Suspect arrested in 2011 killing of Helena-area man Mike Crites
A man in Washington was arrested Wednesday in connection with the killing of John "Mike" Crites, whose dismembered remains were found in trash bags near MacDonald Pass outside Helena in October 2011.
Additional body parts belonging to the 48-year-old Helena-area resident, including his skull, were found about a year later west of the Continental Divide near Elliston.
The suspect, 66-year-old Leon Michael Ford of Oak Harbor, Washington, was taken into custody just before 10 a.m. Pacific Time in Oak Harbor. He is accused of deliberate homicide and tampering with evidence, both felonies, and will be arraigned in Oak Harbor Thursday.
Ford owned 15 acres north of Crites’ property up Turk Road in the hills northwest of Helena at the time of Crites' death, according to Independent Record archives. The two were involved in a dispute about trespassing and property access, and they were scheduled to meet on the last day Crites was seen alive.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said “there’s evidence that we feel is credible to believe that he allegedly committed these crimes,” but he declined to elaborate further. He said the circumstances surrounding the arrest are detailed the affidavit of probable cause filed in Lewis and Clark County Justice Court, which was not immediately available Wednesday evening.
Dutton said his officers have interviewed Ford in Oak Harbor and knew where to find him. He said his office has been working closely with law enforcement in Oak Harbor, and three deputies from Lewis and Clark County traveled to Washington to assist with Wednesday’s arrest.
“I have had a cold case unit working on this for quite some time and it’s taken a long time to track down witnesses, either bring in or eliminate suspects and go through physical evidence, circumstantial evidence, and finally arrive with a charge,” Dutton said.
When asked whether there are any other suspects, Dutton would only say “at this time we are focusing on Leon Ford.”
Dutton said his office will ask to have Ford extradited to Lewis and Clark County to stand trial.
“It has been a long, arduous process,” he said. “There’s a lot of people to thank, but we’re not done.”
In 2014, the victim’s sister Connie Crites announced that her family was offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest and conviction of her brother’s killer.
July 17, 2019 - The Montana Supreme Court has denied a woman's request for the police records about her brother's unsolved death, saying the potential that their release could harm the 8-year-old investigation outweighs her right to inspect government documents.
The court ruled 5-0 Tuesday that the release of the 1,000-page file could damage the 8-year-old investigation into John Michael Crites' death.
"Though eight years is a noteworthy length of time, there is no statute of limitations on homicide," Justice Jim Shea wrote in the opinion.
Connie Crites is seeking the information to help in lawsuits having to do with her brother, whose dismembered remains were found in trash bags near MacDonald Pass outside Helena in October 2011, more than three months after he disappeared. His skull was found separately later.
The 48-year-old John Crites' vehicle, wallet and cellphone were left at his Birdseye home, the door of which was left open. A gate on his property was vandalized and his dogs were running loose.
Officials say John Crites was part of an ongoing land dispute and had been involved in lawsuits with neighbors regarding access to land near his house.
Nobody has ever been charged in his death.
Connie Crites said she needed the information to defend her brother's estate in a lawsuit by three of John Crites' neighbors. Their lawsuit filed before Crites' death accuses him of threatening and accosting them.
She also plans to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit, according to the Supreme Court opinion.
Connie Crites' attorney, Jesse Kodadek, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Shea wrote in the opinion that there is a constitutional presumption that every document in the possession of public officials is subject to inspection.
But, he added, the authors of the Montana Constitution recognized that some things can take precedence over that constitutional right to know, such as those interests necessary to preserve the integrity of government.
The five-justice panel unanimously agreed that applies to law-enforcement files into ongoing criminal investigations, saying public exposure of such files would "have a disastrous effect upon law enforcement agencies in the performance of their duty."
So Connie Crites' right to know what's in the investigative file "must yield to the State's police power to conduct investigations," Shea wrote.
Connie Crites had asked Helena Judge Mike McMahon last year to examine the records in private — which is called an in-camera review — and release only the information that was relevant to her civil litigation.
