-convicted people from prisons, accepted Beach’s case more than a decade ago.
Dateline reported that investigators working for Centurion found evidence alleging that Poplar Police fed information to Louisiana detectives that ended up in a transcript used during Beach’s trial in place of the missing tape recording.
Based on the confession, Beach was charged with the murder of Nees in the 15th Judicial District at Wolf Point in September 1983 and convicted by a jury of deliberate homicide in 17th District Court in Glasgow April 13, 1984. The late Judge James Sorte sentenced Beach May 11, 1984, to 100 years in the custody of the Montana Department of Corrections without the possibility of parole.
Beach has maintained for more than 30 years that he was home in bed when Nees was killed. He has unsuccessfully attempted to appeal the conviction several times, tried to get a new trial in 2008 and made an unsuccessful bid for clemency in 2007.
Now retired Fergus County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips granted Beach a new trial and released him on his own recognizance in December 2011, following a three-day evidentiary hearing. Free 17 months, Beach lived in Billings until the Montana Supreme Court reinstated the murder conviction with a 4-3 decision during May 2013.
Seattle, Wash., attorney Peter Camiel is affiliated with Centurion Ministries and has represented Beach for more than eight years.
The Herald-News asked Camiel about allegations of a cover-up.
“People say that, and that could be,” Camiel said.
“One of the concerns is one of the women who we think was involved; her father was a policeman at the time and her father was the one who broke into the evidence room. It is proven. He admitted he did that and has given testimony that he did that,” Camiel said. “That has always been a concern.”
Camiel said Roosevelt County Sheriff’s investigators were not present when Louisiana detectives interrogated Beach and did not see what their methods were.
“We know a whole lot more now about the detectives who were involved in the confession. The methods used in the interrogation were highly suspect. The interrogation went on for many hours. The confession was not recorded. The content of the confession was highly suspect,” Camiel said. He added that Louisiana detectives were planting facts.
Camiel said he has the personnel file of the Louisiana detective who was the lead investigator in the interrogation. That file includes allegations of inaccurate documenting and numerous suspensions for misconduct, Camiel said.
“There were letters in his personnel file that clearly document all of that,” Camiel said.
Both Dateline and the Great Falls Tribune (May 25, 2013) reported that Via had been suspended without pay on at least four occasions, was placed on a one-year probation, repeatedly admonished at various points throughout his career for failing to file timely investigative reports in major cases and was twice threatened with the possibility of termination over a 26-year period.
Via and Calhoun are now retired.
Clincher said the conviction stands on a coerced confession and is hopeful that her son will be set free.
“We’re trying to get some key people to speak on Barry’s behalf who knew Barry and knew him when he was out (Between 2011 and 2013); people in Billings,” Clincher said. “This past Sunday (April 13) is the 30-year mark since he was found guilty.”
She said she believes the theory that a group of angry teenage girls killed Nees.
“There have been things said. They have admitted to other people that they did it,” Clincher said.
“We think there were quite a few people there that night and haven’t come foreword. Are they going to come forward and take the risk (of retaliation)? No,” she said. “It’s just bazaar that someone feels they should have the right to threaten someone else because they came forward to help an innocent person.”
She also cited the break-in of the evidence room making evidence inadmissible and that close family members of two of the teenage girls who could have been involved were police officers at the time.
“Something that has upset all of us for quite some time is the state keeps dismissing native American witnesses as unreliable or not credible,” Clincher said.
She said local people who tried to help the Centurion Ministries investigation were threatened and two were beaten.
“How can I not seem slanted when I know he is innocent,” Clincher said.
“He is a political prisoner,” she said. “It’s a massive cover-up all the way through the Attorney General’s Office.”
Fort Peck Department of Law and Justice officers found a pick-up Nees had been driving abandoned at a spot near the Poplar River about 7 a.m. Officers found blood inside the cab, more than two dozen fingerprints, three sets of footprints in and around the trail where Nees was dragged and a bloody palm print on the truck that the FBI concluded could belong to the killer. Officers followed a trail of blood about 250 feet to the river and found the body.
