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"I went in my bedroom and shut the door and I started thinking about it and telling myself, 'I didn't do it,'" Beach said in the confession. "And I finally went to sleep. And then I went—I woke up a couple of hours later and I went down and my mother was cooking eggs and bacon and she asked me if I was hungry. And I said, 'Yeah.' And she asked me where I had been all night and I told her I had been upstairs in my bed asleep. She said, 'Oh, I was wondering where you had been. I been looking for you.'"
Sissy Atkinson had been drinking at Poplar's Bum Steer Bar the night Kim Nees was killed. The bar's owner, Roberta Louise Ryan, called "Bobby," testified later that the Bum Steer was busy that night until closing time. Ryan recalled that Atkinson had been in and out of the bar into the early morning hours of June 16, sneaking alcohol to her underage friends, Maude Greyhawk, Jordis Ferguson and two sisters, Joanne and Roberta Jackson.
- Barry Beach’s senior high school photo
Atkinson had a baby at home. The child's father, Alex Joseph Trottier Jr., had also dated Kim Nees. Beach's legal team believes that Atkinson was the ringleader behind Nees' attack. They say jealousy was the motive.
Ryan testified that the young women seemed energized as they came and went through her bar. She noticed the girls because they were underage and kicked them out.
When investigators arrived at the crime scene on the morning of June 16, there was a blood spot about 10 feet to the right of the truck. Nees' bloody purse and sweater lay on the ground outside the passenger side of the vehicle. Officers followed a trail littered with pieces of hair and spots of blood to the river where they found Nees lying in about two feet of water.
In Nees' truck, there was blood spatter on the ceiling and the driver's side rear window. There was blood and urine on the truck's seat and three gouge marks on the ceiling with hair hanging out of them.
The Roosevelt County Sheriff, FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fort Peck Tribal Police and Poplar City Police investigated the crime. According to a 1979 autopsy, Nees sustained injuries to the head and neck and defensive wounds on her hands. Her attacker, or attackers, struck Nees more than 30 times, causing extensive skull fractures and brain bleeding. A forensic pathologist believed that Nees could not have lived longer than 30 minutes after receiving the head injuries.
For the last 18 months, Beach says he would read his Bible every morning inside his Billings home. He'd sit next to his living room window, under a buffalo head that's mounted on the wall. Beach said he's always believed in God. While in prison, his faith strengthened.
- Kim Nees
"I really believed that they were going to end up executing me and that my life was going to end in the electric chair," he said. "And so I just wanted to know that there really is a spirit world ... I just wanted to know, so that when they pushed that button on me and that electricity raced through my body, I'd be able to smile because I'd know."
While in prison, Beach took Bible classes through the mail, creating his own hybrid of Christianity and Native American traditions. Beach said his evolving belief system helped him fend off depression. In the early days of his imprisonment, he prayed that God would end his life. He contemplated suicide. "Because you just can't do another day of it," he said. He eventually figured that his death would only concede victory to the state.
"I would never give the state of Montana that satisfaction," Beach said. "I was never going to let them win."
He learned to channel his emotions and energy. Beach got a job in the prison maintenance department. He took classes and honed his skills in construction, electrical wiring and computer basics. During Beach's nearly three decades in prison, he earned 64 certificates of achievement for his educational accomplishments.
Beach appeared destined to never leave prison until Centurion Ministries picked up his case in 1999. The New Jersey-based nonprofit, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted, was struck by its initial findings. "We felt that Barry demonstrated in his confession a complete ignorance of the crime and how it happened," said Jim McCloskey, Centurion's founder and executive director. "So we were very, very skeptical of that confession."
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Barry Beach has kept extensive records from his long legal battle.
McCloskey estimated that he and his staff have made at least 100 trips to Montana since taking on Beach's case. While Nees hasn't been ruled out as the person who left the bloody palm print, FBI scientists say that it doesn't belong to Beach. Furthermore, Centurion investigators have discovered multiple people who say that Atkinson and Greyhawk admitted to harming Nees.
Maude Greyhawk's sister-in-law, Judy Greyhawk, testified during Beach's 2011 evidentiary hearing that Maude admitted to luring Nees to the river and kicking her. Another witness, Janice White Eagle-Johnson, said that Greyhawk admitted to her that her car was present at the crime scene.
One of Sissy Atkinson's former coworkers, Carl Four Star Jr., testified that he overheard Atkinson say that law enforcement "Got the wrong man." Four Star said that Atkinson admitted to beating Nees with a few other women. He added that Atkinson bragged that the women, "'Got away with the perfect crime.'"
A fourth witness, Richard Holan, testified during Beach's evidentiary hearing that he noticed Nees' truck early on June 16. Inside the vehicle, he saw silhouettes of five people, including who he believed to be Nees and an unidentified male. He testified that he saw two vehicles in the train bridge area that night.
Holan told the court that a few days after the crime he reported what he saw to Poplar Police Officer Steve Greyhawk, but Holan said nothing came of it. Bobby Atkinson, Sissy's brother, was the Poplar Police Chief at that time. Steve Greyhawk is Maude's father.
On June 17, before the Poplar Police sent evidence collected at the Nees crime scene to the county sheriff, Steve Greyhawk admitted to breaching an area that had been locked temporarily to keep the evidence safe. Greyhawk said that he kicked the door down because he had to use the restroom.