McMahon ruled against the request, saying state law prohibits the release of information once a prosecutor asserts it would jeopardize an investigation.
The Supreme Court ruled that interpretation was wrong and that a prosecutor can't trump a judge's decision to release criminal justice information when a victim requests it.
Ultimately, the district judge was correct in not releasing John Crites' file, "albeit for the wrong reason," Shea wrote.
It's the first time the state's high court has considered whether an active criminal investigation makes it unnecessary for a judge to conduct private reviews in public records disputes or a balancing test between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy, Shea wrote.
Couple can use disputed road linked to homicide victim Mike Crites, judge rules
July 30, 2018 - A Lewis and Clark County judge has ruled that a couple has a right to use a hotly disputed road linked to John Michael "Mike" Crites, whose dismembered body was found on MacDonald Pass in October 2011.
In a May 2011 lawsuit naming several of their neighbors, Marc and Gloria Flora claimed the right to use a 60-foot easement along Turk Road northwest of Helena, which crosses property owned by John Mehan/Kate Wessel and Linda Koontz/Dennis Shaw.
According to Independent Record archives, Mehan claimed the Floras and their neighbor Crites were illegally using Turk Road to access their property. The Floras and Crites believed otherwise. Conversely, Crites said Mehan and others were illegally crossing his property.
The Floras have also claimed Mehan blockaded Turk Road numerous times, which forced them to build a second route into their house. That road has limited use during the winter.
“Wessel and Mehan have obstructed and frustrated the use of Turk Road by Floras in a threatening and dangerous manner since July of 2009,” the original complaint claims. “Wessel and Mehan have physically threatened the Floras with weapons and have trespassed into the Floras’ property … and have confronted anyone attempting to use the road with firearms and/or threats.”
On July 12, Judge James Reynolds released an order for summary judgment in favor of the Floras.
The Floras claimed the easement was created through deeds dating back to Raymond and Rosemary Sewell.
The unrefuted evidence shows that Rosemary Sewell intended to benefit at least the owner of the property now owned by Floras in the southwest corner of Section 10," the order says. "To be clear, the Court's Order is no broader than this."
Wessel and Mehan argued that because their deeds do not state an easement across their property, there is no such easement.
"The deeds in Wessel/Mehan chain of title, however, expressly refer to the sixty-foot easement crossing their property," the order says. "Wessel/Mehan are implied to have notice of the easements recorded in their chain of title."
The Floras' lawsuit is one of several that illustrate the tension along Turk Road in the months and years leading up to Crites' death, which is being investigated as a homicide. Mehan was previously arrested and convicted of negligent endangerment after he pointed a rifle at Crites as he traveled down Turk Road, and a lawsuit filed by Mehan, Wessel and Shaw alleged Crites had pointed a gun at them and that they lived in fear of him.
Authorities have yet to arrest anyone in connection with the death of Crites, after his bones were found in trash bags at the top of MacDonald Pass in October 2011 and his skull and other body parts were found near a trail outside Elliston about a year later.
June 21, 2013 -A Birdsye-area man charged with tampering with evidence related to an unsolved murder has asked a judge to move his case out of Lewis and Clark County, citing “excessive pretrial media coverage” in the matter.
John Raymond Mehan is accused of trespassing last summer and moving cameras that prosecutors say were being used in the investigation into the 2011 disappearance and murder of his Turk Road neighbor John Michael “Mike” Crites. Last year some of Crites' remains turned up later in bags near MacDonald Pass.
The motions Thursday by attorney Jack Morris also call on prosecutors to release documents related to the investigation into Crites' disappearance. The state has referred to the Crites case in some of its court actions against Mehan, but authorities have said he is not considered a suspect in the murder.
The motion also seeks any correspondence between the state of Montana and “the media,” neighbors Marc and Gloria Flora (on whose land prosecutors say the cameras were located) and Connie Crites, the sister of Mike Crites and the personal representative of his state.
