HELENA — On Thursday, prosecutors and defense attorneys laid out their initial cases to the jury in the trial of Leon Ford, the man charged with deliberate homicide in the 2011 killing of John “Mike” Crites.
Testimony began Thursday after two days of jury selection.
Crites was last seen alive in June 2011. In October of that year, 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.
Ford owned a property adjacent to Crites’ home on Turk Road, in a rural area outside Birdseye, northwest of Helena. Prosecutors said the two men had argued for years over land access, including confrontations in 2002 and 2007.
Retired Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher is serving as the lead prosecutor in this case. In his opening statement Thursday, he pointed to the ongoing dispute as a possible motive.
“Mike Crites owned property that Leon Ford needed to cross to get to his little piece of heaven up there where he wanted to retire,” he said.
In 2011, Crites had put up a gate blocking a road that Ford used to access his property. Ford sent him a letter, saying he planned to come from his home in Washington state to Helena in June to spray weeds on his property, and asking him to have the gate open.
The prosecution and defense agree that Ford went up Turk Road late on June 25 and had a discussion with Crites about the access issue, but they disagree about what happened after that.
Prosecutors say a neighbor’s game camera recorded Ford’s truck going up the road on the morning of June 26 – around the time Crites made his last phone call, in which he told a friend he was worried issues with his neighbors could end in violence. They say the camera shows Ford coming back down hours later.
“What happens in those four hours and 57 minutes?” asked Gallagher. “There’s his opportunity.”
The prosecution also pointed to several heavy-duty cable ties that were found with Crites’ remains. They said production markings on the ties led them to the company that made the items. According to court documents, 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.
Ford’s defense attorneys pushed back on the prosecution’s version of events in their opening statement.
“There's no doubt that Michael Crites was murdered and that his body was dismembered – but Leon Ford did not do it,” said attorney Juli Pierce.
The defense said many other neighbors in the Turk Road area had long-running disputes with Crites, including several that ended in lawsuits. They said Ford had a legal easement to reach his property and didn’t have a reason to kill Crites, and they argued his behavior in the days after Crites disappeared didn’t give an indication of guilt.
Defense attorneys argued the game camera was not designed to record passing vehicles, and the results may be unreliable. They also questioned the link between Ford and the cable ties, saying a recent test identified DNA profiles from two men on the ties. Only one profile was usable for comparisons, but it was found not to be Ford.
Pierce said the prosecution wouldn’t be able to point to much physical evidence to connect Ford to the crime.
“There's no site where the homicide occurred,” she said. “There's no evidence from the death scene. There is no evidence that the murder occurred at either of the recovery sites. There's no firearm.”
After opening statements, jurors heard from the first witnesses called by the prosecution.
Crites’ sister Connie spoke about her visits to Turk Road after his disappearance. She said it wasn’t unusual for family members not to hear from Crites for extended periods, but that they became concerned after learning the wolf-dog hybrids he kept as pets had gotten loose.
“That’s when we instantly knew something was wrong, he’s missing, because his dogs would never run loose,” she said.
Connie Crites said she and other family members went through his home several times that summer in hopes of finding some additional piece of information.
Also on Thursday, the jury heard testimony from Gwendolyn Benz, director of quality assurance with HellermannTyton, the company that produced the cable ties. She stated that the markings on the ties showed they came from a specific mold that was last used in September 2011.
During cross-examination, the defense asked Benz how many ties might have been made from the mold over the years. She said she wasn’t able to give a specific answer, but agreed with attorney Palmer Hoovestal that the number might be in the millions.
Attorneys indicated the trial is likely to continue for around three weeks.