One of his first tastes of freedom was pizza.

“Best I ever had in my life,” Richard Raugust recalled of his family’s stop at MacKenzie River Pizza in Missoula on Dec. 4. “And it was good on its own. It wasn’t just because I hadn’t had pizza in a long time.”

He was on his way that day from the Sanders County Courthouse in Thompson Falls to a new life in Missoula after District Judge James Wheelis released Raugust from prison on his own recognizance.

A few weeks earlier, Wheelis overturned Raugust’s conviction and granted him a new trial for the murder of his best friend in July 1997.

Raugust, who protested his innocence from the start, was sentenced to life plus 10 years for shooting Joe Tash in the head as he slept in Raugust's camper in the woods a few miles from Trout Creek.

His release pending a new trial came after he spent, by his lawyer’s count, 18 years, four months and 11 days in state prisons at Deer Lodge, Shelby and Glendive.

Nearly three months into his new life, Raugust is slowly coming to grips with cellphones and email.

He filed an electronic application with the Poverello Center on Jan. 18 for a job at the Valor House.

“They still haven’t got back with me, so it could have slipped through the cracks,” he said. “Then again, I might not have even got it there.”

Raugust turned 50 on Feb. 1 and got married at the Missoula County Courthouse on Feb. 19.

His bride’s name is Maria, and Raugust joked as he sat down for an interview three days later that he was “technically” on his honeymoon.

He and Maria share a ground-floor apartment in the Rattlesnake that the Montana Innocence Project helped set him up with.

“We met a couple months ago on ChristianMingle(.com), of all places,” he said. “I found a really good lady to spend the rest of my life with.”

Brett Schandelson said he’s happy with what he’s seen of Raugust’s progress on the outside.

“He’s assimilated back into society very well, he has a solid living situation, and he’s got a lot of irons in the fire. He’s an extremely optimistic kind of guy,” said Schandelson, of the Missoula law firm Tipp and Buley, who saw Raugust’s case through pro bono for the Montana Innocence Project.

Raugust drops in at the Montana Innocence Project offices at the University of Montana’s School of Law a couple of days a week to help screen potential cases like his own. His was the first overturned verdict engineered by the nonprofit that was formed in 2008.

“Most often, his task is helping to read through the three or four letters the organization receives each week from people who want them to look at their cases,” said Joe Bischof, executive director of the Innocence Project. “For each letter, volunteers read through the information provided and then send back a questionnaire seeking more specific details about the case.”

***

Clad in flannel shirt, blue jeans and sandals, Raugust turned down the volume on a small television tuned to a classic rock music channel and spoke freely of his years in prison, his legal situation and his adaptation to life outside.

He lives in Missoula under court restrictions while the legal scenarios play out. On the day he was released, the Montana Attorney General’s Office filed notice of appeal of Wheelis’ decision to overturn Raugust’s conviction that the judge based, in part, on a “Brady violation.” He determined Raugust had been denied his right to due process because evidence, including the testimony of a sheriff’s deputy, was withheld during his trial.

The state disagreed and was recently granted an extension until March 13 by the Montana Supreme Court to file its opening brief. It could well take the rest of 2016 for the state court to receive and rule on the appeal. No trial date in district court can be set until the Supreme Court decides on the matter.

“Right now, we’re in limbo,” Raugust said. “They may file the appeal, they may not. And then I don’t know if they kick it back to district court to go through a trial or not. We don’t know. We don’t care. We’re ready to go right now.”

In the 1998 trial, prosecutors relied heavily on testimony of Rory Ross, who was also with Tash on the night he was murdered.

The Montana Innocence Project maintains Ross told “a self-serving lie” and that he has admitted to killing Tash multiple times since the trial.

Contacted at his Sanders County home Thursday, Ross said he was tired of being slandered.

“I really don’t want to say nothing,” he said.

Sanders County Attorney Bob Zimmerman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

***

“I don’t have a car yet,” Raugust said. “As soon as I get a job, somebody’s going to co-sign for me, and I’m going to get something to drive around. I don’t want to get in debt too much.”

He said he’s mentoring Maria in poetry, one of the passions he found, studied and nurtured in prison. The two are in the early stages of collaborating on a book of poems.

“Surprisingly enough, she’s about a 90 percent world-class poet already,” said Raugust.