Media coverage of the neighborhood has also addressed a lawsuit filed by Mehan and others against Crites when he was alive, and an ongoing legal battle among the neighbors regarding the ownership of Turk Road.
The motion also seeks dismissal of the tampering and trespassing charges for lack of probable cause.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock scheduled a hearing on the motions Aug. 21.
John "Mike" Crites disappeared in June of 2011. His dismembered remains were found near McDonald Pass in October of that year....more
October 4, 2012 - Officials on Thursday said no arrests are imminent in the year-old John “Mike” Crites murder investigation, but search warrants were executed Wednesday at the Turk Road residences of two neighbors who had a longstanding dispute with him over roads and land access in the Birdseye area.
At a joint press conference with Powell County Sheriff Scott Howard, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton continued to offer little information about the Crites case and declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding the warrants, other than to say no arrests were made. The warrants were executed by 11 officers around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday at the homes of Dennis Shaw and of Katy Wessel and John Mehan, according to online Lewis and Clark County property tax records.
Wessel, Mehan and Shaw are involved in a lawsuit with Crites’ estate over the land and access to public lands beyond Crites’ property. Mehan has pleaded not guilty on a charge of evidence tampering in the case after he allegedly took down two surveillance cameras.
Shaw said that the officers who searched his house were courteous, and they stayed at his residence until 2:30 p.m., taking coolers and ropes with them. He added that he doesn’t know what they were searching for.
Crites disappeared around June 26, 2011. His dismembered remains were found in garbage bags on MacDonald Pass a year ago Friday.
“They think I know something about it (Crites’ death) and I don’t know how to convince them I don’t know a damn thing about it,” Shaw said. “I said I would take a lie detector test or anything else they want. How do you get away from something like this, because you’re just at their mercy? I don’t know what they think that I did.”
Officers also quietly searched the Mehan house for about 10 hours, taking tools, saws, Hefty garbage bags, one handgun from a variety of guns in a safe and bolt cutters, among other items. An officer also swabbed the inside of Mehan’s mouth for a DNA sample.
Jack Morris, Mehan’s attorney, said they weren’t sure why the search warrant was executed, because Mehan has cooperated with investigators looking into Crites’ death.
“He answered their questions where specific items on the property would be stored; he tried to cooperate as best he could,” Morris said. “He would like to get out from being in the middle of this. He maintains he had nothing to do with the disappearance of Mr. Crites. He knows nothing about it and will continue to cooperate with law enforcement.
“Hopefully this case will be solved and the Mehans and Crites can move on with their lives.”
The warrants were served a week after a human skull and other undisclosed remains were found east of Elliston below MacDonald Pass, which is just a few miles west of where some of Crites’ remains were discovered in bags. Portions of Crites’ body were missing from the bags; Dutton has declined to discuss exactly what was in them, citing the ongoing investigation.
But he did want to assure the public that they’re moving forward on the case.
“We are working feverishly,” Dutton said. “There’s a lot of activity going on.”
The newest human remains were found about 6:45 p.m. Sept. 25 just off of Lime Quarry Hills Road. The road is north of Highway 12 and south of the Little Blackfoot Creek and train trestle.
Howard said they received a 911 call from a couple traveling through the area who had stopped along the highway to exercise their dogs.
“While in the area, their dogs were acting very strange and led them to what later on was determined to be human remains,” Howard said. “There was a skull and other human remains found.”
Howard said he’s requested an expedited investigation at the Montana State Crime Lab into the skull to see if it is Crites. If dental records are good enough, they may have an answer within three weeks; if not, DNA testing could double the time it takes.
Dutton and Howard would not say if they found other evidence with the skull or if — like Crites’ — the remains were in a garbage bag.
They also declined to discuss whether there was any duplication among the skull, Crites’ bagged remains and a pair of human legs found June 26 by hikers north of Butte. However, a preliminary DNA analysis of the legs in August didn’t come up with any matches.
