Below the surface

The police say it was an accidental drowning. Friends and associates say it was murder. What’s the real story behind the suspicious death of Ronan activist Tary Mocabee?


RONAN—Tary Mocabee. 49 years old. Active. Physically fit. A lightning rod for controversy. Her death, like her life, was black and white: Either an incredible freak accident or a clear case of murder.

Either way, no one expected her to die.

Chris and Doug Milroy certainly never suspected it would be the last time they’d see their friend and neighbor alive. It was about 4 p.m. on Monday, April 2, and Tary Mocabee had just finished her shift as a substitute teacher at Ronan High School. “We saw her come back up the hill,” Chris says. “She honked like she always did.”

Three days later, Mocabee, an environmental activist who ran a gay and lesbian guest ranch nearby, was found dead in a shallow stream that runs across her land outside this Flathead Indian Reservation town.

Dr. Gary Dale, the state medical examiner, says Mocabee drowned. But many friends and neighbors don’t think it was an accident. They believe the outspoken—and sometimes strident— activist was murdered. But by whom, they do not know.

Investigators with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office think that is unlikely, but Mocabee’s file remains open, in part because of unexplained details in the autopsy report—including scattered, fresh bruising and other oddities.

This evidence, together with reports of repeated break-ins on Mocabee’s property shortly before her death, a series of complex romantic relationships, ongoing disputes over water usage in her rural neighborhood, and the escalation of death threats and other anti-environmentalist rhetoric in the Flathead Valley, have left law enforcement unwilling to close the case.

“At this point, we’re still at an accidental, unknown cause,” says Detective Jay Doyle. “We’ve done initial interviewing and have come up with nothing as far as criminal activity goes. But we’re not going to put out a cause of death if we’re not sure.”

Doyle and fellow investigator Andy Cannon say they think Mocabee, who diligently kept her little stream cleared of debris, ventured out after work on April 2, leaned on—or tried to climb over— a makeshift barbed-wire fence to clear a clogged section of the creek with her shovel.

Either way, they surmise, the top wire broke, Mocabee lost her balance and plunged head-first into the icy, knee-deep water. The shock could have triggered a tracheal spasm that caused her to involuntarily gulp cold water into her lungs. Or, they say, she may have fainted before hitting the water.

“This seems to be a good possibility at this point if we had to explain it today, which would make it an accident,” Cannon says of the three potential scenarios. “But because there is a question mark, we’re still looking at leads and have not called this an accident.”

But many people who knew Mocabee say such explanations are highly unlikely.

“There’s no way anyone would think she died like that,” says Chris Milroy. “We know she was murdered, but we can’t prove it. We’ll never believe she died accidentally.”

Tracking her down

“It just seems awful strange to me that she drowned in such shallow water,” says Steve Reum, a former Ronan police chief and former Polson police officer who lives across the road from Mocabee’s North Crow Vacation Ranch. “I just feel very uneasy about it. If there was anybody in better shape than Tary, I don’t know who it would be. I don’t think law enforcement really spent enough time on this. It didn’t seem to me that they were really digging to see if it was a homicide or not. They just don’t seem to be too enthusiastic about the whole thing. I don’t like that attitude.”

Reum says he’s troubled that he and his wife weren’t interviewed by the sheriff’s office until about two weeks after Mocabee died. On April 2, the last day she was seen, Mocabee stopped by the Milroys on her way to work.

Later that day, Mocabee left two phone messages for Marci Butchofsky, a neighbor and confidante. She also ran into the Reums’ daughter, Laura Benson, at the grocery store before heading home.

Mocabee was protective of her land and was known to wander onto neighboring properties unannounced to see how others were managing their water. She frequently fended off accusations from neighbors that a divider box sending water to other properties wasn’t working properly. Benson, who has not been interviewed by police, says that on April 2 Mocabee complained that another neighbor was mad at her because she’d suggested he wasn’t doing enough to keep their shared stream running unobstructed.

Butchofsky, who spoke with Mocabee almost daily, says she left repeated phone messages for her friend, but got no reply. At first, neither Butchofsky nor Chris Milroy say they were too concerned because Mocabee, an unusually strong athlete who could walk impressive distances on her hands, was known to head off into the mountains or to Missoula whenever she had time off.

On the morning of April 4, Butchofsky says she drove by Mocabee’s house on her way to work and saw her car in the driveway. Later, she called the house from her office. Again, no reply. Butchofsky and a co-worker stopped by that afternoon, entered the house, and drove out to the main guest cabin, where the door was partially opened. Mocabee’s checkbook was in her car, but no one was around.

“There was nothing unusual, except the cat (in the house) was out of food,” Butchofsky says.

