Court files show investigators eyed others at scene
HELENA - Investigators suspected an attempted cover-up to shelter Gov. Judy Martz's policy aide in the wake of his drunken driving wreck that killed a key state legislator, but they didn't find enough evidence to make any charges stick, court files released Wednesday reveal.
Witnesses reported several unusual things they saw during the wreck's immediate aftermath, according to accounts of the four-month-long criminal investigation into the late-night crash that killed House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers.
Besides the fact that Martz policy adviser Shane Hedges repeatedly denied driving that night, the witnesses said Hedges' friends at the accident scene - other top advisers to Gov. Judy Martz - tried to hide the fact Hedges was even involved in the wreck. Witnesses said those same people even denied knowing Sliter, their colleague and friend. And, the witnesses reported, Hedges' allies may have tried to spirit him away from the scene and get rid of beer cans before police arrived.
The allegations were all refuted and what emerges from the court files, released after a lawsuit by 14 news organizations, including the Missoulian, is a convoluted picture of a confused, crowded accident scene that the key players knew would carry major political fallout.
"Certainly, there are statements that there were efforts to conceal Hedges and evidence at the scene, but on the other hand, there was evidence that they did not," Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said in an interview Wednesday.
"What I personally believe, or don't believe, is irrelevant - other than what I believe is that I would have been unable to obtain convictions against someone for obstructing justice or obstructing a peace officer," he explained of his decision not to press charges against anyone other than Hedges.
A top Martz administration official who found the Hedges-Sliter car wreck that night adamantly denied there was any attempt to cover up what happened.
Leo Giacometto, who found the accident scene and was at the center of much of the investigation, said in a telephone interview there was "absolutely no" attempt to conceal the truth about the wreck. He said he didn't instruct Hedges to deny driving, nor did he try to get rid of evidence.
"I saw Shane moving around, so I wasn't so concerned about him," said Giacometto, former U.S. marshal for Montana and now a member of the Northwest Power Planning Council. "All I was focused on was trying to save my friend (Paul Sliter). That's where my focus was."
Hedges, 28, was leaving a Republican-elite get-together late Aug. 15 at Marysville House, a popular steakhouse 25 miles from Helena, when he lost control of his sport utility vehicle on a winding dirt road. The ensuing rollover killed his passenger and best friend, Sliter, 32, and landed Hedges with a felony negligent homicide conviction and a term in prerelease.
The tome of investigation files released Wednesday shows that law officers and prosecutors focused their investigation on whether top Martz aides and allies tried to hide Hedges' involvement in the hours that followed the fatal crash. Several witnesses who don't work for the Republican administration made jarring statements to the Highway Patrol about what they encountered when they arrived at the crash scene.
But perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from the files was the complete air of confusion surrounding the car crash and its immediate aftermath.
Hedges and Sliter left the restaurant early, leaving Giacometto and Martz's two national political consultants at the steakhouse, then turned around and went back. In his interview with the county prosecutor, Hedges recalled going back to the bar at Sliter's urging.
"I remember specifically looking at the clock, because when I was arguing with him, it was a playful argument, I said, 'It's 9:30, I know that's not late, but I'm tired and I want to go home,' " said Hedges. "So we turned the vehicle around and went back to Marysville and that is … where everything starts to get real fuzzy for me."
Their second trip down the hill was the fatal one for Sliter, who was also drunk that night. Hedges' blood alcohol content was 0.15 percent, while Sliter's registered at 0.16 percent, according to the files. The legal limit for driving in Montana is 0.10 percent.
When the Marysville House bar shut down, Giacometto left with Jim Innocenzi and John Maddox, the two national GOP consultants who helped Martz get elected governor. The three men had also been in the group eating and drinking with Sliter and Hedges.
On their way down the mountain, Giacometto told authorities, they saw headlights coming from off the side of the road. Giacometto said he stopped, got out of his truck and heard Hedges calling for Sliter. Giacometto then found Sliter and began trying to revive him, without success. Local "emergency responders" arrived on the scene and Giacometto left to call for help with Maddox. Innocenzi stayed with Hedges.
At this point in the narrative, differing stories emerge.
The two local men who arrived and offered medical assistance told officers they believed the people at the accident scene were trying to obscure the fact that Hedges was involved and may have tried to leave the scene with him before police arrived. The local witnesses, whose names were not released by the court, also described a tense fight with Giacometto when he returned to the accident scene after calling 9-1-1 in Marysville.