Howard did say despite that the three morbid discoveries, he believes only two victims are involved. He added that he has no reason to believe the deaths are the work of a serial killer.
“There’s no serial killer until some evidence shows up and says that,” Howard said.
But he added that stance could change depending on the crime lab reports.
Dutton said the investigation is taking a long time because authorities want to have a solid case before making an arrest.
“We are going to solve this but that will take good investigative work plus help from the community,” Dutton said. “I know some members of the public are frustrated that it seems to be taking a while, but when you got to court … you want to have a good case.”
He said authorities are also seeking help from anyone who may know something about either of the three sets of remains.
Skull identified as Crites, investigation continues
November 2, 2012 - The Montana State Crime Lab has identified a skull found west of MacDonald Pass in late September as that of John Michael “Mike” Crites, the Birdseye-area man whose partial remains were found near the pass more than a year ago.
Powell County Sheriff Scott Howard and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton announced the lab’s findings, which were based on dental records, Friday afternoon at a press conference in Helena. Crites’ death is being investigated as a murder.
No one has been charged in the case, and Dutton said no one is currently considered a suspect.
The sheriffs provided little other new information on the case or the remains that were found, citing the ongoing investigation. They declined to give details about the condition of the remains or if they were found with additional objects.
“We continue to gather statements, we continue to submit items to the Montana Crime Lab for investigation, for analysis, and the investigation continues,” Dutton said. “You never know, it could be tomorrow, it could be a week, a year. Evidence is driving the case, we’re being very careful and we want to have a substantive case when we hand that to the county attorney for prosecution.”
Crites, 48 at the time of his death, lived alone on 80 acres on Turk Road, west of Birdseye Road in the mountains near the Continental Divide.
Property owners in the Turk Road area had had numerous confrontations with one another well before Crites’ disappearance, with charges and counter-charges of trespassing and road blocking, with surveillance cameras installed by residents keeping watch.
Three neighbors filed a lawsuit against Crites in April 2011, alleging a pattern of threats and harassment.
Crites was last seen — other than by the party that killed him — in June 2011, and his remains were discovered by a U.S. Forest Service employee near MacDonald Pass in October 2011. They were positively identified as his in January.
In July, John Mehan, one of the neighbors suing Crites, was arrested on charges of evidence tampering and trespassing on the land of Marc and Gloria Flora, who also own land in the area. Prosecutors said Mehan had removed two surveillance cameras owned by the Floras that were being used by law enforcement in the ongoing investigation.
Bail was initially set at $500,000, with a judge citing a possible connection to the Crites disappearance. Mehan’s lawyer told the court that if authorities thought Mehan was involved with the murder, they should charge him for it.
In late September, a couple traveling through the area found the human skull now identified as Crites’. About a week later, on Oct. 3, authorities executed search warrants on the properties of Mehan and Dennis Shaw, another neighbor involved in the lawsuit against Crites. Authorities removed various items and both Mehan, through his attorney, and Shaw denied any involvement in Crites’ disappearance.
Dutton said Friday he wasn’t certain if any other search warrants had been executed in the investigation before the October searches.
He said the FBI is also involved in the investigation.
Lawsuits over the status of Turk Road itself remain pending in District Court and conflict is continuing, with a complaint to deputies Oct. 26 that someone had painted part of a fence on Mehan’s property.
The road leads to public lands. But asked if travel on the road was safe, Dutton suggested people take a different route if they want to go the public areas.
“They feel it’s a private road,” he said. “That’s the contention that will be hammered out in court.”
Neighbors file claims for $75,000 from Crites estate
August 21, 2012 - A trio of neighbors who sued John “Mike” Crites, the Birdseye man who was apparently murdered last year, have filed claims totaling $75,000 against Crites’ estate.
Crites’ former neighbors Dennis Shaw, John Mehan — who is charged with evidence tampering in the investigation into Crites’ murder — and Mehan’s wife, Katy Wessel, each have claimed $25,000 in their lawsuit, filed against Crites in April 2011 and alleging threats and harassment in an ongoing land and road access dispute.