Nees’ purse was found with cash and credit cards intact, suggesting that her killing was not the result of a robbery.
Police found a bloody towel on a fence in Poplar. A lab report linked two hairs on the towel to Nees.
Mahlum told Dateline NBC the towel was sent to the Montana state lab and the blood was not Nees’.
Nees’ sweater was found neatly folded near the pick-up with a pubic hair found on it. It did not belong to Nees and it could not be determined if it belonged to Beach.
According to the autopsy report by a Great Falls pathologist, Nees died from multiple blunt force impact injuries to the head and neck including extensive skull fractures and lacerations of the brain. The report states that a crescent wrench and hammer could have been used. There are reports that Nees was struck more than 20 times.
Mahlum did not respond last week to two voicemail messages left by The Herald-News.
“There was a high level of rage. Someone was very angry,” Mahlum is quoted as saying in the 2008 Dateline transcript.
The Great Falls Tribune reported Wednesday, April 9, “New evidence has surfaced since Beach’s 1983 trial that implicates others in the murder. No physical evidence tied Beach to the scene of the crime.”
Dateline asked Nees’ sister, Pam Johnson of Billings, what she thought about Beach’s confession. Johnson dated Beach when they were attending Poplar High School.
The transcript quotes Johnson as saying, “I just couldn’t believe that he would do that, or that he would even be around her.”
The Dateline transcript includes a 2007 written statement by Johnson that read: “Barry and I were close friends years ago and I honestly believe that Barry did not kill my sister ... finding the truth will set Barry free as he should be.”
The Herald-News attempted unsuccessfully to obtain comment from Johnson and her mother through a Nees family relative who lives in Wolf Point.
Dateline NBC and other media reported that Poplar’s police chief said shortly before the trial began that someone deliberately kicked down the door of an evidence room where the sweater and other crime scene evidence was stored the night after the murder. Dateline and other sources identified the person who broke into the evidence room as Poplar Police officer Steve Gray Hawk, the father of Maude Gray Hawk, a person of interest in the case.
Other evidence disappeared from the Montana Crime Lab.
Camiel said Centurion Ministries asked to have an expert look at the crime lab’s records and was denied.
Marc Racicot, who served as governor from 1993 to 2001, was an assistant attorney general in 1984 and was appointed special prosecutor for the state’s case against Beach.
Dateline reported that Racicot told jurors to ignore all the evidence police had contaminated.
The Missoulian reported during Beach’s first clemency hearing in 2007 that Racicot, while still maintaining that his belief that Beach was guilty, admitted that the crime scene was contaminated by the investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies.
According to the Dateline NBC transcript, Camiel said the prosecution told the jury they had evidence they didn’t actually have.
Morrison asked Camiel, “Are you saying that the prosecutor in the trial actually crossed an ethical line in terms of what he failed to tell the jury and what he alleged to the jury that wasn’t true?”
Camiel’s responded, “There was misconduct.”
Montana courts other than the 17th District have reviewed the case and ruled that there was no misconduct.
The Missoulian reported during Beach’s first clemency hearing in 2007 that witnesses lent credence to rumors about several girls killing Nees.
The Billings Gazette and Dateline NBC both reported that Richard Holen of Poplar testified that he saw the pickup Nees had been driving headed to the area where Nees’ body was later found with five people riding in the cab. He said he saw the truck parked beside a car a short time later. Holen said he reported what he saw to the police.
According to the Montanans For Justice website, then Roosevelt County Sheriff Don Carpenter took a taped statement from now deceased Orrie Burshia three months after Nees’ murder. Burshia claimed to have had a conversation with man named Mike Longtree about three weeks after the murder and that he told her he had been present at the crime scene and witnessed a group of Native American girls beat Nees to death. Burshia claimed Longtree told her Nees begged people to help her. Burshia also said Longtree never said Beach was present and identified some of the same woman other people had claimed were involved. That statement from Burshia was never turned over to Beach’s defense attorney.
