May 06, 2023

Mike Crites' trial to get underway 12 years after Birdseye man's death

Despite its comparatively small population, Montana has dozens of homicide cold cases dating back decades. But what may be even more surprising is that several of these cold cases involve multiple victims. Some cases have seen suspects arrested and released, while others have left investigat…

The trial of the man accused in the death of John Michael "Mike" Crites, the 48-year-old Birdseye man who was killed in June 2011, is set to begin June 1. It's 12 years to the month of his disappearance that stemmed from what authorities described as a neighborhood dispute over land access turned deadly.

It will be heard in front of Lewis and Clark County 1st Judicial District Court Judge Mike Menahan and is expected to take 30 days. Jury selection begins May 30, court officials said.

Leon Michael Ford

Leon Michael Ford was charged with felony deliberate homicide and felony tampering with or fabricating physical evidence on Sept. 11, 2020. Ford was 66 years old at the time he was arrested and his bond was set at $400,000. He is not currently on the inmate list at Lewis and Clark County Detention Center.

Mike Crites was an avid trophy deer and elk hunter.

"Mr. Ford did not kill Michael Crites and had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Crites’ death," Ford's attorney Palmer Hoovestal said Thursday. "We are looking forward to the upcoming trial and the opportunity to prove Mr. Ford's innocence."

Lewis and Clark County Attorney Kevin Downs said Leo Gallagher, the previous county attorney, was coming out of retirement for the purpose of prosecuting the case as special deputy county attorney. He will prosecute along with Jessica Best of the county attorney's office. Downs said it was a mutual decision to bring Gallagher on board.

"The investment he put into this case (prior to retirement) was significant," Downs said Wednesday. "I have every confidence in Leo... and Jessica in prosecuting this case."

Investigator Andrew Blythe looks down at the ground on a 2016 visit to the approximate site where some of the remains of John "Mike" Crites were found on MacDonald Pass.

Crites was last seen alive on June 25, 2011. Two garbage bags full of bones identified as his were found in October 2011 near MacDonald Pass by two U.S. Forest Service employees. More remains, including his skull, were found west of the Continental Divide near Elliston in September 2012.

The deputy state medical examiner listed Crites’ cause of death as gunshot wounds to the head. In a lab report from July 2013, the projectile recovered from the head was determined to be consistent with a 38 class, 95 grain hollow-point bullet. The 38 class bullet includes calibers in .38 special, 357 Magnum, 9mm Luger and 380 Auto firearms. During an October 2012 search of Ford's Oak Harbor, Washington, home, authorities seized a Ruger 357 Magnum revolver, a Colt 380 semi-automatic handgun and a Smith and Wesson 9 mm semi-automatic handgun.

The cable ties found with Crites’ body were last produced in September 2011 and were only available through specific distributors through special order. Investigators subpoenaed Chugach, a contractor doing business at an Oak Harbor air base where Ford was employed in 2011. Records show that the company purchased this type of cable ties, and Ford removed them from the Oak Harbor warehouse in February 2011 but didn't list a work order number to identify the project he planned to use the materials for.

Investigators also allege that Ford withdrew a box of heavy-duty trash bags from the Chugach warehouse inventory on June 27, 2011. Ford's vacation slips and video footage indicate he was in Helena that day and not at work at the air base.

There's a long history of property access friction among the residents on Turk Road with access via Birdseye Road to Three Mile Road. Crites owned several parcels totaling around 80 acres, that he built a home on in 1996. Turk Road continued through some of his parcels.

Before the killing, tension was on the rise with residents in the area for years. Courts weighed in several times due to neighbors blocking road access. Allegations of trespassing, assaults, intimation, threats and weapon violations among the residents led law enforcement to send a letter in September 2010 to area residents saying what they would and wouldn't respond to.

"Neither the Sheriff's Office nor the County Attorney's Office is going to get involved in what should be civil disputes about access and easements," the letter read. "People may wear sidearms on their person or carry a firearm without being subject to criminal prosecution even if the person in possession of the weapon gets into an argument with another."

