Above the law

In Lake County, it's hard to tell some cops from the criminals



In 2005, a moose was standing somewhere in the mountains north of Columbia Falls when Jesse Jacobs allegedly shot it. Jacobs didn't have a permit, however, so he reportedly got one from a friend who was a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The tribal member took the meat. Jacobs claimed the head and antlers, which he would later mount and hang on his wall.

Jacobs, who had been in the Lake County Sheriff's Office's reserve training program, was charged with two poaching felonies in August 2010.

Meanwhile, Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Duryee was spinning tall tales about his heroic service in the Gulf War, when in fact Duryee had never even been in the military. The Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, is the state body that polices the police. As POST investigated Duryee's lies last year, it learned of other, potentially criminal activities in the Lake County Sheriff's Office—including poaching.

They didn't know it at the time, but investigators from POST and from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks were working separately on what would turn out to be two angles to the same story. When they crossed paths, they realized that they had something bigger than fibs or poaching on their hands.

They discovered a hive of law enforcement misconduct in Lake County.

In September 2010, on the same day that Jacobs was charged with felony poaching, FWP began to take sworn statements from Lake County Sheriff's deputies and detectives, trying to determine who else in the office might have been poaching. FWP ultimately interviewed more than 50 people in the case, including several informants and former officers. The investigation, led by Game Warden Frank Bowen, pieced together details of what was known as the Coyote Club, a circle of Lake County law enforcement officers who'd allegedly been poaching game animals for more than a decade.

But during Bowen's interviews, something even more serious kept bobbing up. Several sources told him that in 2004, Lake County Sheriff's personnel conspired to conceal the involvement of a deputy in a boating-accident death.

It appeared that there was a "culture of corruption" in the Lake County Sheriff's Office, Bowen wrote in a 2010 report summarizing his findings. There was an old saying that "you can't break the law if you are the law," Bowen noted. In the Lake County Sheriff's Office, he said, that saying made some officers smile and left others disgusted. "There seemed to be a misguided brotherhood that covered for others even if the law was being broken," Bowen wrote.

A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigation suggests that law enforcement officers in Lake County have poached game animals.
  • A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigation suggests that law enforcement officers in Lake County have poached game animals.

That document and others implicating Lake County-area law enforcement officers were anonymously given to the Independent recently. The Independent separately obtained many more documents that provide further details of alleged crimes and misconduct among Lake County law enforcement. Subsequent interviews bolster those documents, and also show that there has been a pattern of retaliation against Lake County law enforcement officers who have tried to expose their colleagues' wrongdoing.

The alleged cover-up in the boating fatality and other offenses were outside FWP's jurisdiction, so Bowen sent his findings to other state agencies, including the Montana attorney general's office.

That was more than a year ago.

Others have separately approached Attorney General Steve Bullock with complaints of illegal acts committed by Lake County law enforcement officers.

Yet no charges have been filed.

Many of the officers whom the documents implicate are still wearing badges in Lake County.

The boating accident

On August 14, 2004, Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Witts was in a boat patrolling Flathead Lake when he got a call about a rowdy party in the Big Arm Bay area. Neighbors had complained about naked women running around.

The party turned out to be at the home of one of Witts's fellow deputies, Cory Anderson. According to Frank Bowen's investigation, when Witts pulled the boat up to Anderson's dock, three naked women greeted him.

It was a barbecue for the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

Witts spoke with Anderson and another deputy at the party, Ed Todd, and concluded that they were both drunk. Witts told the women to put some clothes on, and before he pulled away from Anderson's dock, he specifically told Anderson not to take his boat out.

But Anderson did. Several people went with him, including 38-year-old Laura Lee Grant, Ed Todd's ex-wife. Grant was being pulled behind the boat in an inner tube along with another partygoer when they hit a big wave and were both flung from the tube. When Anderson circled back to get them, Grant was unconscious.

Not long after, Witts got a call from dispatch about an apparent boating accident in Big Arm Bay. Then Lake County Sheriff Bill Barron called Witts and told him to bring the boat back and go to the scene of the accident in a patrol car.

Lake County Reserve Deputy David Kostecki arrived at Anderson's party just as Anderson's boat was returning to his dock, with Grant inside. As it approached, Anderson was screaming "Call 911!" Kostecki told Bowen.

