BOZEMAN — A year ago Saturday was the night MTN first told you about a 12-year-old West Yellowstone boy found dead at his grandparent's home.
James Alexander Hurley's grandmother, grandfather, uncle and aunt were all arrested in connection with his death, and the case shook the community.
MTN spoke with former Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin on Friday, who reflected on that case, among many, as court proceedings continue.
“There’s a handful of cases that stick with you, that sort of haunt you,” Gootkin said. “This is one of those that I’ll probably never forget.”
It’s a case that Gootkin says has followed him and many others and a scene that brought us back to Buffalo Drive repeatedly, over months.
County Attorneys allege that Hurley's grandmother, Patricia Batts, grandfather James Sasser Jr., his then-14-year-old uncle James Sasser III, and his aunt Madison Sasser are responsible for his death.
“I believe the systematic torture and beatings that were perpetrated on the victim in this case led to his death,” said Gallatin County attorney Bjorn Boyer on Feb. 13, 2020, during Patricia Batts’ and James Sasser Jr.’s initial appearances.
“It shakes an entire community and obviously the smaller community, the Sheriff’s Office,” Gootkin said.
Gootkin says he remembers his investigators also feeling that impact. “I think when I sat down with the detective captain and I could just see it in his face and when he told me how much it impacted him and his people, we see the worst of the worst all the time but when you see and hear that from our folks who have been there and done that, that’s when you know it’s bad,” he said.
Gootkin also remembers the community of West Yellowstone finding each other.
“It was just so emotional and the range of the emotions, from anger to hurt to guilt. People are wondering if they could have done something different, remember going to the school and talking to the school superintendent and just listening to them and how it was impacting the teachers and the kids,” Gootkin said. “The ripple effect throughout the entire community was just — it was horrible.”
But Gootkin puts focus on scenes like when hundreds gathered in West Yellowstone to pay tribute in Pioneer Park.
“No surprises whatsoever, because I’ve seen it over the decades, working here and living in this community,” Gootkin said. “It doesn’t matter what bad thing happen, whether it is this type of horrible situation or a fire or you name it, just to watch this community come together and work together and help each other out. That’s why it is such a special place.”
Help from others in a time of sorrow — a thought that Gootkin says he’s holding onto as the case continues forward. “We have to keep an eye on our kids and if there’s anything, anything that seems out of the ordinary—and I’m not saying there wasn’t in this case at all—but if something doesn’t seem right with our kids, never, ever hesitate to contact law enforcement,” he said.
Again, the case is still being adjudicated.
Patricia Batts is charged with deliberate homicide among other charges, with her trial set for May 2022. James Sasser Jr., charged with deliberate homicide by association, is set for a 10-day trial this September.
Meanwhile, Sasser the Third was sentenced to the Montana Department of Corrections until he turns 18 and then will be on probation until he is 21.
Madison Sasser, Hurley’s aunt, was sentenced to youth probation and has agreed to testify against Batts and Sasser Jr. The last person arrested in connection with an assault on Hurley, Gage Roush, was sentenced in December to probation.