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Stevi man pleads not guilty to homicide, elder abuse charges

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Whitfield court appearance

Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright glances down at his notes while arguing for higher bail as Public Defender Ryan Archibald and defendant Ronan Elias Sterling-Shanahan, aka Justin Joe Whitfield, watch. Whitfield is accused of neglecting his mother’s medical care, allowing her to deteriorate and die, and then concealing her body. He is also accused of using her retirement funds for his personal use, before and after her death. 

Ronan Elias Sterling-Shanahan, aka Justin Joe Whitfield, 46, of Stevensville, pleaded not guilty to the charge of deliberate homicide in the death of his mother, Eda Lyn Karr, in Ravalli County District Court on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Whitfield appeared via video from the Ravalli County Detention Center. He also pleaded not guilty to charges of theft, exploitation of an incapacitated person, and tampering with physical evidence, all felonies.

Whitfield is accused of neglecting his mother’s medical care, allowing her to deteriorate and die, and then concealing her body. He is also accused of using her retirement funds for his personal use, before and after her death.

Karr’s body was found on Oct. 18 during a search of the residence she had shared with her son. She was found in the back corner of the garage, wrapped in plastic, under a large amount of trash. Whitfield reportedly told law enforcement where Karr’s remains were located in an interview following his arrest on Oct. 16. The retired teacher had been the subject of a missing person investigation and had not been seen by anyone other than Whitfield since August of 2020.

The search also led investigators to the room in which Karr had reportedly been confined, on the bottom floor of the split-level home. The toilet was broken and unusable, and the bedroom floor reportedly had a large amount of staining from bodily fluids. The mattress and box springs were also deeply stained from bodily fluids, but had been moved to the garage.

Whitfield spoke only to answer direct questions from the judge on Thursday. Other than an eye roll as he stood to exit the view of the courtroom camera, he appeared emotionless during the hearing.

Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright argued that Whitfield’s bond be raised to $500,000, from the $50,000 bond assigned upon his arrest, based on the progression of evidence in the investigation.

“This investigation has proceeded further, we are asking the court set bail new out of $500,000,” Fulbright said on Thursday. “This is a crime or alleged crimes that the court would know from the affidavit are particularly calloused. And I believe that higher bail is appropriate for community safety, protection of the community.”

Whitfield's attorney, Public Defender Ryan Archibald, said that he had discussed arguing for a lower bail but that they had agreed that now is not the time.

“I will note that if these alleged violations or alleged crimes are found to be true, they are multiple years old, and especially the most egregious ones, and that there's been no further danger to the community,” Archibald said.

Fulbright disagreed, stating the charges are current and arguing that Whitfield had been hiding his mother’s body and had some idea he was getting away with it until his arrest in October.

Judge Jennifer Lint agreed that the higher bail was appropriate given the nature of the charges.

“Half a million dollars is probably fairly low for your average homicide case,” Lint said.

A condition of Whitfield’s release states that he may have no contact with the victim's mother, sister and the victim's ex-husband. He must also surrender his passport. An omnibus hearing was set for Dec. 8.

It’s alleged that Whitfield lived in the residence with Karr’s lifeless body in the downstairs room for months before concealing her in the garage.

Karr had been released from a skilled nursing facility to the care of her son in May of 2020 after months of rehabilitation for a broken hip. She suffered from multiple health issues that were managed through regular care. At the time of her release a social worker noted that Karr had described safety concerns but chose to return home. Whitfield was her sole caretaker and relative in Montana.

Jessica Abell is the editor of the Ravalli Republic. 

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