The Billings Gazette reported during the 2011 hearing for Beach in Lewistown that Judy Gray Hawk testified that her sister-in-law, Maude Gray Hawk, implicated herself during a 2004 telephone conversation as not killing Nees but claimed to have kicked her in the head several times during the fatal beating. Judy Gray Hawk gave a sworn statement to an investigator working for Centurion Ministries.
During 2002, Maude Grey Hawk separated from her husband, Dana Kirn, who was stabbed to death the following year. Tracy McGowen, a boyfriend of Gray Hawk, pleaded guilty to the crime. The Montanans For Justice website alleges that Kirn told several people he was going to reveal what he knew about Nees’ murder.
The Billings Gazette also reported at that time another witness refused a subpoena because he feared for his safety.
The Great Falls Tribune also reported that Kevin and Tamara Hall of Great Falls said a woman named Dottie Sue “Sissy” Atkinson confessed to them that she played a role in the Nees murder.
Atkinson denied any involvement during an interview by Dateline.
The Herald-News was unable to obtain telephone numbers or email addresses for either Atkinson, of Poplar, or Maude (Gray Hawk) Kirn, of Denver, Colo., and attempted to contact both on Facebook. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Camiel argued during the 2007 clemency hearing that several things Beach said during the confession did not match evidence found at the crime scene, including what Nees was wearing, the side of the pick-up Nees exited from and the way the body was dragged more than 250 feet to the river.
Sheriff Freedom Crawford said there has not been any new investigation of the Nees murder since he has been sheriff.
“Officially, from the sheriff’s office, Barry Beach has been convicted,” Crawford said.
The April 29 hearing will be at the Parole Board’s office in Deer Lodge and is open to the public.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:53
Written by John Plestina
Gov. Steve Bullock proposed a state bond proceeds-financed $45 million grant program that would address impacts from the Bakken Oilfield development on eastern Montana cities, tribal governments and water and sewer districts while in Culbertson Thursday, April 17.
The program and its bonding component will require legislative approval during the 2015 legislative session.
Bullock announced the proposed Eastern Montana Impact and Infrastructure Project at the Culbertson Town Office. He later made the same announcement in Sidney, Glendive and Billings.
The program would include three main initiatives: an immediate reduction of State Revolving Fund interest rates from 3 to 1.25 percent for construction projects; a “Rapid Response Team” state technical assistance program for land use planning, affordable housing, and grant application processing; and the $45 million grant program.
Bullock said that while the Bakken development is creating new jobs and economic opportunities in eastern Montana, “it is also posing challenges to local communities that we could not have imagined even a decade ago.”
In a prepared statement, Bullock cited, “soaring prices, inadequate infrastructure and a massive influx of new residents vexing local governments like never before.
“As Governor, I am committed to helping impacted communities deal with these challenges,” he said.
“It [proposed program] actually impacts 13 oil and gas impacted counties,” Bullock said.
He said Wolf Point and Poplar are probably eligible for the aid package.
Bullock explained that the tiered proposal includes three levels of impacts. Tier 1 is oil and gas development in the immediate area. The second tier is for communities located close enough to the development area to feel the impacts and Tier 3 is for communities located farther from the development area but along U.S. Hwy. 2 in an impacted county.
While Bainville and Culbertson are likely included in Tier 1, it was not clear into which tier Wolf Point and Poplar would fall.
A large part of the benefits of the program would be for water and sewer infrastructure, Bullock said.
He said the program would not benefit school districts, law enforcement or courts.
Bullock called the proposed program a long-term investment for Montana.
He said the proposed SRF interest rate reduction is projected to save local governments millions of dollars in interest payments.
Several people attending the meeting with Bullock in Cul-bertson said $45 million is not enough to cover future impacts.
A man who said he is from Bainville said that community has experienced a 300 percent increase in population because of the Bakken development, but Bainville is not getting the financial help it needs.
Culbertson resident Allen Bowker said the $45 million is not enough. He suggested looking at the oil and gas industry impacts on Williston and other western North Dakota communities.
Bowker called what is happening in Williston and throughout western North Dakota a “train wreck.”
Bullock responded that he is committed to helping communities that are impacted by the oil and gas boom.