His own poetry book is among many things that consume his time in Missoula.

A former Army infantry soldier, Raugust wrote “Fishers of Trout and Men: Protectors of the Realm” while in prison. The 230-page manuscript contains 52 long poems and 517 four-line “haiku-isms.” It's geared for not only military readers but for “lovers of adventure and the great outdoors.”

“There is a slightly heavy mystical-otherworldly tone to many of these pieces, a result of cosmic battles hard to fathom,” he wrote in an author’s note in 2013.

Raugust has found a publisher, Tactical 16 of Colorado, which he said specializes in the areas of military, law enforcement and emergency services. Threshold Media Group of Lolo is working on pre-publication book cover ideas.

“In 90 days, I’ll be on Amazon.com and I’ll have a website,” he said. “It’s a real nice mixture, and it’s going to be one bad-ass book. It should sell a million copies, no problem.”

Poetry is “a great way to focus his time, energy and talents to really be able to do something for himself and give back to society as a whole,” noted Bischof.

Raugust asked if a poem he wrote in memory of Spencer Veysey could be included intact in a Missoulian feature story. As the Innocence Project’s lone staff investigator, Veysey was instrumental in Raugust’s case before he died last summer at age 26 while hiking in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

In a poem he called “The Natural,” Raugust wrote:

We should all be thankful

For the presence he bestowed.

Who would have thought

He was not immortal?

***

Spring is in the air and fish-filled streams beckon.

“There’s a lot of fresh air, I know that,” said Raugust, who was presented with a new fly rod by his mother, Marci Jones, and sister, Mary Webster, a defense attorney in California, when he stepped out of the Sanders County Courthouse in December.

He came to Montana from California at the urging of Tash, his childhood friend, who lured him with descriptions of trees, mountains and trout streams.

But after 18 years on the inside, Raugust isn’t as impatient to get outdoors as you might expect.

He’s saving up to buy a fishing license, but said so far, “I kind of keep my own circle from the post office to the courthouse to the bus station to the college.”

He’s required to check in with the Missoula County sheriff once a week.

“I get out,” Raugust said. “I usually walk either downtown or from town to here every day. But I broke my foot a couple years ago in prison and never went to the doctor, and it’s still acting up, so I’ve been taking the bus.”

He’s started a business called Poetry In Motions.

“Purveyors of Intellectual Property,” his business card says. “Building buzz, brand awareness & little masterpieces.”

Raugust identifies himself as “head builder.”

“Right now, I’m working on getting some poetry outreach, mentor-type stuff for veterans going. I’m in the process of getting that fully up to speed,” he said.

A health center in Missoula has expressed interest.

Raugust honed those skills in prison, where he coached fellow inmates, many of them under-educated, on how to write verse.

“Some did pretty damn good,” he said. “Amazingly good.”

He’s thinking of offering his services to funeral homes and senior communities, to write memorial poems for families who’ve lost loved ones.

“I actually have a two-page questionnaire I’ve copyrighted,” Raugust said. “They fill it out and I extrapolate after that. I never have to talk to them.”

Raugust said besides poetry, he immersed himself in intellectual property law in prison.

He’s equipped to hire his services for business concepts and product ideas such as a special shoe polish he patented while in California.

“Matter of fact, I’m waiting to go meet a lawyer to discuss some intellectual property I’m going to sell to Tiger Woods’ people,” he said.

It’s a poem that Raugust would, with the blessing of Woods’ ETW Corp., turn into a poster to rescue Woods’ public image.

“I’m going to clean Tiger Woods up with a poem,” he said.

Bischof said that even after spending 18 of his 50 years in prison, Raugust carries no bitterness.

“It’s really kind of a remarkable thing to witness,” the executive director said. “I think any of us who had been wronged the way he was would certainly carry something with us harboring a lot of disgust and dislike for our fellow human beings.”

Instead, Raugust is reaching out to help others, in a place that he’s already come to appreciate.

“I like this town,” he said. “The people are cool, and it’s got a real West Coast vibe in a mountain setting, which I like.”

“We’re happy Richard’s story is finally getting some traction,” said Schandelson, who’ll continue to guide Raugust through whatever legal channels lie ahed. “It’s been a long time coming for him, sitting in prison by himself. And he’s certainly not the only one.”

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