Missing In Montana And My Cynicism On The Narrative Framing

by Travis Mateer

In my studio I have a map of Montana. On that map I have three push pins: one for Taylor Simonson, one for Johnny Lee Perry and one for Rebekah Barsotti. Is there a connection?

Rebekah Barsotti went missing on July 20th near Alberton, Montana, east of Missoula. Mineral County was initially responsible for the investigation, since Rebekah was last seen at a Town Pump in Superior, but the discovery of Rebekah’s deceased dog, found 10 miles down river where Rebekah’s belongings were found, shifted the investigation to Missoula County.

The narrative, according to authorities, is that Rebekah went into the river to save her dog and they both died. The Sheriff Deputy responsible for establishing this narrative with local media (to the exclusion of other possibilities) is Bill Burt. Here is an example of how the narrative is being formed:

A search was launched along what Missoula County Sheriff’s Captain Bill Burt calls a “chaotic stretch of river with deep areas, and some 90 degree bends,” where the current will pull you under.

In addition to assuming Rebekah drowned in the Clark Fork river, Bill Burt also wants the public to know how much money has already been spent on searching (and failing to find) Rebekah Barsotti.

Captain Burt tallies about 2,000 volunteer hours from Missoula and Mineral, and surrounding counties. He added that about 30 percent of Missoula’s Search and Rescue’s fuel budget for this fiscal year, which began on July 1st, has been used solely on the search for Rebekah.

The problem? Rebekah’s parents don’t think she went into the water and drowned, and they have good reason to think that.

Rebekah’s parents tell Dateline they are grateful for the overwhelming help from law enforcement and the community, but add they fear all resources went into a search of the water early on when they actually believe their daughter is on land.

“We know she was at that location where her stuff was found, because there’s video on her phone of that area,” Angela said. “But we don’t believe that she’s in the water.”

Angela told Dateline that authorities believe Rebekah jumped in the river to save her dog, but some details don’t add up for her, like that her belongings were neatly piled on the beach. She said if it was an emergency situation, Rebekah wouldn’t have paused to take things out of her pockets.

I reached out to Rebekah’s parents and have since spoken with them. I try to be upfront about my biases, like my cynicism when it comes to institutional power. 

For example, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department COULD NOT FIND a family member of Sean Stevenson before he was pulled from life support at St. Patrick’s hospital TWO DAYS after he was assaulted at the Poverello Center by Johnny Lee Perry (named at the top of this article). This despite the Sheriff’s Office ALSO acting in the capacity as the coroner and ALSO being IN THE ROOM with Sean before this lethal act occurred.

And Johnny?

While so much about what happened to Johnny in an isolated area of Missoula on a road that connects to Alberton if you drive far enough is NOT known, what HAS BEEN reported is that Missoula County Sheriff Deputies (still unnamed) FAILED to deescalate an agitated Johnny, who was wielding a machete (allegedly), so he had to be shot and killed.

So I’m a little cynical, I tell Rebekah’s parents, about the leadership being provided by Sheriff T.J. McDermott and County Attorney Kirsten Pabst when it comes to how resources are being used to do things like investigate stuff and prosecute bad guys.

My suspicion about Taylor Simonson was partly fueled by a coroner’s inquest I attended in October regarding the lethal shooting of Steven Gill by Missoula PD. I had no idea this happened at the time (September 2019), and a quick search before posting indicates NO MEDIA has covered the coroner’s inquest last month (despite the efforts of another local Missoulian to bring attention to this story).

How can this be?

By attending the inquest I learned that Steven Gill had prior interactions with law enforcement. I learned this because County prosecutor, Matt Jennings, asked Steven’s grieving mother about this negative interaction with law enforcement. Maybe it’s relevant that you’ve been an asshole to cops when two cops are being looked at for shooting this man 4 times in the back while he was on his knees in an RV by a toilet, but I’m not a lawyer, so I ain’t gonna opine on that.

What I WILL do is add a data point to a totally different case with no connection to the shooting death of Steven Gill, and that’s the case of Taylor Simonson, who went missing last month in another remote part of Missoula, south of where Johnny Lee Perry was shot (if my sense of where his disappearance is accurate).

I had a hunch that Simonson had priors, so I looked and found that he most certainly did, including an assault on a peace officer charge from 2008. This doesn’t prove anything, but is worth considering, IMHO.

Yesterday I spoke to someone who said she heard Simonson has recently been found dead less than a mile from his truck. This is “friend of a friend” kind of stuff, so not confirmed, but I will mention again that our Sheriff’s Department is ALSO the Coroner, and therefore has a lot of power and control over information and, therefore, the official narrative.

What kind of power? Ask the Queen of England, since that is where this antiquated bullshit stems from. Here’s a quick history lesson from a Washington Post op-ed advocating for abolishing the role of the coroner:

Coroners are often confused with medical examiners, but they are two very different positions, and they rarely overlap. A medical examiner is a doctor who performs autopsies after suspicious deaths. The county coroner is an elected position. In most states, you don’t need any medical training, police training or crime investigation training to run for the office. There are only a few states where the coroner must be a physician, and even in those states there’s a big loophole — if no doctor wants the office, anyone can run for it.

Back in medieval England, the office of “coroner” originally had nothing to do with death. The coroner’s responsibility for investigating suspicious deaths came about almost by accident. The background on how all of that happened is pretty fascinating, but a bit too involved to get into here. (You can read all about it in my forthcoming book, “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist.”) The office of coroner was essentially a catch-all position for the crown, but that didn’t neatly fit under any other office (“coroner” comes from “crowner,” or an agent of the crown). You can still see vestiges of the coroner’s utility function in the United States. In some states, the county coroner is responsible for auctioning off unclaimed property. In others, he or she is the only public official with the power to arrest the county sheriff. Until the 1990s, coroners in Mississippi had two responsibilities: investigate suspicious deaths, and round up any stray livestock and return it to its rightful owner. A call in the middle of the night could have been to investigate a murder, or it could have been to catch some pigs.

Last February, up in Great Falls, the Cascade County Sheriff, Jesse Slaughter (yes, that’s really his name) requested the County Commissioners explore splitting the coroner from the Sheriff’s Department. Here’s why (emphasis mine):

Cascade County opted to combine the offices about 20 years ago, Slaughter said, but he’s asking commissioners to split them again since “there’s a fundamental conflict of the office of the sheriff and the coroner being combined.”

I think this context is relevant, especially for family members forced to rely on these specific levers of institutional power and the people operating them.

As a parent, my heart goes out to Rebekah’s mom and dad. I can’t imagine what they are going through. If anyone reading this has any information about the disappearance of Rebekah Barsotti, an image of the poster is below.

Thanks for reading!

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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3 Responses to Missing In Montana And My Cynicism On The Narrative Framing

  1. Combining sheriff and coroner is usually said to be done to save money. I have always found it to be suspect. That is too much power in one office, no checks and balances.

  2. This afternoon the Missoula County Sheriff’s Dept announced the discovery of Taylor Simon’s remains. https://nbcmontana.com/news/local/remains-found-west-of-missoula-idd

  3. Pingback: Montana’s Coroner Inquest Process Is Terrible And This Year’s Legislative Action Only Pretends To Make It More Transparent | Zoom Chron Blog

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