"The one curious thing that I didn't mention before, when I first got there they were telling me they didn't know who the individual (Paul Sliter) was, but they, the gentlemen, said they stopped because they saw Hedges walking around on the side of the road," one witness said.
"But then they also stated that this guy (Sliter) was alone and they didn't want me to search for any individual," the witness told a Highway Patrol officer. "… At one point they said they stopped because they saw this guy (Hedges) wandering in the road, but they were telling me there was no other occupants in the truck and don't bother looking."
Another witness, a man who was applying for a cooking job at the restaurant that night and stopped at the accident scene on his way down the road, raised the same question. He said that he and the medical responder - a firefighter from Marysville - on the scene "asked at the same time if the gentleman that was laying on the ground (Sliter) was riding solo and both of their responses to us was that 'Yes, he was riding solo.' "
The pair asked Giacometto and the others two more times if Sliter was alone and were told "yes," the witness said.
"And the firefighter and myself looked at each other and went, 'Yeah right,' " he said, then added that they started searching the area for other survivors.
In another report, Highway Patrol Officer Mike Swingley describes an interview in which a witness said Hedges appeared to be hiding in the bushes. In another report about interviews with Maddox and Innocenzi, the political consultants who found the wreck along with Giacometto, an officer notes that the local man who arrived on scene to help believed someone was trying to leave the scene with Hedges in Giacometto's truck.
The witness "stopped a vehicle, which was attempting to leave the scene, and discovered Shane Hedges in the vehicle," the officer wrote.
Maddox told the officer, however, that he didn't believe Hedges was placed into Giacometto's truck to rest until after the police arrived. And Giacometto said nobody attempted to leave, even though Hedges asked to be taken to the hospital before an ambulance arrived.
What Giacometto does acknowledge is a confrontation with the local men who said they would administer first aid on Sliter when Giacometto went to call for help. The men said they had forgotten their protective mouthpieces, that Sliter was already dead and they decided not to try to resuscitate him.
"This was a very messy scene, and I can understand why those volunteers were a little apprehensive," said Giacometto.
Still, he told an investigating officer, when he returned and found they hadn't tried to resuscitate Sliter, Giacometto became angry and "questioned their manhood and had some not nice things to say to them."
Giacometto now says he believes that altercation led the witnesses to say false things to the police and make it seem like there was a cover-up going on. In addition, he said, things were just generally confusing and when the witnesses asked Giacometto and others if there was anyone besides Sliter involved in the wreck, they may have been saying "no," because nobody was trapped in the car and Hedges wasn't severely injured.
Again, the complete air of confusion becomes evident.
"You had four or five conversations going on," recalled Giacometto. "A lot of people showed up, none of them were familiar to me."
A 40-minute police video of the scene shows very little, other than several men milling around on the road, police cars parked along the side of the road and, at one point, Hedges being loaded from Giacometto's truck onto an ambulance gurney. When the ambulance left the scene, the tape recorded a patrol officer asking via radio for another officer to meet Hedges at the hospital.
"Shane Hedges is the injured party that survived the crash," the officer said, requesting a blood alcohol test on Hedges. "He's reported to be the passenger. Until proven otherwise, he has to be considered to be the driver."
Indeed, Hedges denied all that night that he was behind the wheel. When questioned, he told investigators and his friends that Sliter had been driving. At one point, when asked by a deputy sheriff if he had been drinking, Hedges replied, "Not as much as the driver had."
According to a bar tab, the eight men partying at Marysville House that night put back at least 30 drinks, including beer, shots of hard liquor and mixed drinks. It's not clear whether all members of the group were drinking, however, and the bar tab doesn't include the two six packs of beer that Hedges, Sliter, Innocenzi and Maddox bought before leaving Helena to drink on the way to Marysville.
Hedges eventually acknowledged that he was behind the wheel during the wreck, and pleaded guilty to negligent homicide for Sliter's death. In October, he began serving a suspended sentenced and a six-month stay at a prerelease center. His attorney, Jim Hunt, said Wednesday that Hedges was not happy the full details of the accident and its aftermath had been released to the public.
Hunt said Hedges was not looking to protect himself, but he doesn't want still-fresh wounds of the Sliter family and others reopened. He said Hedges did at first deny driving, primarily because he had been drinking, his best friend was dead and he couldn't really remember what happened. But, Hunt said, Hedges did take full responsibility.
