by Travis Mateer
Around 7:30am, on the morning of September 8th, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) called the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. Unbeknownst to the volunteers who were preparing to assist that morning in the trash removal from the Reserves Street Homeless camps, the plan was to dismantle a semi-permanent structure inhabited by a psychologically unstable homeless resident by the name of Todd Spence.
September 8th was also Todd Spence’s birthday.
The first contact by the Sheriff’s Office that morning resulted in Todd Spence being cited for trespassing. He was issued a citation, then told to leave the area. Spence gathered his belongings into three bags, then biked to the spot where volunteers were preparing for the day’s work.
When I spoke with Todd Spence that morning, after putting on my bright reflective vest, there was a lot I didn’t know. I didn’t know Spence had already been cited for trespassing, I didn’t know the plan was to remove the structure he’d called home for nearly 3 years, and I didn’t know he was a sex offender convicted of an incest charge. Hell, I didn’t even know the Queen of England had just died. I was just there to help my community manage a geographic area of town I once had more direct involvement with as the Homeless Outreach Coordinator of the Poverello Center.
Before that morning I had one previous interaction with Spence, in the spring, during another cleanup. His behavior then, swinging around a machete at his vast encampment, had concerned me, and his behavior now was concerning me. After talking about our role as volunteers with Spence, and writing down my phone number in one of his notebooks, I proceeded to the work site to get to work.
And that’s when I realized the plan was to take apart this:
When I coordinated biannual cleanups in this area, we didn’t touch active camp sites. Also, due to the consistency of the cleanups, permanent structures like these NEVER GOT BUILT in the first place.
But that all changed when I left my job in 2016.
The hands-off approach that has existed over the subsequent years (until one citizen had enough and got directly involved) has ONLY been able to exist because of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office NOT enforcing laws.
But wasting public tax dollars through Sheriff Office inaction wasn’t enough for our caring community. No, the Montana Department of Transportation saw the STELLAR WORK of a certain private security firm (Rogers International) and decided to give them a contract of their own.
Now, thanks to this brilliant move by MDT, there’s a PUBLIC/PRIVATE coalition of failure that was reported on, after the two assaults, like this (emphasis mine):
No, Bob, you don’t have “great many details” because you DID NOT answer your phone when I called you TWICE about what happened, so your ignorance is quite intentional. And I get it. Who wants to talk to a frustrated citizen who told you your dumb fence strategy was going to fail while describing your function as a soccer ball, getting kicked around by people with more power than you?
The details are where this story gets absolutely maddening, especially when you consider this day, September 8th, was the same day our elected leaders got together on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn to beg the Missoula electorate to pass the 5 million dollar mill levy for “crisis services” this fall. Those services include the Mobile Crisis Unit.
I wish the Mobile Crisis Unit would have been on site when Todd Spence returned to the area of the clean up because I doubt they would have momentarily detained him on the sidewalk, the way a volunteer described seeing Sheriff Deputies do, then inexplicably RELEASE him with another empty verbal command to leave, which Spence promptly ignored.
And then guess what the Sheriff Deputies did? They DROVE AWAY!
After obtaining a safety vest, Todd Spence took his bike and went to defend the destruction of his home, which entailed climbing a bulldozer and punching a MDT staff repeatedly in the face. This is how Todd Spence dealt with the confusion he had expressed earlier, at the volunteer sign-in area, as to why MDT was present, stating the property out there was his. I guess after 3 years of allowing this man to live out there, he got the impression the land belonged to him.
When I asked Deputy Jessop, later in the day, why the Mobile Crisis Unit wasn’t brought in, I was told that Spence wasn’t in the right state of mind for them to be effective, so the Sheriff’s Office didn’t want to “waste their time”. Instead, they let Spence go, and it wasn’t just two assaults that resulted. A local reporter, who was there to cover the cleanup, had to quickly evacuate the area after the volunteer coordinator called to warn her of the developing situation.
I got a similar call, but was already nearly there, so I kept going and saw a half dozen MDT staff slowly following an agitated Spence at a safe distance down a dry riverbed. A few minutes later Sheriff Deputies arrived BACK on the scene and actually did a fantastic job taking Spence into custody without shooting or tasing him. Considering I’d been told by Spence previously that he’s been tased at least 4 times, I’m glad there was restraint at that moment by the two Deputies.
Another question I had that day for Deputy Jessop is why the extent of charges initially shows up on the Missoula County Jail Roster as this:
I was told something about how the lack of fear from the two victims of Spence’s assaults indicated that it didn’t meet the statutory requirements for a more serious charge. Or some shit like that. There was also some speculation about how the County Attorney’s Office would probably amend down a more serious charge.
See how this works? And do you, dear reader, have a better understanding why one of the three recipients of my open letter is County Attorney, Kirsten Pabst?
I know Pabst has a soft spot in her heart for men who commit violence against more vulnerable people, but allowing an offender, who was convicted of incest, to live not all that far from Hellgate Elmentary School seems like a terrible idea to me.
And to back up the incest claim, here’s a screenshot:
During my work at the Poverello Center, I was actually an advocate for better serving sex offenders in our community, so, despite this unstable offender committing several assaults that day, I called up a contact I have at the jail and got it ok’d to hand-deliver his most important belongings. I did this for two reasons. One, so that he would have them upon discharge, which could be any time, since his bond is so low. And two, so that he would have a positive association with me getting his shit back for him, since I ALSO participated in destroying his home.
After all this excitement, I somehow managed to show up five minutes BEFORE our elected leaders were set to make their pitch for the 5 million dollar mill levy. I told them, as briefly and calmly as I could muster, that two MDT staff had just been assaulted, and that this was a result of terrible communication. I hope I didn’t deflate the political sails of the City and County officials who were there, like Mayoral hopeful, Jordan Hess, County Commissioner, Josh Slotnick and the Queen who IS NOT dead, Gwen Jones.
One of the lingering questions I still have, which I hope to get answered when some of the people I called last week call me back (or speak with me when I show up, in person, at their office) is WHO initiated the clean-up on September 8th, the Montana Department of Transportation, or the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office? This is an important question, and this NBC Montana article makes it sound like it wasn’t MDT. From the link (emphasis mine):
Since volunteers were asked to be present that day by MDT, it’s unclear to me who would have planned this, or initiated it, if it wasn’t MDT.
I know Sheriff T.J. McDermott doesn’t have much time left to be Sheriff, so if he wants to start acting like an effective leader for whatever he thinks the future has in store for him, now is his chance to step up, take some accountability, and give the public some fucking transparency.
The other alternative is the coward’s route of finding a scapegoat to throw under the bus. Since the Sheriff’s Office is a political office, I suspect the latter will be his choice.
Prove me wrong, Sheriff McDermott.