Butchofsky went home and called Pete Rorvik, a lifelong friend of Mocabee’s who lives in Ronan. Rorvik in turn called Carolyn Beecher, Mocabee’s closest friend, former lover and one-time business partner, at her home in Bigfork. The pair decided to head to Mocabee’s 35 acres of land the next morning to mount a search.

Rorvik and Beecher made an initial sweep of the property and called the sheriff’s office to file a missing-person report. It was then that they found Mocabee’s body, clad in layered clothing, a neck gaiter, light pants and tennis shoes, mostly submerged in the creek.

The broken top wire of the fence lay in the stream, says Beecher, and Mocabee’s shovel and a broken branch were still leaning on the two remaining strands of barbed wire. A short distance away were a neatly folded sweatshirt and a sweater soaked from the snow that had fallen and melted over the past few days. The clothing appeared otherwise undisturbed. Apparently, Mocabee was headed for a nearby cabin, where she planned to reside this summer.

Beecher recalls at first thinking that Mocabee might still be alive, and the pair pulled her body out of the stream. But it was soon apparent there would be no resuscitation, and they returned to the house to notify police. They also moved the folded clothing.

“I was not thinking in any rational way that this could be a crime scene,” Beecher says now. “I was just thinking, my friend is dead and I can’t believe it.”

Speaking her mind

Mocabee lived to be outdoors and was an ardent angler, backpacker, biker, skier and kayaker. Her love of wild places naturally transformed into political activism, and she was widely known for her sharply worded letters to the editor and passionate public testimony on a host of environmental issues.

In the off-season, Mocabee spent much of her time monitoring area timber sales, pushing for logging reforms, and working to control rural development in the Mission Valley. She worked as a lobbyist for the Friends of the Wild Swan conservation group in the 1999 Montana Legislature. Two of her forestry-related bills were introduced by Rep. Joey Jayne (D-Arlee) in the 2001 session.

Mocabee was also a key organizer in the late 1990s when Ronan-area residents questioned a plan to log a section of school trust land at the foot of nearby North Crow Canyon. After two trips to Helena to meet with former Gov. Marc Racicot and numerous meetings with state foresters, she and other activists persuaded the state to establish in the sale a corridor to protect 14 acres of ancient ponderosa pines. Mocabee, however, was incensed that the corridor’s lease had to be financed by conservationists.

“I’ve reached a point in my life where I won’t shrink from what I feel needs to be fought for,” Mocabee wrote in a 1998 journal entry. “I won’t suffer any more poorly thought out, short-range, ill-conceived, quick-money plans for our wonderful public lands.”

There were other battles. Mocabee, a non-Indian, criticized the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for their timber policies, especially those governing independent loggers, whom she thought were pirating trees. She was also upset recently about new road culverts in North Crow Canyon because she believed they would increase stream sedimentation. And just prior to her death, she was protesting a proposed subdivision across from her property.

Mocabee’s forceful attempts to keep county roads in the area from being paved only put distance between her and some of her neighbors. She testified last year in favor of former President Clinton’s roadless plan for national forest lands and continually voiced support for other wildland protections.

“She didn’t hold things back,” says Beecher. “She expressed herself. She wore her heart on her sleeve. She spoke her mind. Not everybody liked her, but they knew how she felt, what she believed in and what she stood for. She used to say, ‘If everybody liked you, you were whoring it out somewhere.’”

Wendy Sanders, whose property is adjacent to the guest ranch, says she was taken aback when Mocabee wanted her to share the cost of maintaining a fence that divides their land. Mocabee ran cattle on her place at times and was concerned about the stock escaping.

“It was my contention that I wasn’t interested in a fence,” Sanders says. “I said that she was making the money off the fence, so she should pay for it. She disagreed. She wasn’t assertive. She was aggressive.”

“I feel myself easily becoming a caricature of crotchety old people I knew as a kid — who groused every time there was a change in the neighborhood,” Mocabee wrote in a 1997 journal entry. “God how I relate to them now. I’ve been for the past five years seeing such chopped up pieces of land, overgrazing, gutted timber and deforestation, awful trailer groupings, a mishmash of houses, electric wires and manifuckingcured lawns where once it was wild that I could, and do, just scream.”

“She wasn’t tactful sometimes,” says neighbor and friend Patricia Ryan. “It did alienate people. She was aggressive, bold and definitely invasive. She could create the us-and-them experience pretty easily.”

On the other hand, friends say Mocabee could be an incredibly loyal, caring and appreciative person, someone you could count on in the heat of battle — if you were on the same side.

Emptiness and Fulfillment

Teressa “Tary” Mocabee was born in Billings on June 22, 1951, and adopted soon after. Her new parents, Cecil and Sally Mocabee, lived in Billings for about three more years before the family moved to the Mission Valley. Tary, an only child, often recalled that growing up on the North Crow property was like being in a “tomboy heaven.”

