More Info On The Tragic Death At The Poverello Center

by William Skink

With still no charges filed against 29 year old Johnny Lee Perry for his role in the altercation that resulted in the death (manslaughter?) of 45 year old Sean Stevenson, more information surrounding this tragic death is trickling out.

Before today’s edition of the Missoulian came out, all we knew about the man who died was his name, age and the oddly reported disclosure from the Sheriff’s Department that he was from “out-of-state”. Now we know Sean was a father and had family in Denver who didn’t realize he was using shelter services in Montana as he tried to make a fresh start.

We also know a little more about the disposition of Perry the night of the altercation:

Court filings say police interviewed witnesses at the Poverello Center, who said Stevenson and another resident had been in a “scuffle” for about 10 minutes. During that time, according to records, witnesses said Stevenson was “choked to the point of unconsciousness.”

Police identified the other resident as 29-year-old Johnny Lee Perry, who had a Montana ID. Court documents said Perry appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time. Perry refused to provide a breath sample, and officers later had his blood drawn at St. Patrick Hospital for testing.

So Perry is presumably a resident of Montana and is suspected of being drunk and/or high on drugs when he killed–let me say that again–when he KILLED Sean Stevenson. So why no charges filed yet? Because the County Attorney’s office is waiting to see if Sean Stevenson was drunk and/or high so they can avoid prosecuting Perry for a capital crime:

After arresting Perry for suspicion of aggravated assault, police released him pending an investigation into the fight. Matt Jennings, deputy county attorney, told the Missoulian Monday that authorities considered the possibility that the assault may have stemmed from self-defense.

“Whenever that’s raised, under Montana law, law enforcement has an obligation to investigate all of the facts and circumstances around that defense,” he said.
Deputy County Attorney Selene Koepke said that an autopsy was performed Jan. 6, and no decision on charges will be made by prosecutors until a medical report is completed. Interim Police Chief Mike Colyer said this week the report could take weeks to return.

Let me get this straight. The County Attorney’s Office thinks Sean Stevenson may have been drunk or high when he allegedly started a fight with Johnny Lee Perry. Despite being much smaller than Stevenson, Perry somehow gets the upper hand and chokes out Stevenson until he stops breathing. And nothing in this chain of events warrants the filing of charges yet?

While the legal side of this sad story plays out, the homeless shelter policy side is also developing, with the shelter’s Executive Director depicting critics as “misguided”:

“The Poverello focuses on safety as its number one priority for our guests and our staff, and for our volunteers,” said Thompson. “There are more opportunities for conflict with this many people in the building. All of that is really important, and it’s front of mind for us at the Povello to make sure folks are safe here.”

The incident was difficult on staff, who work long hours to serve the city’s homeless population and the challenges it brings, be it a man with holes in his only pair of boots to a woman with complex medical issues.

It’s often an underappreciated task that draws misguided criticism from some members of the community, including those who post ignorant comments on social media but have little understanding of the complexities behind the issue.

While the Poverello enjoys broad community support, the criticism can be tiring.

Yes, ignorant people post ignorant comments on social media about everything. But pointing to those idiots who are always out there talking shit seems like a ploy to deflect from legitimate criticism like mine, which is not misguided and comes from 7 years of doing the difficult work of working with people in crisis in a state like Montana that has very little to offer in terms of treatment.

The Poverello Center can play the victim card if it wants, but it won’t erase the deliberate policy decisions its leadership has made at the behest of the city to serve more people than the building was built for, and to serve more volatile people who are actively consuming alcohol and drugs by shifting to a “behavior-based model” during the winter months.

The result of these policy decisions is a tragedy I was afraid was going to happen eventually. Now that it has, maybe it’s time to start listening to legitimate critics like myself who have been raising the alarm that our current community approach is inadequate to address the need that exists.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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4 Responses to More Info On The Tragic Death At The Poverello Center

  1. LJ says:

    This story is remarkable! They have a body. They have eye witnesses. They had the known attacker, (weapon literally in ‘hands’) in custody, not once but twice. The murderer cries ‘self defense’ and everything gets sucked into the bermuda triangle? And how do they have to investigate when there’s no filing of charges? Bail?

  2. Me says:

    Thank you for your passion for justice and “voiceless “ victims. Those in shelters need the dignity of care, safety AND due process.

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