Anderson and Todd tried to revive Grant with CPR, not realizing that when she was thrown from the tube, she'd hyperflexed her neck and fractured her spine. She was taken by helicopter to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Duryee, the cop who told tall tales, arrived at Anderson's party to take witness statements, then left with Anderson.

When Witts arrived in his patrol car, he wanted to interview Anderson, but Anderson and Duryee were long gone. Barron, the sheriff, told Witts to stay at Anderson's house and wait while Flathead County Detective Pat Walsh conducted an investigation. Witts believed this was done to give Anderson time to sober up. It was another 90 minutes before Walsh even got to Anderson's house.

Although Flathead County officers led the investigation, Anderson's fellow officers in the Lake County Sheriff's Office measured his blood-alcohol content—and they only did that approximately two and a half hours after the accident, according to Walsh's report. At that point, Anderson's BAC was 0.055, below the legal limit, which was then 0.1. Still, Walsh concluded that Anderson was "probably legally intoxicated at the time of the accident," Frank Bowen wrote.

This is largely the story Bowen tells in confidential FWP Law Enforcement Division documents, summarizing statements given by Witts, Kostecki and several other officers in September and October 2010. In a document dated Sept. 29, 2010, Bowen wrote that the investigation into Grant's death appeared to be incomplete.

Walsh declined to talk to the Independent about the boating accident investigation. Asked if he had concluded that there was no misconduct, he would only say that was not necessarily so.

Barron, now a Lake County commissioner, says accusations of a cover-up in Grant's death are "absolutely false." He acknowledges that about two and a half hours elapsed between the accident and Anderson's BAC test, yet he disputes Walsh's conclusion that Anderson was likely intoxicated when the accident occurred. Barron says he consulted with the state crime lab and concluded that, based on the average rate at which an adult male metabolizes alcohol, Anderson's BAC at the time of the accident was no higher than 0.093.

"This was handled 100-percent upright and forthright," Barron continues. "There was not one bit of this that was covered up."

Barron says he doesn't know why Anderson's fellow Lake County officers administered his BAC test rather than a Flathead County officer. And he says he can't account for the two-and-a-half-hour delay in taking it.

Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle laments that he has personnel who “thrive on mayhem.”
  • Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle laments that he has personnel who “thrive on mayhem.”

"When I found out that he hadn't had any kind of a breath test or blood test yet, I directed the deputies to go take it, because I knew that we could bring it back to a close [approximation] of what [his BAC] would have been at the time of the accident," he says.

After the boating accident, Barron fired Witts.

Barron says Witts was fired because he viewed pornography on his office computer, and that he believes Witts fabricated the story of a cover-up in retaliation.

Witts believed the alleged porn was an excuse "to discredit him, because of his knowledge and resistance to a county cover-up in the death of Ed Todd's ex-wife at a company barbecue," Bowen wrote. Witts could not be reached for comment.

Cory Anderson is now a Polson policeman. He denies any wrongdoing on the day Grant died. "It's been investigated, it went up to the attorney general's office and it's done and over with," he says.

Assistant Attorney General John Connor reviewed the case and found the facts did not warrant prosecuting a criminal case against Anderson. "Although it appears that he had been drinking at the time, proof of his actual blood-alcohol level would be difficult since he was not tested until approximately two and one half hours after the accident," Connor wrote in 2004. "In any event...there did not seem to be a connection between his alcohol consumption and the circumstances of the accident."

The Coyote Club

One evening more than a decade ago, Jason Van Voast saw a spotlight in the distance and heard a gunshot.

It didn't come as a surprise. For years, the Van Voast family, one of the largest landowners in Lake County, had problems with hunters spotlighting and illegally taking game in their grain fields. On many occasions, Jason Van Voast told FWP, the Van Voasts chased a spotlighter only to find a tribal police car that they believed belonged to officer Jason Nash.

After hearing the gunshot that evening, Van Voast drove to the area and found Nash and Mike Sargeant, of the Lake County Sheriff's Office, in Nash's patrol car. Van Voast said he asked them what they shot. A tree, they said.

The next day, Van Voast found a large buck shot dead in the same field where he'd found Nash and Sargeant the night before. He called FWP Warden Rick Schoening, who told Van Voast to leave the buck so Schoening could put a tracking device in it. But before Schoening could do that, someone took the buck's head. The rest of it was left to rot.

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