Thomas French

Thomas French

A Florence man who was once voted volunteer firefighter of the year has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for repeatedly raping a teenager over a four-year period.

Thomas William French, 52, pleaded guilty earlier to two charges of sexual intercourse without consent as a part of a plea agreement that dropped some additional charges.

French was arrested in March 2018 after the victim — who had turned 18 – went to authorities to report she was raped at a hunting camp in Beaverhead County in 2017, according to charging documents.

The woman said she had not disclosed the sexual assaults before that time because she was afraid of French.

French’s former wife — who lives in a different state — wrote a letter describing years of abuse that included being dragged by the hair, strangled, kicked, thrown to the ground and head-butted.

The woman said the last physical assault occurred after French became convinced that she was cheating on him because she was spending time studying nursing.

The letter — which was entered into the record during sentencing — said French grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back while screaming at her. When she attempted to run away, he threw a knife at her that stuck into the wall.

After knocking her to the ground and punching her in the eye, he grabbed her by the hair and started slamming the back of her head onto the floor while screaming “Who is he? You better give me a name.”

When she said she couldn’t give him a name because there was no one, the letter, said French dragged her to the dining room table and told her to write the name on a piece of paper. At this point, the woman said French put the barrel of his pistol to her head and pulled the trigger. She heard the click.

“Mr. French’s next statement will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she wrote. “He said, ‘We own pigs and we live on 60 acres. Who’s going to miss you? There is no one to help you now and no one will find you, the safety is off, so it’s up to you now.'"

Her oldest son was 3. He heard his father and got out of bed to investigate.

“My oldest son, at the age of 3, saved my life that night,” the woman wrote.

Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright said French has children by three women.

“All three have disclosed significant domestic abuse,” Fulbright said. “There was a lot of control and manipulation and coercion.”

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Fulbright said French was released temporarily after his bail was reduced. While out on bail, he was rearrested in Missoula County on charge of strangling his 20-year-old son. That charge was dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

French moved to Florence in 2009, Fulbright said. He first came to the attention of law enforcement after failing to register as a sex offender. The original charges were filed in New York State.

French apparently made a good impression with members of the Florence Volunteer Fire Department. Some wrote reference letters for him shortly after he was charged in 2018. One called him “a pillar to the community.”

None of French’s 60-year term was suspended at his sentencing last week. Before he can considered for parole, he must complete both phases of the state’s sexual offender treatment program.

There is a waiting list to get enrolled in the program. In French’s case, it may be as much as 10 years before he can enroll, Fulbright said.

“It typically takes four to five years to get through the program if a person is willing and works hard,” Fulbright said.

“He hurt and scared a lot of people,” Fulbright said. “This young lady had a tremendous amount of courage to step forward and break the silence. When she did that, she reported that while she was afraid for herself, she was actually more afraid for her sisters and family.”