"The distressing thing about this is the documents have been released and other people's lives have been exposed," said Hunt. "(Hedges) feels very strongly that he's the only one who's done anything wrong here."
Martz's actions also questioned
HELENA - Gov. Judy Martz moved her chief policy aide from the hospital to the governor's mansion before police could question him about the accident that killed a prominent lawmaker - despite admonitions from the Highway Patrol that officers wanted to question aide Shane Hedges at the hospital that night.
And her actions that night left the local prosecutor seriously considering criminal charges against the governor for obstructing the investigation. Ultimately, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher decided the charges wouldn't stick since Martz acted on the advice of a lawyer hastily hired on behalf of Hedges that night.
"I was very interested in determining whether I ought to charge 'obstructing a peace officer' against the governor, based upon her activities that night," Gallagher said in an interview Wednesday. "I chose not to for a number of reasons."
Investigation files into the Aug. 15 wreck, released Wednesday after a media lawsuit, show that Martz and her then-chief of staff, Ed Bartlett, on the advice of a lawyer, took Hedges from the hospital to the governor's mansion, even though Hedges had been told to stay put for a police interview. The Republican governor later apologized to Highway Patrol officers for moving Hedges, but the missteps and questions continued in the hours and days that followed the wreck.
In a written statement Wednesday, the Republican governor defended her actions.
"From my viewpoint, the specific incident in question was entirely a matter of misunderstanding or miscommunication with absolutely no intent to act improperly," said Martz
"We left the hospital with Shane only after the hospital personnel informed us that Shane was being released, and that they had no reason to keep him there any longer," the governor added. "Shane was released after signing a release given to him by hospital staff.
"We followed the hospital staff's determination that it was time for Shane to leave, and then departed for the residence."
Highway Patrol Officer Mike Swingley spoke with Hedges at the hospital after the accident.
"I told Shane that he was to stay at the hospital until I could interview him, and I would return shortly to do that," Swingley wrote in his accident report.
Swingley says he made the comment to Hedges at about 4:20 a.m., then went to interview Leo Giacometto, a Martz Cabinet-level appointee who initially found the wreck on Marysville Road. Giacometto was in a waiting room at the hospital. Some 20 minutes later, the officer returned to Hedges' hospital room, "only to find that he had left with Governor Martz and went to the governor's mansion."
Highway Patrol officers then went to the governor's mansion and interviewed Hedges there.
"We arrived at the governor's mansion at (4:53 a.m.) and were let in by Governor Martz," Swingley continued. "I explained to Governor Martz that Shane was not supposed to leave the hospital and that I believed I had made that clear earlier.
"Governor Martz apologized for taking him to the governor's mansion and then showed us to a bedroom where Shane Hedges was sitting in bed," the officer wrote.
There was, and still is, some question over whether Hedges was actually under arrest. One document says he was, while others say he was not arrested.
Jim Hunt, Hedges' defense attorney, said he did not believe Hedges had been arrested and didn't want Hedges talking to the police in his agitated state. Looking back on the reports, he said, there's some evidence Hedges was under arrest, and other evidence he wasn't. In any case, when Giacometto called Hunt at home in the middle of the night, Hunt cautioned Hedges' friends to keep him away from the police.
"They said, 'What should we do with him,' and I said, 'Get him away from the cops,' " Hunt said in an interview Wednesday.
"I didn't know what had happened," said Hunt. "People say and do things that they should not do, and make statements that are not necessarily accurate when they're under stress like that."
Additionally, the doctor who treated Hedges for minor injuries specifically told him that he could leave the hospital, according to medical reports released Wednesday
Besides taking Hedges to the governor's mansion, Martz made another eyebrow-raising move in the hours following the wreck: She washed Hedges' clothes, torn and bloodied from the accident.
Martz admitted that mistake several weeks ago. At that time, she said she never intended to destroy evidence. Instead, she said, the mother in her took over and, without considering the implications, she threw Hedges' clothes in the wash. When police returned to collect them as evidence, they had been cleaned.
Martz has described Hedges, who was her 2000 campaign manager in her first solo run for political office, as akin to a son. She and Hedges, 28, have remained close since the wreck and Martz says she still speaks with him on a regular basis. She even said she would consider hiring Hedges again after he serves his time in prerelease for negligent homicide in Sliter's death.
An emergency-room nurse, who remained anonymous in court files, told the county attorney that she understood Hedges' clothes were evidence that shouldn't have left the hospital. Court documents show the nurse was very clear about the clothes being potential evidence.