“The ultimate goal is to really do all we can for our communities, so that we are not like Williston, or other places that are after the fact, trying to chase and fix problems by throwing money at it. But really, the more we can do upfront to address the infrastructure needs, the better the long term growth will be for our state,” Bullock said.
“The reason we see more of the impacts and less of the oil is we’re on the shallow end of the pool,” he said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:44
Written by John Plestina
This pickup rolled in a two-vehicle crash on Rodeo Road shortly after 3:30 p.m., Saturday, April 19. Three people were injured. (Photo by John Plestina)
Three people were injured in a two-vehicle rollover crash on Rodeo Road shortly after 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19.
The Montana Highway Patrol, Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice and Wolf Point Police Department responded to the crash just east of the city limits that was reported at 3:38 p.m.
MHP Sgt. Jeff Kent said an eastbound red 1997 Dodge Dakota pickup made a U-turn and struck the side of an eastbound blue 1994 Ford Ranger pickup, causing the Ford to roll 1¼ times.
Three of the four passengers in the two vehicles — a 31-year-old Wolf Point male who was driving the Ford Ranger, a 34-year-old female passenger in the Ford and a 29-year-old Wolf Point female who was a passenger in the Dodge — were transported by ambulance to Northeast Montana Health Services - Wolf Point Campus with injuries MHP reported as non-life-threatening.
Kent said tribal officers detained the driver of the Ford for substance abuse testing at the hospital.
He acknowledged that a possible DUI is under investigation.
“I have not cited him with anything yet,” Kent said. “We’re not 100 percent sure, so we’re sending stuff in to get it analyzed.”
The man’s name has not been released.
“Additional charges may be pending,” Kent said.
Officers cited the driver of the Dodge Dakota, Alan Bushman, 66, of Loveland, Colo., for turning without regard to safety. Kent said he believes Bushman is currently living in Wolf Point, but he carries a Colorado driver’s license and his vehicle is registered in that state.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:42
Written by John Plestina
The Wolf Point City Council accepted Mayor Chris Dschaak’s recommendation to appoint Ashley Moran to fill the vacant Ward 2 council seat during the Wolf Point City Council Monday, April 21.
Moran, 28, is the mother of one child, works at Fort Peck Manufacturing in Poplar and said she sought the council appointment because she wants to become more involved in the community. She grew up in Culbertson.
The Ward 2 seat became vacant when Dschaak resigned to become mayor earlier this year.
In other business, the council approved a street dance request by Wolf Point Elks Lodge #1764 to be held in the 300 block of Main Street in during the Wild Horse Stampede in July.
In another matter, the council authorized a letter of intent to move forward with the process for the Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water System to provide water to the city through a pipeline.
The council also accepted a request for Shakespeare in the Park to use the park behind Faith Lutheran Home in July. A $500 bond and proof of insurance are required. The traveling performance has come to Wolf Point for about 20 years and has appeared in several city parks.
In other business, the council approved a program agreement with the Montana Interagency Interlocal Authority for workers’ compensation insurance.
The council also authorized the Wolf Point Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture to have Art in the Park in Sherman Park in conjunction with the Wild Horse Stampede in July.
Police Chief Jeff Harada presented his report for police and animal control services during March. He said calls for police services and the number of arrests are increasing. He praised his officers for doing a good job.
Harada’s report included 409 complaints that officers responded to during March, an increase from 364 during March 2013. He said 911 emergency calls increased by 12 percent from March 2013.
Harada said his department has seen a 51 percent increase in arrests and the number of citations issued in one year.
The WPPD will observe its 20-year anniversary in June and has not seen an increase in the number of sworn personnel since 1995.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:40
Written by Herald-News
The 17th annual Easter Egg Hunt sponsored by the Wolf Point Optimist Club and Wolf Point Police Department was held at Faith Lutheran Home Saturday, April 19. The Easter Bunny was also on hand to greet the children. Pictured with the Easter Bunny is Hennesey Fowler, 3, of Wolf Point. (Photos by John Plestina)
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:39