HELENA – A Lewis and Clark County coroner’s jury has unanimously confirmed the death of a man near Canyon Ferry Lake earlier this year did not occur by any “criminal means.”
A coroner’s inquest was held Friday at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse. Six jury members were asked to determine the circumstances surrounding the man’s death. They heard testimony from the man’s friends and from law enforcement officers who responded, and they saw photos and videos from the scene.
On Apr. 7, the man’s friends reported to dispatchers that he had threatened suicide. Deputies from the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office responded to check on his welfare. They eventually found him near Chinamen’s Campground.
After trying to make contact with the man, deputies testified they followed his vehicle onto Canyon Ferry Road and then onto Copeland Road. They said, shortly after he turned onto Copeland, the man suddenly stopped, got out of the vehicle and put a pistol to his head. Deputies tried to convince him to put the gun down, but he fired.
Deputies attempted to give the man medical assistance, but he was declared dead shortly after firefighters arrived.
A coroner’s inquest must be held whenever a person dies while in law enforcement custody or being taken into custody.
Joshua Schmidt was then working as the LCSO patrol deputy for the Canyon Ferry area and was the lead deputy who. He is currently a deputy sheriff in Oregon, and testified at the inquest by phone.
Schmidt told the jury he asked the other deputies to follow the man at a distance and back off once he turned off the main road, because he did not want “push him into a corner.” However, he said car-to-car radio coverage is spotty in that part of the Canyon Ferry area, and the other deputies were not able to hear his request that they back off.
LCSO Deputy Christopher Norris, who was one of the deputies following immediately behind the man, agreed there were problems with communication, and that he did not hear Schmidt’s order.
The case was investigated by the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation to ensure there was no conflict of interest. Officials said this is a common step in cases involving law enforcement officers.
DCI agent Anthony Poppler said there was no evidence anyone except the man killed had used a weapon.
Jeremy Gersovitz, a deputy county attorney, argued it was clear what had happened.
“I do believe at the conclusion of this inquest – when you’ve heard all the evidence, all the testimony, seen all the exhibits, when you fit all the facts into this framework that we’ve talked about – I think that you’ll come back with a verdict the death was not occasioned by criminal means,” he said.
The jury returned their verdict just minutes after beginning deliberations.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Coroner Jessie Billquist-Jette oversaw Friday’s inquest. Lewis and Clark County Coroner Bryan Backeberg recused himself due to a conflict.