Crites was allegedly served with the lawsuit May 29, 2011, and disappeared around June 26, 2011. His remains were found near MacDonald pass in early October, but were not positively identified until January. The default was entered against him in November.
A process server has told the court he properly served Crites with the lawsuit, but his sister, Connie Crites, who is also the representative of his estate, has asked District Judge James Reynolds to set that default aside, arguing that her brother was never properly served.
The neighbors’ attorney, John Doubek, told the court they had offered to settle the case for a “nominal” amount.
Mehan has previously pleaded no contest in 2011 to negligent endangerment (and ordered to stay 1,500 feet away from Crites) after Crites accused him of pointing a gun at him, an allegation Doubek described in court as “pure hogwash.”
Mehan was arrested July 6 on the felony charge of tampering with evidence for allegedly moving surveillance cameras being used in the investigation. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $50,000 bail.
Colleen Dowdall, Connie Crites’ lawyer, has argued that the neighbors knew that Crites was missing and possibly dead well before they sought and received the default against Mike Crites.
“Public policy simply cannot allow a default against a defendant to stand when that defendant was murdered — especially when the allegations of the complaint seek damages related to neighborhood violence,” she wrote.
That filing also characterizes Mehan as a “suspect” in the murder case, noting that authorities have said Mehan had knowledge of Crites’ remains that were only known to law enforcement.
Now deceased, Crites has not had a chance to defend himself in the lawsuit by the neighbors, but would have an “obvious defense” to the allegations, according to Dowdall.
“He was a victim in an earlier charge against John Mehan and he is arguably the ultimate victim in the neighborhood dispute,” she wrote.
Mehan's lawyer in that case, Jack Morris, pushed back on that suggestion in Mehan’s bail hearing last week.
“If he had anything to do with the Crites disappearance, he should be charged as such,” he told District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock.
The value of Crites’ estate is not clear, but court documents indicate he owned 80 acres of land.
Crites family keeps memory alive, fights for justice
Posted 9:23 AM 9/24/2012 : Crites family keeps memory alive, fights for justice
The Crites family continues to fight for justice to be served after one of their own was murdered.
Authorities are continuing their investigation into the murder of Birdseye resident Mike Crites.
His remains were found on MacDonald Pass in October of 2011.
July 9, 2012 - For Connie Crites, her brother’s gruesome murder is an open wound just won’t heal. Even worse, it keeps getting the scab torn off.
The first time she cried was when John “Mike” Crites’ beloved wolf-hybrid dogs were put down. It was about a month after his June 2011 disappearance and indicated to her that his brother was not coming back.
Then, remains were located in garbage bags near Helena in October. She feared they were her brother, but the confirmation of that fear in January gave her a measure of closure.
She had another breakdown at Easter. As she was cooking her family dinner, Crites listened to some 1980s music she and her brother had both adored and danced to. It served as another reminder that he was gone.
This week, a year after his disappearance and six months after his remains were identified, Crites returned to her brother’s Turk Road home for the first time since his murder was confirmed by law enforcement officials.
She gathered some mementos of her brother, including tapes of the one-hit wonders of 1980s he had compiled. Crites and other family members had an estate sale of his large collection of hunting and fishing equipment as well.
“This trip has definitely been the most difficult,” Connie Crites said, as she worked through her brother’s belongings.
Crites, her fiancé and her mother, Else Crites, traveled from Colorado to the isolated home on Turk Road, northwest of Helena for several reasons. One was to clean and clear out some of the possessions of their brother and son. Another was to let the community, especially those who live in the contentious neighborhood, know that they are still searching for answers for his death.
“We’re going to come back and come back and come back,” Else Crites said.
“I have a few people of interest to me,” she said standing in her brother’s driveway, overlooking the mountains in the Birdseye area. “The bad guys — they’re going to get got.”
While no charges have been filed directly for the murder, a recent incident potentially unearthed information on the homicide. A neighbor arrested for evidence tampering allegedly spoke of details only known by detectives and the person or persons who committed the crime.
