HELENA — This week, jurors in Leon Ford’s trial heard from some of the investigators who began following up on the killing of John “Mike” Crites more than a decade ago.
Wednesday was the fifth day of testimony. Ford is charged with deliberate homicide and tampering with evidence in connection with Crites’ 2011 death. The two men both owned property along Turk Road, in a rural area northwest of Helena, and they had a dispute over road access.
On Tuesday, the prosecution presented a five-hour recording of a 2012 interview Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office investigators conducted with Ford at his home in Washington state. It occurred several months after Crites’ dismembered remains were discovered on the east side of MacDonald Pass – but before his skull was found several miles west of the pass in September 2012.
In the interview, Ford repeatedly denied having anything to do with Crites’ death. He said he had the law and a court order on his side in his dispute with Crites, so he had no reason to kill him.
Investigators challenged Ford, saying they saw inconsistencies in his story, including what he was doing the morning of June 26, 2011 – immediately after the time Crites made his last known phone call. They pointed to images from a camera installed by another neighbor, showing Ford’s truck going up the road at nearly the same time.
The investigators suggested Ford might have been surprised by Crites and ended up in a confrontation with him. Ford again denied it, saying, as a military veteran, he had been in life-threatening situations before and wouldn’t have panicked. He said he had previously contacted law enforcement to tell his side of the story regarding arguments with Crites, and he would have called them again if he had killed someone in self-defense.
On Wednesday, attorneys questioned Dave Peterson, one of the investigators who conducted the 2012 interview with Ford. Peterson is now retired but was head of LCCSO’s investigation bureau at the time.
Defense attorney Palmer Hoovestal noted that, despite extensive searching on Crites’ land, Ford’s land and other properties in the area, officers hadn’t been able to identify where Crites was killed. He argued the prosecution couldn’t prove it happened immediately after Crites’ call on June 26.
“To this day, you don't know where Michael Crites breathed his last breath?” Hoovestal asked Peterson.
“That’s correct,” Peterson answered.
Hoovestal also argued many other residents in the Turk Road area besides Ford had issues with Crites. Peterson said he knew there had been more than 100 law enforcement calls for service to the area because of the ongoing disputes between neighbors.
“One day, somebody would like somebody, and then they wanted somebody else in trouble,” he said. “It was just a continuous circle up there for a while.”
Prosecutors also called Michael Fegely, who performs analysis on cellphone location data. Fegely looked at data from Crites and Ford’s phones, as well as Ford’s wife’s phone.
Fegely said Crites made several calls from his home on June 26 – including his last call – that were routed through a cell tower near Wolf Creek. He said Ford called his wife around 12:30 that day, and that call also went through the Wolf Creek tower. He said when Ford spoke to his wife later in the day, the calls were routed through other towers – including one on MacDonald Pass.
Fegely also said Crites’ phone received a call from a neighbor on June 28, and that it was connected through a cell tower near Montana City. He said he drove around the area last year using a scanning device and found several areas along Turk Road where that tower was the most likely for a phone to receive a signal.
Defense attorneys questioned doing that type of scan so recently would have the same results as in 2011, in light of the changes in cellphone technology and possible changes to the towers. They also noted that a call transferring from one tower to another does not necessarily indicate that the person moved.
Fegely agreed that the data doesn’t provide specifics of where a phone was located when it made a call, and that the maps he produced for a report don’t give the full picture of where a phone might get signal from a given tower.
“These are always estimates,” he said.
Follow MTN's previous coverage of the Ford trial: Neighbors testify as Leon Ford trial enters second week