In the days leading up to Crites’ death, his roadway issues were front and center among the Birdseye-area residents. Two neighbors have been charged with crimes in connection to the Crites' killing: Ford and John Mehan.

Ford and his wife, Debbie, owned a lot north of Crites’ property. One of the ways the Fords could access their land was through a lower road on Crites’ property. Access to the lower road was a continuous hot spot for Crites and Ford with Crites installing a metal barrier in 2002, according to an affidavit filed in September 2020 in District Court.

Ford agreed to let Crites fence the road as long as he gave permission for access and knew the lock's combinations. Ford learned Crites was changing the locks and confronted Crites on June 17, 2007, allegedly pointing a loaded handgun at Crites, according to court reports. Ford claimed Crites already had a rifle in his hand so he pointed his pistol at the ground in response, said officials.

Three days later, the gate on the lower road was welded shut. On June 21, 2007, Crites was served an order signed by a District Court judge to allow Ford access to his property from the lower road, officials said. This order didn't solve the problem.

Ford said that he contacted Crites in early June of 2011 via letter to let Crites know that he would be returning to his property and expected to be able to access it from the lower road. The Floras, who were neighbors, had game cameras in the area that picked up Ford traveling up Turk Road toward the property on the night of June 25, 2011.

In a later interview about that night, Ford told authorities he went to Crites’ residence, and they worked out their differences with respect. Crites detailed the incident differently to a friend over the phone, saying that Ford showed up at his home and screamed at him. Crites told him to come back the next morning around 10:30 a.m.

Phone records indicate that Crites called a friend before meeting with Ford on June 26, 2011. He told the friend that he was having issues with a neighbor that could end in a gunfight, and he asked the friend to "write down a name." The friend said he could hear a vehicle approach before the call ended around 10:38 a.m.

In an interview on June 28, 2011, Ford told investigators that he never saw Crites two days prior and that he and his wife sprayed weeds that day.

This statement was proven inaccurate when investigators found that Ford didn't rent a weed sprayer from Lewis and Clark County Weed District until June 27, 2011. In an interview in January 2012, Ford changed his statement saying he didn't spray weeds on June 26, 2011, but spent hours searching for booby traps with a metal detector.

Ford claimed he sprayed weeds for three days and made trips back and forth between his and another neighbor's property, Dennis Shaw, to refill the spray trailer with water. Cameras in the area only record him making one trip driving back down Turk Road after having the weed sprayer for less than two hours the same day he picked it up, according to court reports.

A Weed District employee accompanied Ford to his property on June 28, 2011, to inspect it and told investigators that he was skeptical Ford had even sprayed his property because the trailer was returned clean and full of fuel, said officials.

Crites had called a neighbor the morning of June 26, 2011, and asked them to be a witness to the conversation he was scheduled to have with Ford. The neighbor declined the request but urged Crites to record the event and call him after the two met. Crites never called, and so the neighbor went to check on him the next day, and found his property gate and door to his home open. The neighbor called Crites’ phone several times before going to his residence, according to court reports.

Authorities contacted Verizon to request a "ping" of Crites cellphone to help find his location on June 28, 2011. Crites' cellphone was not actively connected to a cell tower at the time of the ping, but records show that Crites’ phone received an incoming call from his concerned neighbor that pinged off the Montana City cellphone tower.

This cell tower was one of the cell towers used by cellphones located on the lower portion of Turk Road, which is where the Shaw residence is located and where Debbie Ford claimed they left the weed sprayer overnight on June 27-28, 2011. Investigators concluded that somebody briefly turned on Crites phone the morning of June 28, 2011, before turning it off, a 2020 affidavit stated.

Court documents state that Ford left Montana on June 30, 2011. He briefly returned in 2012, and investigators have no information showing he has been back since then.

