BUTTE – Authorities are investigating whether a Butte man who went missing in February embezzled more than $175,000 from a union.
Jim Ryan worked as the business manager for the Sheet Metal Workers International Association in Helena and was to meet with union officials about “huge losses” from its general fund on the day he disappeared, according to documents obtained by The Montana Standard.
Police confirmed the investigation for the first time late last week.
“This is under investigation by our office,” Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said. He declined to discuss details.
No charges have been filed against Ryan, officials said.
The revelation raises new questions about whether Ryan was harmed or is on the run.
Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle, who is in charge of the search for Ryan, said he has not heard of any potential sightings of the Butte man. Doolittle said the embezzlement allegations were simply rumors when the search began.
“Whether he stole the money or not, he’s still missing,” Doolittle said.
Authorities said they have not found any clues that Ryan ran away or had an accomplice in his disappearance.
Ryan was last seen by his wife on the morning of Feb. 19. Authorities found his union-owned car the next day at a Homestake Pass trailhead. Officials first suspected Ryan, an avid runner, may have gone there to exercise before work.
In a letter to union members dated March 27, union officials say Ryan, 54, took cash advances without explanation, sold union cars without depositing the money into the proper accounts, wrote checks to himself and made questionable credit card transactions over several years.
“There are many unanswered questions at this time, so I will only include what we know at this time,” John P. Christiansen, a union trustee, wrote in the letter. “Unfortunately, there may be some questions that will never be answered. Believe me when I tell you that this situation is very frustrating for everyone involved with this organization.”
Christiansen was out of his office and could not be reached for comment. The union also has offices in Casper, Wyo., and Pocatello, Idaho.
The FBI, which sometimes investigates union-related cases, referred questions back to local officials.
Butte police said they were only recently informed about the embezzlement investigation but it will not change their part of the case.
“Obviously this is another element we need to consider,” Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester said. “It doesn’t change our focus.”
Authorities have scoured Homestake Pass for Ryan, including a massive search in the days after he went missing that included dogs and dozens of volunteers. The official search was suspended when snow covered the area, but his friends continued to comb the area for weeks.
“We have no more of an idea where he is now than we did then,” Lester said.
Eddie Walker, a longtime friend who spearheaded weekly searches for Ryan, is devastated by the new developments.
“I feel so betrayed. I feel that he’s hurt a lot of his friends and loved ones,” she said. “It’s like someone we didn’t even know.”
The runners’ group who has been searching for Ryan every Sunday will no longer.
“We’re done. We’re done, done,” she said.
Walker said Ryan told her he was planning a run along a trail on Homestake Pass. She suspects he might have used the story as a diversion.
“He played me by telling me he was going there. I think that bought him time,” Walker said.
“I just want to ask him why he would do this,” she added.
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