POLSON – Lake County authorities believe at least four people were involved in the grisly murder of former Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Harold Mitchell Jr., but only one of them ever went to trial and was convicted.
Now, he’s been released on his own recognizance pending a new trial that may or may not happen.
Clifford Oldhorn walked out of the Lake County Courthouse Wednesday morning after serving approximately 17 months of a 100-year sentence.
He remains on probation for three 2005 convictions on counts of burglary, theft and deceptive practices.
District Court Judge C.B. McNeil released Oldhorn pending a new homicide trial, but whether that takes place likely depends on how the Montana Supreme Court rules on a pending appeal involving Oldhorn’s case.
The appeal deals with Oldhorn’s alleged confession to authorities about what took place in July 2005, when the 73-year-old Mitchell was beaten, stabbed, had his throat slashed, and his body was doused with gasoline and set on fire in his St. Ignatius home during what authorities believe was a robbery attempt.
Without the confession being admissible, prosecutors have indicated it would be impractical to retry Oldhorn for Mitchell’s murder. The fire, which burned most of Mitchell’s home, destroyed most physical evidence, they say, and their case rests largely on his confession to his part in the crime.
McNeil referred to those statements Wednesday when he denied the state’s request for bail to be set at $500,000 – the same as the judge had ordered when Oldhorn originally was charged in the case – and instead released him on his own recognizance.
Oldhorn has maintained he believed he had been granted immunity from prosecution for telling authorities what he says happened on the night Mitchell was murdered, and implicating three other men in the crime.
The state, meantime, argues it was made clear – in writing – that immunity extended only to collateral crimes committed during the course of the incident, such as arson, and specifically ruled out immunity “for any acts which would constitute accountability for the homicide of Mr. Mitchell.”
Court documents filed when one of the other men was arrested in connection with the crime indicate that Oldhorn told two members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office that he, Kyle Brown, Nigel Ernst and Nathan Ross went to Mitchell’s home to rob him.
When Brown allegedly began beating Mitchell, trying to get him to tell them where he kept his money, Oldhorn said he couldn’t bear to watch and left the home, but could still hear Mitchell yelling inside. Then Ross allegedly came outside to retrieve a can of gasoline from the vehicle they had arrived in, Oldhorn said.
Based on those statements, Brown, Ernst and Ross were all charged as well – but when Oldhorn quit cooperating with authorities, the charges against all three were dismissed without prejudice. With no guarantee Oldhorn would testify against his co-defendants, his statements implicating them would be inadmissible in court.
Only Oldhorn remained charged in connection with the murder.
His attorney moved to have Oldhorn’s confession suppressed prior to his 2011 trial.
McNeil dismissed the motion. After a five-day trial in 2011, a jury deliberated just 90 minutes before convicting Oldhorn of deliberate homicide, and McNeil sentenced him to 100 years.
Oldhorn’s attorneys appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, arguing that McNeil should not have allowed the confession to be admitted.
The Supreme Court didn’t agree or disagree – it simply said that without an evidentiary hearing it had no way of understanding the judge’s reasoning in allowing the confession, and ordered that one be held.
That happened last month. Afterward, McNeil reversed himself and ruled that the confession had not been given voluntarily, and should not be admitted. The judge then recommended the Supreme Court should order a new trial.
Montana’s high court agreed.
The state has filed notice it will appeal McNeil’s Jan. 15 ruling concerning Oldhorn’s alleged confession. Prosecutors still say whether a new trial is held hinges on that decision.
Oldhorn, whose father lives in Spokane and was present Wednesday, will stay with an aunt and uncle – also present in the courtroom – who live in St. Ignatius, his defense attorney indicated to McNeil.
He remains under standard probationary requirements because of his 2005 convictions on unrelated charges.
Several of Mitchell’s relatives also were in the courtroom. Lake County Attorney Mitch Young said that while the 7 1/2-year-old case has been frustrating for his office, “It’s more for the family, to finally see a small bit of closure, then have it taken away again.”
Brown and Ernst are serving time in federal prisons in Oregon and California for unrelated crimes. Ross remains free.