Mehan was the first arrest in the Crites’ death mystery on July 6, 2011, after trespassing on another neighbor's land and removing cameras. He was charged with felony tampering with evidence. The cameras belonged to the Floras who had put them up after a bitter dispute with their neighbors over their claimed right to use Turk Road and Redtail Ridge Road to get to their home. Mehan pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of misdemeanor criminal mischief in October 2013 and received a six-month suspended jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

John Mehan, sitting between his attorney, Jack Morris, and Lewis and Clark Deputy County Attorney Melissa Broch, pleaded "no contest" on Oct. 17, 2013, to misdemeanor criminal mischief for moving cameras set up by neighbors to activity on Turk Road. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock handed down a six-month suspended sentence. The plea resolves what began as a charge of evidence tampering in the murder investigation of Mike Crites, who disappeared in 2011.

The cameras were being used by the sheriff's office as part of the investigation into Crites’ death. Mehan was caught on tape walking toward the area shortly before one camera was moved to the ground and another was corrupted on June 30, 2011.

The affidavit filed in Justice Court supporting the tampering charge outlines other information involving Mehan, stating that he spoke with a concerned citizen at a public event in Helena and said that "it would be impossible for police to obtain a DNA profile from the bones located on MacDonald Pass because the police had not recovered a specific body part necessary to develop a profile." The affidavit noted that although the fact that a complete skeleton wasn't recovered from MacDonald Pass was public information, the specific body parts that were missing from the skeleton were only known by law enforcement at the time.

Mehan moved with his wife, Katy Wessel, to the neighborhood in 2007, and his interactions with Crites escalated over the years, including multiple alleged incidents of firearms either being shot or brandished from 2010 to 2011, according to court documents.

On April 22, 2011, Mehan, Wessel and Shaw filed a lawsuit against Crites, citing they lived in fear of the man due to threats, brandishing of weapons, videoing and/or using his binoculars to look into homes in the area and more. The plaintiffs claimed that Crites attempted to utilize law enforcement to his advantage and lied to authorities about his own actions in the past. In August 2021, the court wrote to the parties asking the status of this matter and advised that if the parties failed to submit a status report, the case would be dismissed. The case was closed in October 2021.

Both the state and Ford have filed three motions in limine, meaning to be discussed outside the presence of a jury, to determine what evidence can and can't be presented at trial. In court documents filed on May 16, the state was asking that the character witnesses for Ford be limited to three or four witnesses on the grounds of "needless presentation of cumulative evidence," and the court denied this because they don't yet know the number of character witnesses Ford will bring forth.

The state's second motion seeks to prevent Ford from referencing testimony regarding Crites’ alleged bad character, and this was denied. The third motion from the state was to exclude any matter brought up that expresses or alludes to personal opinions that isn't supported by evidence; both parties agreed that asserting facts not in evidence isn't allowed so the court ruled they didn't need to make an order.

Ford's first motion of limine seeks to exclude any testimony by the state's witnesses regarding shed cat hair DNA testing. Evidence was submitted for DNA testing with samples from cat hair at Crites’ burial site, hair from Ford's cat and hair from Mehan's cat. The results came back as inconclusive, hence Ford says it is irrelevant. The court denied this motion. Ford's second motion seeks to exclude all testimony by the state's witnesses on commenting on the credibility of any other witnesses, including Ford, since credibility is exclusive to the jury's determination. The motion was denied. The last motion from Ford seeks to exclude all testimony, arguments or references to statements Crites made prior to his death in regards to his fear of Ford. The court determined this motion to be too broad and denied it.

Pack rats have overrun the home (shown here in a photo photo from 2014) Mike Crites built himself. His sister said the rustic house will probably need to be demolished.

Connie Crites, the sister of John Crites and personal representative of his estate, filed a lawsuit against Ford and Jane Doe for a wrongful death claim and a survival action claim on June 28, 2021. The case remains open.

Many residents left their homes in the area due to the death and rising stress between neighbors, according to news reports. Crites’ 80 acres has been sold since, but it is unknown the date of the transaction. According to onX Maps, the Fords still own around 90 acres and Wessel owns 40 acres each near the Birdseye area.

This story has been updated.

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