HELENA — Leon Michael Ford made his initial appearance in a Helena courtroom on Monday, charged for the 2011 murder of John "Mike" Crites.
A Lewis & Clark County Justice of Peace set bond for Ford at $400,000.
Ford, 66 years old, was seen on charges of deliberate homicide and tampering with evidence. He was arrested last week in Oak Harbor, Washington.
An autopsy showed Crites, who was 48 at the time of his disappearance, died from two gunshot wounds to the head. He was last seen alive in June 2011. In October 2011, his dismembered remains were discovered in plastic bags on the east side of MacDonald Pass. His skull was found several miles west of the pass in September 2012. An autopsy showed that Crites, who was 48 at the time of his disappearance, died from two gunshot wounds to the head.
Crites lived on a property along Turk Road, in a rural area outside Birdseye northwest of Helena. He had been involved in long-running disputes with several of his neighbors. Ford owned a property adjacent to Crites, further up the road. Court documents say there had been years of disputes between the two men over access to that land. A branch of Turk Road runs through Crites’ property before leading to Ford’s land. Crites had put up a gate across that road, claiming there wasn’t a legal easement for Ford to use it.
Court documents say Crites accused Ford of pointing a gun at him during a 2007 confrontation at the gate. Ford claimed he had been pointing his pistol at the ground as a warning, and that Crites had been carrying a rifle at the time. Several days after, Ford told the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office that he had found the gate welded shut and kicked it open.
According to court documents, a Lewis & Clark County judge issued an order the next day, allowing Ford to use the road to access his property. Ford traveled to Montana from his home in Oak Harbor in late June 2011. He told investigators he had sent Crites a letter earlier that month, saying he was coming back and would expect to be able to access his property. Investigators say a friend of Crites’ told them he had said a “crazy neighbor” was going to kill him.
According to documents, a neighbor’s game camera showed Ford’s vehicle going up Turk Road on June 25, 2011. Authorities said Ford told them he had met with Crites and they had come to an agreement on access, but that Crites told the neighbor Ford had yelled and screamed at him and demanded he remove the gate.
On June 26, documents say Crites called another friend from his cell phone, telling him he was worried issues with his neighbors could end in violence, then hanging up when he heard someone approaching. Investigators said the camera showed Ford’s truck going up the road around the time of that call – the last made from Crites’ phone.
Documents say Ford told authorities he hadn’t seen Crites on June 26, that he found the gate cut down, and that he sprayed weeds along the road that day. Investigators said they later found he had only picked up the weed sprayer on June 27, and that Ford later said he had instead spent June 26 looking for “booby traps” with a metal detector.
According to court documents, Ford said he had been spraying weeds for three days and had gone up and down the road a dozen times, but camera footage only showed his vehicle going up and down once, on June 27.
After not hearing from Crites for several days, a neighbor went to his house on June 28 and found him gone.
The charging documents say investigators found cable ties at both locations where Crites’ remains were discovered. The ties were eventually identified as a specific type last produced in September 2011. Authorities said the manufacturer told them the ties were only available from specific distributors and had to be special-ordered.
Investigators found records from a contractor at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where Ford worked, showing Ford had taken some of those ties from a warehouse, but that there was no identification of what project they were supposed to be used for.
The news of an arrest in Crites’ death came as a great relief to his family. His sister Connie Crites said she received a call from the Lewis & Clark County Sheriff’s Office around noon Wednesday.
“I literally started jumping up and down at work,” she said. She then drove about three hours to give their mother the news in person.
“Her face broke out into this big smile, and of course the first words out of her mouth were ‘Praise God,’” she said.
Connie said that while the nine-year wait was difficult for the family, they never lost hope that a breakthrough would come. However, she said she knows the legal process could still take a long time to resolve, and that she won’t feel closure until then.
“This is the beginning of yet another rollercoaster, but I would rather go on this rollercoaster than not,” she said. “This begins anew the pursuit for justice; it’s just a new chapter.”
If Ford posts bond, he will also have to sign an extradition waiver and turn over his passport prior to being released.