by Travis Mateer
Before we get to the legal term in the title of this post, I want to take a look at the show Ozarks, specifically some dialogue in the first episode between the financial planner/cartel money launderer, Marty Byrd, and the Sheriff.
For context, Marty’s daughter, Charlotte, gets herself into trouble with some locals and a stolen boat. Here is how Marty assesses the situation as he verbally spars with The Law in this backwoods, tourist-dependent community:
[Marty] $1,575 for a propeller.
[sheriff] Stainless steel speed prop. Seems your daughter and her friends parked a little too close to shore.
They’re not her friends.
Yeah, and she didn’t know that this boat was stolen. She thought a teenager running
a leaf blower at a prom night motel lived in a $5 million home? Drove a $90,000 boat?
-Do you know who they are?
-Wyatt Langmore and his brother, Three. Now, joyriding’s not usually their MO, but trust me when I tell you they can’t afford to pay.
And you’re assuming we will? -Mm-hmm.
Charlotte painted a picture to my deputy of a girl of some privilege. Private school education. Suburban home. I’m guessing that your current choice in lodging is a reflection of frugality rather than necessity.
-A guessing game. That’s fun. Can I try?
-Um, I’m thinking that arresting the white trash that almost killed my daughter and extracting the truth is hard, time-consuming work. Work which, if given a choice, like us, you’d gladly forego.
-[Wendy] Marty… -[clears throat]
So, uh, my guess is that this all comes down to simple, run-of-the-mill laziness.
-Shut up, Marty.
What happened there?
I have 1,150 miles of shoreline to patrol and eight boats. I care about the taxpaying citizens of this county, and the tourism dollar upon which they depend.
So…to those intent on leaving a light economic footprint, staying in the cheapest possible places, sucking the tit of this department, while criticizing me in the prosecution of my duties, I say, “Go… to fucking Branson.”
Now, let’s finish booking Charlotte, shall we?
Are you an appointed or an elected official, Sheriff?
And do the… the Langmores vote?
Not historically. No, ma’am.
I would think that votes would be valuable around here. Do they pay taxes?
We do. Both.
I like referencing fiction like this because it’s a common framework that people outside of places like Missoula and the surrounding area can relate to. Also, it bolsters one of my current contentions, which is that we, in Montana, are living out episodes of the Ozarks every day.
Money and water are the twin threads I see weaving between this work of fiction and the lives of three young women cut short in Montana, women who all died in, or around, water. In this post I’ll examine the connections and implications for tourist-dependent communities in Big Sky Country with what appears, on the surface, to be a lack of resources to do proper investigations.
Sheriff resources west of Missoula, in Mineral County, have caught some recent headlines after a shootout in St. Regis put half of the Sheriff’s Office on administrative leave. That’s why the Sheriff Facebook account put out the following notice to its citizens:
The connection between local resources and the deaths of Rebekah Barsotti, Linnea Mills and Courtney Klagues is the fact all three families had to hire private entities to do more comprehensive investigations than local authorities were either ABLE to do, or WILLING to do.
I don’t need to know what the investigative disconnect is in order to raise awareness on social media about the risk of letting your adult kids come to Big Sky Country. I just need a well-written article raising serious questions in ANOTHER case where serious questions are warranted, like this Kaimin piece, written by Griffen Smith.
When you click the link you will see that my warning is not just hyperbole. For the purposes of this post, here’s the part about Courtney’s family hiring an outside entity to do an outside investigation (emphasis mine):
The Klagues family also enlisted the opinion of a private accident reconstruction company out of California called OnPoint Forensics in 2021. That group went to the Forest Service road and created its own crash analysis, which yielded a different result than the highway patrol.
“Our investigation determined the speed of the Jeep was likely in excess of 20 miles per hour,” wrote Michael Segura, a reconstruction specialist for OnPoint Forensics. Segura also disputed that the car hit a rock at all, based on the angle that the car went off the road.
That would raise the question of how the car suddenly swerved. OnPoint Forensics doesn’t have any answers.
