Charges against 3 co-defendants dropped in grisly Lake County murder

2011-07-19T06:30:00Z 2013-02-27T13:05:14Z Charges against 3 co-defendants dropped in grisly Lake County murderBy VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian Ravalli Republic
July 19, 2011 6:30 am  • 

POLSON - It took six years to get a conviction in the murder of Harold Mitchell Jr., but it will take more evidence to bring three others once charged in the grisly death near St. Ignatius to trial.

Lake County prosecutors have dismissed without prejudice the deliberate homicide charges against Nathan Ross, Kyle Brown and Nigel Ernst.

The reason: With no guarantees that Clifford Old Horn, convicted earlier this month in Mitchell's murder, would testify against his three co-defendants, there wasn't a good prospect of obtaining convictions, according to Lake County Attorney Mitch Young.

The men were all arrested last year. Brown's trial was next up, and was due to begin Aug. 1.

Mitchell, a former chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was stabbed and beaten to death in his home in July 2005, in what authorities believe was a robbery attempt. His body was then doused in gasoline and set on fire.

He was 73 years old.

Dismissing the charges without prejudice means authorities can re-file the homicide charges against any or all of the men at a later date.

Two, Brown and Ernst, are serving time in federal prisons in California and Oregon, respectively, on drug-related and other charges unconnected to Mitchell's murder.

Ross remains free.

***

Authorities got their first break in the case in 2008 when Old Horn, also jailed on unrelated charges, confessed to his part in the crime and implicated the other three.

Old Horn said he was there, but maintained he did not participate in the murder.

During his trial earlier this summer, Old Horn changed his story and claimed he had lied about his presence at the crime scene in an effort to negotiate a lesser sentence for a fellow inmate, Robert Gardner.

After a five-day trial, a Lake County jury took 90 minutes to convict Old Horn. Prosecutors argued Old Horn knew details from the crime scene that had not been made public.

But part of the state's case against Ross, Brown and Ernst is based on Old Horn's confession.

"We could not ensure he would testify if called," Young said, "and if he refused to answer questions, none of his statements would be admissible without his testimony."

The state could use Old Horn's statements against him at his trial, said Deputy County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson, "but using them against someone else, you run into hearsay problems and the confrontation clause."

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"It's your right to confront your accusers," Young explained. Old Horn could be forced to appear in court, but the court's ability to compel him to answer questions is limited to threats of holding him in contempt, and jail time.

"For Clifford, that doesn't mean much," Young said. "He's facing a maximum of life in prison. There's not much left to threaten him with."

The case remains open, Cole-Hodgkinson said.

"We're still trying to develop additional evidence," she went on. "People are invited and encouraged to tell us what they know."

"We'll keep slugging away, hoping something will crack," Young continued. "With all the various co-defendants, this has been a fight. The case will stay open until there's a resolution, one way or the other."

Old Horn's sentencing, meantime, is scheduled for Aug. 31.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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