But tragedy struck early. Mocabee’s father died of a heart attack when she was only 13. Her mother abused prescription drugs and succumbed five years later. Vulnerable and alone, Mocabee fled back to the University of Montana in Missoula where she studied creative writing and earned an English degree. She then spent seven years working as a writer in San Francisco. The time in the Bay Area, friends say, helped bolster her sexuality and impressed upon her, by contrast, the value of Montana’s wild places. Mocabee soon tired of urban life, and returned to the land she’d inherited from her parents in 1980 to start the resort.

Friends say summers at the guest ranch were always the high point of Mocabee’s year. There were plenty of new people around, each day was filled with outdoor activity, and the rigors of cooking and caring for clients, shuttling them around for tours, fishing trips and hikes typically kept her in an upbeat mood.

“One of the biggest rewards of sharing this place with others is to see a kid-like excitement on adults’ faces when they come back from a walk or a white-waterless raft trip on the canal and say, ‘I haven’t done that since I was a kid,’” Mocabee wrote in her journal. “And their face shows they are psyched up and alive. Or someone who’s been under a lot of stress says, ‘That sleep in your tipi was the soundest I’ve have in months.’ It’s when I know there’s no other place I’d rather be and nothing else I want to be doing.”

But when the cloud-laden winters set in, Mocabee was often prone to depression. During these bouts of darkness, she sometimes voiced doubts about the value of living.

“In some ways the ranch was her blessing and her curse,” says Ryan. “She constantly had to live with the reminder of loss. It also kept her from moving on. Her self-identity was really self-absorbed for a long time. She was afraid of dying. She was afraid of growing old alone at that place. She also felt vulnerable and would talk about that a lot.”

After her parents died, Mocabee set out to find her birth mother, a quest that she wrote about for Seventeen magazine, one of a number of publications she freelanced for over the years. She eventually found her birth mother, but also learned that she may have been a prostitute.

“Tary was resolved that she had found her mother and let it go,” Beecher explains. “But she was always affected by the fact that she didn’t have family. It made her lonely. It made her think she was living closer to the edge. She felt she had no back-up plan, which made her a lot more needy.”

Mocabee, a former Ronan Junior Miss, used to say her life was filled with endless “dyke drama.” Most of her relationships were short-term, save for the five years she and Beecher spent together. Despite breaking up in 1986, the two remained extremely close.

Mocabee, bright and well-read, frequently wrote about her life on her computer and in handwritten notes. Much of her turmoil revolved around the loss of her parents and trying to make sense of why so many of her intimate relationships fell apart. But she was also well-known for her playful sense of humor.

“I will no longer explain why I’ve been with a lot of women — this is a crime?” she wrote in 1997. “To love a variety of beautiful, smart, unique, strong and soft and crazy and thoughtful and talented and also neurotic, poetic and loving women? It’s a blessing to have known such a range of women. In Africa, they say the more people you have in your bed, the more lovable you are. Where do I sign up for THIS citizenship?”

Nonetheless, the trauma of the past often crept into the present.

“Every time she lost a girlfriend it would trigger those abandonment issues,” Beecher says. “She just couldn’t let go.”

Friends agree that in recent years Mocabee became more at peace with herself, especially as she refined her role as a community organizer. “She was developing more of a sense of herself and other meaning so the break-ups weren’t so hard on her,” Beecher says. Still, a relationship with one Ronan-area woman was apparently winding down just before Mocabee died. At the same time, another relationship with a woman from the Flathead Valley had started up over the winter, a situation that police have looked into.

While Mocabee had numerous relatives who live in the Mission Valley, friends say she was estranged from nearly all of them. Some cite her homosexuality and the guest ranch as being a primary cause. Others contend longstanding family rivalries split them apart.

Mocabee’s will, drafted in 1997 by Missoula attorney Raymond Tipp, bequeaths all of her property and possessions to Beecher. Mocabee also asked that her body be cremated, with the ashes to be scattered along the creek where she died. “I specifically direct that no portion of my estate, under any circumstances, be distributed to relatives,” the will says. “If any person not mentioned herein shall prove to be a lawful heir, to him or to her I leave nothing.”

“That’s just an unpleasant subject for me and I don’t want no part of it,” says Ronan resident Ruby Mocabee, when asked to comment on her niece’s life. Other family members say they think the will is a fake and it may be challenged. Relatives also say Mocabee had a half-brother who surfaced in Ronan some years back to put a claim on Tary’s land. They say Donald Mocabee, born out of wedlock, was last known to live in the Spokane area. Lake County authorities say they haven’t talked to him yet.

Accident or Foul Play?