In an email to Bradshaw on May 13, 2021, Trooper Rhodes disputed many points of the OnPoint Forensics report, including that speed was a factor, but did think it’s possible that the steering piece originally listed in the report was not broken.
The dispute has sparked a review of the case with the Montana Department of Justice. Emily Flower, the press secretary for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, said in a statement that when new evidence is presented to law enforcement, investigators must review the case.
What kind of responsibility do authorities have when it comes to doing proper investigations? And, if they don’t have the resources, how can resources be brought in to ensure we honor those who have died in Big Sky Country under potentially criminal conditions?
I would think a state banking on the tourism dollar might want to get its shit together as different tragic scenarios keep turning up dead women in, and around, water. Instead, local authorities keep sending grieving families the message that their loved ones don’t matter.
One of the more recent articles about the death of Linnea Mills shows how possible negligence by a scuba-diving company was treated by investigating authorities. From the link (emphasis mine):
Colcannon said a GNP ranger handled the first part of the investigation but was replaced after about eight days by the National Park Service Investigative Services Bureau. That’s when things started to go wrong, Colcannon said.
Colcannon said the investigators didn’t follow up on what the ranger had found out and didn’t consult with NPS dive safety experts to find out what they needed to know. They didn’t gather information from the students’ and instructors’ dive computers, which would have shown what each was doing at the time of the accident.
And finally, they didn’t look for evidence as to whether Snow was mentally impaired at the time, Colcannon said. He compared it to a traffic fatality where investigators always test drivers for impairment.
“They didn’t do it. They should have. I did. The evidence as to whether or not she was impaired exists,” Colcannon said. “So, they stopped using the protocols for investigations by the Park Service, they don’t look at critical evidence, they ignore removal of evidence, they don’t talk to eyewitnesses who were present at the scene. Instead, they give information to the Assistant U.S. Attorney to prosecute under an intentional homicide standard, which means Debbie Snow intended to kill Linnea Mills, which was never the case. But they don’t look at a negligent homicide standard.”
There is a lot of bold in the above excerpt, but I want to draw attention to the last point of emphasis, and that’s the prosecutorial decision to go for a HIGHER standard than what the evidence supports. Is this intentional? I’m not sure, but it makes me think of the coroner’s inquest process in Montana. Here’s an article about that process, since TWO women recently died of overdoses INSIDE the Missoula Detention facility, which is run by the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. From the link (emphasis mine):
Missoula jury on Friday cleared two drug-related deaths at the Missoula jail of being caused by any criminal means.
The back-to-back coroner’s inquests led a nine-person jury through the deaths of Wendy L. Gottfried, 30, and Maryjane F. Galloway, 37. Both women died of drug overdoses at the Missoula jail in a two-month period in late 2022. Friday’s inquest tasked the jury with determining if either death happened by homicide.
Inquests take place whenever a person dies in custody, such as being shot by a law enforcement officer or dying in a detention facility. In a coroner’s inquest, the dead person is not represented in the same manner as a defendant is in court proceedings. However, members of the public can ask questions if they’re approved by the presiding coroner before the inquest.
This process of investigating suspicious deaths with a coroner’s inquest is a fucking sham providing zero chance of accountability by ONLY looking at criminal charges, like homicide, and that seems to be by design.
So, what are families supposed to do? I haven’t even touched on what Rebekah Barsotti’s mother, Angela Mastrovito, has dealt with by paying for private investigators and private search and rescue teams and a private medical examiner to do a second autopsy, because this post is already getting a little too long. I’ll conclude by restating the question posed in the title of the post: have we arrived at a “manifest abuse of discretion” yet? Here’s the quote from Smith’s article where the legal term is used:
There’s not much someone can do if a county attorney refuses to prosecute a case, unless that prosecutor acted with a “manifest abuse of discretion,” which is when someone acts without conscious judgment or exceeds the bounds of reason resulting in injustice, according to Montana law.
If you ask me, the answer is a resounding YES!
Thanks for reading!