The number of felonies charged in Missoula County was up in 2017 over the year before, and the county is still seeing record high numbers of child protection cases, according to a new report issued by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
Since taking office, County Attorney Kirsten Pabst has issued the annual reports each January, examining data and trends her office saw the previous year as well as looking ahead to the plans for the coming year.
In 2017, 736 adult felony cases were opened by the county attorney’s office, 65 more than the number charged the year before. County misdemeanor cases (the city attorney’s office handles misdemeanors in city limits) were down year over year, from 1,182 in 2016 to 927 last year.
“Every 12 hours, a new felony is committed in Missoula County,” the report said.
Child abuse and neglect cases continued to tick up each year, setting another record in 2017 with 195 cases filed, four more than 2016. Last year, Pabst said the number of those cases has been increasing at an “alarming rate” and said substance abuse and addiction — primarily involving methamphetamine — have been tied to the recent spike.
Four attorneys in her office are dedicated to working with the state Department of Health and Human Services to file and pursue such cases.
Among the county's notable cases of the past year, the annual report highlighted the settlement reached between the county and M2Green, the owners of the former Smurfit-Stone Container site.
Under a new law passed by the Legislature, the county commissioners decided to sue to reclaim back taxes the county was owed. Anna Conley, a civil attorney with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, negotiated a settlement with Wakefield Kennedy, which holds the mortgage for M2Green. The settlement means the county reclaimed more than $967,000, around 89 percent of the back taxes it was owed.
On the criminal side, Pabst’s report cited the prosecution of Emmanuel Gomez, who after a trial in early 2017 was found guilty of homicide for killing his girlfriend Charlie Wyrick and dumping her body in Pattee Canyon in December 2015. Pabst and Senior Deputy County Attorney Jordan Kilby prosecuted that case.
The report also mentioned the case of Erik Nugent, who received a 100-year prison sentence after being found guilty of drugging and molesting several teenage girls.
In 2017, prosecutors on the special victims unit at the county attorney’s office helped to draft and lobby for changes to the state laws dealing with sexual assault and rape, including the Montana Legislature redefining the term "consent" to make prosecuting such crimes more straightforward.
Heading into 2018, the report said Pabst and her office will establish a pretrial diversion program, something she stated her intention to work on when she announced her reelection bid in November.
The program, which would be the first of its kind in the state, would offer a way for low-risk, nonviolent offenders to reach agreements before their cases go to a judge. These agreements would make sure they have appropriate supervision, addiction treatment and mental health services without the need for a case to go through all steps of the court system.
Pabst has said in the past that looking at other areas of the country with similar programs, she sees the possibility for significant cost savings that could then be applied toward the prosecution of more dangerous crimes.