Detective Doyle acknowledges that he and Cannon were unaware of Mocabee’s history when they first arrived on the crime scene. They asked a few questions, took some photographs, looked at the cabin, and took a sample of the barbed wire to see if it had been severed or snapped. They then allowed a local funeral director to transport the body to the State Crime Lab in Missoula for an autopsy.

According to Beecher, the detectives didn’t cordon off the area where Mocabee was found and initially didn’t search or cordon off the house. In addition, Beecher says she and her male companion were not prevented from staying at Mocabee’s house overnight.

The next day, however, Beecher and other witnesses say Cannon and Doyle, now aware of Mocabee’s controversial background, took a sharper interest in the case when they returned to the property. After questioning several people about why they were in the house, the detectives searched Mocabee’s belongings and listened to her phone messages. Only after determining that nothing valuable was missing did they order everyone out of the house, cordon it with crime scene tape and seal off the property. They didn’t leave a sentry behind.

What appears to be a routine investigation for police is hardly business as usual for Mocabee’s friends and neighbors. Wally and Pauline Gross, who live nearby, say they are concerned that Mocabee was murdered and think the detectives dismissed vital information from the onset. For example, Pauline says that sometime between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on April 4, two days after Mocabee’s death, Wally spotted someone along the creek very close to where the body was discovered the next day. Butchofsky and her co-worker were on the property April 4, but it was in the late afternoon. Butchofsky says they didn’t walk around outside at all.

“He was changing a sprinkler and just happened to look up,” Pauline says of her husband’s sighting. The couple called authorities and passed on the information as soon as they learned of Mocabee’s death.

“This continues to bother us so much,” Pauline laments. “Somebody had to have seen her. Nobody believes she fell in. I’d never believe it if I lived to be 100. I’d love to get to the bottom of this. We didn’t think when the detectives questioned us that they asked enough questions.”

“I’m pretty definitely sure it was a case of murder,” adds Great Falls resident Quentin Mocabee, one of Tary’s uncles. “I don’t think she fell in no ditch and drowned. I think someone held her down and drowned her. It’s pretty shady. It just don’t look kosher by any means.”

“Trouble in Paradise”

On March 26, just a week before she died, Mocabee filed a break-in complaint with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Someone had repeatedly entered her guest cabin during the winter, usually when she was out of town. The intruder burned candles, used one of her lanterns, and stayed—or at least ejaculated—in a bed during their last visit. A deputy came to the property to take her report.

Trying to prevent further problems, Mocabee boarded up the cabin’s windows and put a handwritten sign on the door.

“I know you’ve been in here,” the sign reads. “Your presence is being watched by a surveillance camera. You will be convicted to the full extent of the law. Get the hell out of here or face the consequences.”

“She was really concerned, and I’ve never seen her concerned in the eight years I knew her,” says neighbor Chris Milroy. “She was locking doors about two weeks before she died. She told my husband she was worried that whoever was breaking into the cabin would do something to her. There’s a lot of people up here who are locking their doors now.”

Last year, Mocabee had a tipi stolen from her property and two mailboxes taken from their posts within a three-day period. Around the same time she found unfamiliar cigarette butts near her front door, as well as tracks on her land from an all-terrain vehicle. In 1999, three teenage boys who lived in the area were apprehended for vandalizing other items.

In a May 2000 letter to Lake County authorities, Mocabee implied that the same youths may have been involved with the second round of damage. “I frankly would like this continuous harassment of me, my place, or my property to end,” she wrote. A computer file she kept on strange events on her property was aptly titled “Trouble in Paradise.” Detectives Cannon and Doyle say they tracked down all three of the 1999 perpetrators after Mocabee died. All have alibis, they say.

Friends say that because she was a lesbian, Mocabee also received a number of strange, sexually oriented messages on her answering machine over the years and sometimes had crude remarks directed toward her by high school students and others.

“I feel if someone had tried to do her harm, there would have been evidence of a fight,” Cannon says. “What you have to remember about this is that sometimes people just drop dead.”

“We treated it like a suspicious death, but we also had to keep in mind that the scene was already contaminated by the people who were there,” says Doyle, adding that about 20 people have been interviewed about the death, some repeatedly. “I don’t really think we’d do anything different if we could do it again. We don’t believe it was a homicide, but we are keeping it open for that. We’ve always told people that if they hear something, we’ll follow it up.”

“If it’s a homicide, somebody will eventually start mouthing off about it in a bar or someplace else,” figures neighbor Steve Reum, the ex-cop. “If that happens and someone gets caught, there will be hell to pay.”

Ron Selden, who writes from Helena, first met Tary Mocabee in 1988. The two were neighbors in the North Crow area of the Mission Valley until 1995.

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