HELENA — On Monday, the deliberate homicide trial of Leon Ford moved into its second week, as jurors heard testimony highlighting the long-running tensions among residents along Turk Road, in a rural area outside Birdseye northwest of Helena.
Ford is charged in connection with the killing of John “Mike” Crites, who disappeared from his home on Turk Road in June 2011. His dismembered remains were found in plastic bags on the east side of MacDonald Pass in October of that year, and his skull was found several miles west of the pass in September 2012.
Many of the property owners in the area were involved in disputes over road access – with several of them leading to lawsuits. Prosecutors have pointed to one of those disagreements – between Crites and Ford – as a possible motive. Crites had placed a barricade blocking a road that Ford used to reach his property.
On Monday, Marc and Gloria Flora each testified – Gloria Flora finishing her testimony after starting last week. The couple lived in the Turk Road area at the time of Crites’ death and said they were friendly with him.
Marc Flora reported Crites missing to law enforcement June 28, 2011, after finding the two wolf-dog hybrids he kept as pets running loose, calling his cell phone multiple times with no answer and checking his house to find him gone.
“The storm door was closed, but the main door was wide open – and that was very unusual,” he said. “And I was hollering for Mike, I looked in the house. I went in – I had a bad feeling, so I went in and I didn't touch anything, and I walked around just to make sure he wasn't lying there.”
According to court documents, Flora told investigators that Crites had asked him to come to his home to witness a meeting he planned to have with Ford about the access issue the morning of June 26. Flora said he didn’t go to Crites’ house but encouraged him to record the meeting.
On Monday, Flora said one of the reasons he didn’t join Crites that day was that he and his wife had their own dispute with a neighbor who they believed was improperly blocking their access, and he didn’t agree with Crites’ stance in his dispute with Ford.
Ford’s attorneys asked Gloria Flora about her comments to an investigator several days after Crites was last seen, when she said he had been killed. Flora said she didn’t know Crites had been killed at that time – which was well before his remains had been found – but that she assumed it, in light of the tense situation and the scene at his home.
“The clues were all there: His vehicles were all there, his cell phone was nowhere to be found, his favorite guns that he always wore at his side were nowhere to be found, his front door was wide open, his gate was wide open and had been cut open – and we realized that the lock had been cut off – as well as the pipe across the lower road, that had been cut with the pipe thrown over the hill – and his dogs were out,” she said.
Gloria Flora said she and her husband planned to make the Turk Road property their retirement home, but they moved away in 2012 because of the “extreme stress” of Crites’ murder and their ongoing disputes with neighbors.
“It was a crushing, emotional decision,” she said.
While living on Turk Road, Flora said the couple installed game cameras along the road at the advice of law enforcement, because of their access dispute. Prosecutors used images from those cameras to allege that Ford’s truck went up Turk Road about the time Crites made his last known phone call.
Also on Monday, jurors heard from the man who received that call: Jesse Thomas, a friend and former co-worker of Crites. He said Crites had told him he was concerned about possible confrontations with his neighbors over the access issues.
On the morning of June 26, Thomas said Crites’ call ended when he abruptly hung up.
“He was just concerned that somebody was coming,” Thomas said. “He goes, ‘Yep, somebody's coming, somebody’s here. I got to go now, Jesse.’”
He said Crites had asked him to write down a name, but he didn’t do it – partly because he said Crites was known to exaggerate. He said he couldn’t remember the name Crites gave him, and he regretted not writing it down after learning what had happened.
In cross-examining Thomas, defense attorneys noted that Crites had referred to “two or three” separate groups of neighbors he had disagreements with.
Monday’s testimony began with two witnesses who – like Ford – worked for a contractor on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in western Washington state. Ford worked as a safety inspector for the contractor – then Chugach Industries – which was responsible for maintaining buildings on the base.
The employees discussed accounting records from 2011 that show Ford received a set of heavy-duty cable ties in February and some large plastic bags from the contractor’s warehouse in June. Prosecutors said the same type of ties, from the same manufacturer, were found with Crites’ remains in plastic bags.
Defense attorneys questioned whether the witnesses could state definitively that the cable ties were the same brand that were found at the scene, and whether the orders could have been mistakenly credited to Ford when they might actually have gone to another employee named Leon. They noted that Ford’s job wouldn’t typically require him to do hands-on work.
Follow MTN's previous coverage of the Ford trial: Testimony begins in trial of Leon Ford