The stone age

An assault marks a bystander

| September 01, 2011

It was Aug. 13, and crowd noise was rising from the bright, hot wash of Ogren Park's lights, making us feel like we were missing something on the other side of the river. My friend Derek and I crossed the Clark Fork at the California Street Bridge. The sky in the west was orange and burnt red. To the south it was thickly dark, threatening a storm that would never arrive.

We passed the graffiti wall at the south end of the bridge and started down the newly landscaped river trail. The light was fading, the air warm but no longer hot. That's when we heard the screaming.

A woman came running out of the brush. She was wailing, crying into a cell phone. The side of her face was freshly swollen and blood came from her mouth and forehead and left temple.

She said her name was Sam. If it weren't for the suddenness of blood, I might be able to recall exactly how our conversation went. I recall her breathlessness. I remember her saying that a man had tried to kill her with a rock, and that he was still in the bushes trying to kill her boyfriend. I wanted to touch and comfort her, but I also worried about getting her blood on my skin, and felt ashamed about it.

Derek took the cell phone from Sam. He told 911 where we were and what had happened—what was happening. I told Sam to keep moving. We walked along the path, toward the stadium lights, as the focus of her hysteria shifted from her cracked front teeth to the whereabouts of her boyfriend.

Then a man staggered from the woods near the spot where Sam had appeared. Even in the ballpark's glow, it was difficult to see him as he moved toward us.

"That's him," Sam sobbed.

I again told her to keep moving, this time more urgently. I was sure this was the man who had hit her, who was coming after her, who was drunk or high and staggering in the delirium of just having beaten her boyfriend to death with a rock. And then she ran to him. It was her boyfriend.

He was covered in blood. His shirt was saturated and his face was slick with deep scarlet already drying to black around his eyebrows. He had swelling like Sam's but it was clear that most of the blood was coming from the top of his forehead, which was splayed open. "Why did he do that?" he said, over and over. His eyes were unblinking and brilliantly blue.

When the first police officer arrived, Sam's boyfriend looked at me desperately. I assured him it was safe now, help was here. He shook his head. "They won't believe anything I tell them," he said. "I'm drunk."

Then three officers were on the scene. Two headed for the bushes while one questioned the victims. Derek asked if we were free to go. The officer said we were.

In December of 2007, near where we encountered Sam, 18-year-old Anthony St. Dennis, a Hellgate High School senior, and 20-year-old Dustin Strahan allegedly killed Forest Clayton Salcido, a 56-year-old homeless Vietnam veteran, by stomping on his head. They were charged with deliberate homicide. In 2009, St. Dennis was convicted of killing Salcido and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Strahan, who testified against St. Dennis, pled guilty to a lesser charge of accountability to deliberate homicide and was sentenced to 30 years in prison with the possibility of parole after five years.

On Aug. 22, Raymond Big Beaver, a transient, went on trial for the April 2010 beating death of another homeless man, 46-year-old Johnny Joe Belmarez, in a downtown Missoula alley. A jury acquitted Big Beaver of murder last week but found him guilty of misdemeanor assault. He was released, after having served nearly 16 months in jail.

The day after Sam and her boyfriend were beaten, KPAX ran a brief on the incident, identifying them both as 28 and from Billings. They were treated and released from St. Patrick's Hospital. The story said they were transients. Missoula Police did not release their names. On Aug. 26, police said they already had a suspect in the beating, a white, 25-year-old man whom they think is also homeless. On Aug. 30, they said they still had not made an arrest.

A few days after Sam's beating, I went for a run, heading west from Madison Street on the Kim Williams Trail. When I got to the California Street Bridge, I slowed to a walk. There were drops of dried blood there, but unless you were looking for them, you never would've noticed.

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