When Jeffrey M. Smith, Jr., the maverick millionaire behind the Missoula-based JS Corp and Internet Connect Services, couldn’t get the concealed weapon permit that he wanted in Missoula County, he sued. When a Missoula District Court and the Montana Supreme Court upheld the rejection of his application, he simply went to neighboring Lake County and applied for the same permit, which was granted by Lake County Sheriff Bill Barron.
It was that easy.
Despite the fact that Smith had admitted to criminal charges, including assault, stemming from his violent and terrifying attack on two Missoula women in 1993, despite his psychiatrist’s subsequent diagnosis of manic depression, and despite Missoula District Court Judge Douglas Harkin’s ruling, upheld by the Montana Supreme Court, that Smith’s criminal history places him “far below the class of persons who are entitled to a concealed weapons permit,” Smith now has permission to carry a hidden gun anywhere in the state of Montana.
“From what I know of him, I couldn’t see a problem,” says Sheriff Barron. “With the information I had, I didn’t see how I could really deny it.”
Ignorance of Smith’s criminal history, the mental health assessments that became part of Smith’s public court files, and Smith’s losing battle to get a concealed weapon permit in Missoula County, doesn’t necessarily suggest ineptitude or negligence on the part of the Lake County Sheriff. Barron says his office performed the requisite investigation of Smith’s background.
Smith’s success in obtaining the permit can be attributed more directly to his effective legal maneuvering and a weak state law that makes concealed weapon permits readily available to anyone who passes a cursory background check.
“He doesn’t have a criminal record,” Barron explains.
Surprisingly enough, that’s true. But how?
A criminal history
On the evening of November 12, 1993, Smith went berserk. According to court documents, he says he consumed massive amounts of alcohol and jumped out of a moving vehicle before chancing upon two women in the parking lot of the Mullan Park office building at Front and Orange streets. He told the women he was with the government and that he intended to arrest them. The women immediately returned to their office and locked the door. Smith followed, broke through the glass and entered the office. He then told the women he was going to kill them.
The women barricaded themselves inside another room. Smith then began to break office furniture and attempted to kick in the barricaded door and persisted with his threats to kill them. Eventually the women dialed 911, and Smith was arrested and charged with burglary, two counts of assault, criminal mischief, possession of drugs, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
As part of his plea agreement the charge of criminal mischief was dismissed, and Smith pleaded guilty to the other charges, including the felony charge of burglary. He also submitted a sworn affidavit describing years of symptoms that supported a diagnosis of manic depression, suggesting that his violent behavior was linked mental illness.
Smith received a deferred sentence, and after behaving himself for three years, he was allowed to withdraw his guilty pleas and enter pleas of not guilty to all the charges. The charges were then dismissed, and his record expunged, effectively clearing his name.
“According to the printout I have, he was never tried,” Barron says.
Two months after withdrawing his guilty pleas, Smith applied for a concealed weapon permit, but was denied by the Missoula County Sheriff. He tried again in April of 1997. Later that year, he sued Missoula County and the Sheriff’s Office to give him the permit, and took his case all the way to the Montana Supreme Court. As part of the court proceedings, Smith contended that his previous diagnosis of manic depression was mistaken, and that he is now mentally stable.
But Missoula District Judge Douglas Harkin noted that Smith gave his most recent examining psychiatrist a different personal history than the one he had provided to the court in 1993. Harkin also noted that Smith had made false statements regarding his medical treatment in his earlier affidavit, and that he had concealed information regarding previous criminal charges, leading Missoula Sheriff Doug Chase to wonder if Smith might have been involved in other violent incidents that he has failed to disclose. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of Harkin, who found “overwhelming evidence that Smith is a threat to the peace and good order of the community.”
Six months later, Smith submitted his application in Lake County.
Attempts to contact Smith for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Through the cracks
According to the Montana Department of Justice, there are approximately 9,700 concealed weapon permits issued across the state. That might be too many for any law enforcement agency to track carefully. “I’d like to spend more time on background checks. It’s a serious matter,” says Missoula Sheriff Chase, who estimates that his office has issued roughly 870 permits.
Applications submitted to Chase’s office are given to detectives, who take from 45 to 60 days to research records from county, state and federal sources, Chase says.
Applicants don’t need to have an extraordinary need for the concealed weapon, or any special qualifications. If they’re eligible to own a gun, they’re probably eligible to have a concealed weapon permit, concedes Chase. State law mandates that concealed weapon permits can be denied only if the applicant poses a threat to the community, or has a mental disability. “To be frank with you, there are very few denials,” Chase says. In Lake County, Deputy Chief Ed Todd says his office relies on the FBI to complete background checks. So far this year, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office has processed 48 applications, and since 1994, the Sheriff’s office has issued 719 concealed weapon permits, Todd says. That’s in a county with a population of just 25,000.
Like Chase, Barron says he approves the vast majority of applications, but he notes that he’s never authorized a permit for anybody with a felony conviction.
In Smith’s case, Barron said his office contacted the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office for additional information, but learned nothing that warranted rejection of Smith’s application. Barron said he was unaware of the details of Smith’s criminal history, the concerns about his mental health, or the rejection of his permit application in Missoula County until he was contacted by the Independent.
“I’m surprised that it didn’t get picked up, but I fault nobody for that,” says Chase. “I don’t feel Sheriff Barron made a mistake.” But that doesn’t mean the outcome pleases Chase. He thinks Smith has circumvented the process. “I think it shows a flaw in the system,” he says. “Does it inflame me? No. Frustrate me? Probably.”
But overall, Chase says he’s relatively unconcerned about concealed weapons. “I do not get heartburn over concealed weapons. I don’t know of any sheriff in the state of Montana who’s had a problem with a concealed weapon permit,” he says.
But on the other hand, Chase can’t recall a single specific instance where a concealed weapon has saved anybody’s life or protected anybody’s property.
Major system failure?
“I find it very disappointing that our concealed weapon statutes are so poorly constructed,” says Missoula Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Mike
Sehestedt, who defended the county from Smith’s lawsuit. Sehestedt’s boss, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, seems inclined to agree. “The Legislature has made a choice to make it relatively easy for people to get a concealed weapon permit,” he says, pointing out that he voted against the current law when he served in the state Senate.
Not only does Montana law set a low standard for an applicant’s qualifications—in fact, neither Missoula nor Lake counties even asks about the applicant’s mental health on the application form—it doesn’t even require that an applicant reside in the county where the application is made, allowing Montana residents to seek a concealed weapon permit in any county they choose.
“I think that’s a huge loophole in the law. You’ve got 56 chances to get a concealed weapon permit,” says Van Valkenburg. “From a personal point of view, I think it’s much too easy.”
Nevertheless, Van Valkenburg goes out of his way to minimize the controversy, explaining that concealed weapons almost never cause problems. “I think the greater problem is the people who have concealed weapons without permits,” he says.
As for Smith’s apparent end run, Van Valkenburg says he’d need more information before concluding that Sheriff Barron made a mistake. For now, he does not feel called to action. But Deputy County Attorney Sehestedt recognizes that the consequences could be serious, should Smith cause trouble again.
“If something bad does happen,” Sehestedt warns, “the Lake County Sheriff has put himself in a position to be very badly second guessed.”
Editor’s note: Jeff Smith is the former owner and publisher of the Missoula Independent. He was the defendant in a breach of contract and trademark dilution suit filed by the paper’s current owner. The case was settled out of court last year.