John Raymond Mehan is in jail in lieu of $250,000 bond. Authorities said the high bond was necessary because he is a flight risk. Prosecutors allege Mehan, who has been at the center of much of the contention along the Birdseye-area road, took down cameras owned by a another neighbor that were being used by the sheriff’s office as part of the Mike Crites investigation.
“He has some information that is pertinent to the case that has not been released to the public,” said Sgt. Dave Peterson, the lead detective in the case. He would not elaborate on that information.
Authorities arrested Mehan up Turk Road on Friday for tampering with evidence, a felony, for removing surveillance cameras being used in the investigation of the killing.
Peterson said the arrest is indirectly related to the murder because the information being gathered was being reviewed by investigators.
“We don’t know what the reasoning is for removing them,” Peterson said, adding that it has yet to determine if this new development will impede or assist the case.
“We wanted to stir things up,” Connie Crites said after returning home and learning of Mehan’s arrest. “I like to think that our presence had something to do with the arrest. It gives me hope that progress is being made. Eventually the truth will come out,” she added.
She says she has a good relationship with investigators and talks to them on an almost weekly basis.
Peterson said Thursday while there is “nothing earth-breaking to pass on,” detectives continue to receive and pursue leads. Peterson said he has “persons of interest” as well and is working to put all the pieces together to potentially turn those people into suspects.
“With the land dispute, there are lots of people who have motive,” the detective said. “But, we don’t have anything concrete.”
The use of Turk Road and its surrounding area has been the subject an ongoing battle between area residents. Neighbors have shot at each other and many continue to be armed at all times. Allegations stretch from trespassing to intimidation and assaults.
“It’s a hatred that has been going on for years,” Peterson said.
One of the latest lawsuits, filed two days before Crites’ disappearance in June 2011, asks for an order to declare Turk Road either private or public, a key area of disagreement in the area. The case, filed by Mehan and his wife, Katy Wessel, is scheduled for a trial in October 2013.
At least three “No Trespassing” signs are posted along the roadway leading up to the Crites property. Connie Crites said another, declaring the road to be a private driveway, popped up just before his land this week while she was at her brother’s home.
Crites said the stress of ongoing disputes, lawsuits and constant trespassers on his beloved 80 acres changed her brother. He began to fear for his life.
“He’s told the same story over and over again. He could be arrogant or a jerk but he was not a liar,” she said of her brother’s concerns.
Another sign greeting visitors to Turk Road is a memorial to Mike Crites, erected by friends. The wooden sign, adorned with antlers, urges passersby to remember him as a good neighbor and friend of nature. It also addresses those who killed him:
“Brutally murdered in cold blood; No rest without justice; Their guilt curses them,” the sign reads.
Connie Crites said she still does not know how her brother was killed or how his remains ended up in garbage bags miles away in October.
Peterson declined to discuss on what body parts were found or what condition they were in.
“That is one of the key components of our investigation,” he said.
Officials are still awaiting results from some items they sent to the state crime lab.
“We’ve conducted at least three or four search warrants,” Peterson said, adding that some searches were conducted out of state.
Sheriff Leo Dutton said the crime will be actively investigated until it is solved.
Crites’ family also came to his land for a small memorial service. They wrote personal messages on blue balloons and then let them go on the balcony overlooking his beloved land.
“He came up here in ’92 to live the dream in Montana,” Else Crites said, standing in the shadows of taxidermy in her son’s bedroom. “He loved the land. He loved the animals. That’s why he moved here.
“Someday, he said he would sit up here and write a book. But, they
wouldn’t let him,” she said.
As her mother spoke, Connie Crites sobbed as she read a text from her 28-year-old son, Scott. He had sent the message he wanted written on a balloon.
“I’m grateful for everything you taught me,” the text message read. “Your death is not only a huge loss to your family and friends, but also the land you looked after as well. Your nephew with Love, Scott.”