"Did a law enforcement officer indicate to you that they didn't want those, those items to go out," County Attorney Gallagher asked the nurse of Hedges' clothes and shoes.
She replied, "Yes. Yes."
Asked Gallagher: "What did you tell the law enforcement officer?"
The nurse responded, "That they could certainly have them."
Later in his interview, Gallagher asked the nurse, "Can you tell me how it was they got the clothes out of there?"
The nurse replied, "I think the clothes disappeared before the officers could get ahold of them."
Gallagher said he didn't pursue any charges in relation to the clothes because Highway Patrol officers let Hedges and the governor leave the hospital with the clothing.
One comment in the massive investigation report spoke particularly to Martz's willingness to give Hedges the benefit of the doubt.
In a report written by Deputy County Attorney Jorge Quintana, the prosecutor describes meeting Martz, Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs and Bartlett at the hospital.
"Martz asked if Swingley knew what had happened and if it was possible that the vehicle had swerved to avoid hitting a deer," wrote Quintana.
Excerpts from file show night of confusion
By ERICKA SCHENCK SMITH of the Missoulian State Bureau
HELENA - The investigative file of the wreck that killed Montana House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers, and resulted in a negligent homicide conviction for Shane Hedges, one of the governor's most trusted advisers, tells a confusing story.
Interviews with witnesses on the scene of the accident describe a hysterical Hedges, who insisted that he wasn't driving. Some witnesses said they saw others on the scene hiding beer bottles in the bushes and trying to spirit Hedges away.
Leo Giacometto, a Martz Cabinet-level official, was first on the scene, along with two of Martz's national political consultants, Jim Innocenzi and John Maddox. They say they did not move evidence or try to take Hedges away before law enforcement officers arrived.
Here are excerpts from those interviews and reports. They quote directly from the reports and have not been edited for grammar or punctuation.
n Report of Highway Patrol Officer Mike Swingley, Aug. 18, 2001: Swingley talks to Hedges at the hospital at about 1 a.m. Aug. 16, about two hours after the accident:
"I asked him if he remembered what happened during the crash and he said he didn't remember. I then asked him if he was driving the vehicle and he said 'no, Paul was
Later, Swingley tells Hedges to stay in his room, but Hedges leaves with Martz, who takes him to the governor's mansion. Swingley and Deputy County Attorney Jorge Quintana go to the mansion.
"I explained to Governor Martz that Shane was not supposed to leave the hospital and that I believed I had made that clear earlier. Governor Martz apologized for taking him to the Governor's Mansion and then showed us to a bedroom where Shane Hedges was sitting in bed."
n Memorandum from Jim Hunt, one of Hedges' defense attorneys, Sept. 14, 2001:
"I spoke with both Mr. Ed Bartlett and Mr. Leo Giacometto while they were at the hospital with Shane Hedges. I advised both of them during separate conversations that Mr. Hedges could leave the hospital. … I did not believe at the time that Mr. Hedges was under arrest when I gave this advice."
n Report from Lewis and Clark County Deputy Sheriff Jason Grimmis, Aug. 17, 2001:
Grimmis spoke with Hedges at the scene.
"I asked the individual if he had been drinking? Mr. Hedges replied, 'Not as much as the driver had.' "
n Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Detective Ray Potter's Aug. 16, 2001, interview with consultant Innocenzi:
"… I remember the officer somebody asking Shane about who was driving. And you couldn't get a straight answer and so he was like - who was driving? Couldn't get a straight answer. You know, I do remember us saying just saying - just tell the truth, whatever it is, just tell the truth you know. You're gonna be a hell of a lot better off telling the truth …"
Innocenzi describes Hedges' behavior:
"I mean, but he was just wacked. He was just … and I just tried to calm him down, you know, when those guys were working on Paul …"
n Voluntary written statement of an unidentified witness:
"There were several intoxicated people gathered around. … I asked if there was any one else in the vehicle. Someone said 'No.' "
n Undated interview with an unidentified firefighter from the Canyon Creek Fire Department, conducted by Highway Patrol Officer Scott Swingley:
"And I asked again 'Do you know if this guy was alone?' and I don't know who I was told by, but somebody, of those individuals, because we're still the only ones on scene, stated they didn't know who the individual was, but they saw him in the Marysville House and they saw that he left alone. We continued the search and then again, one of them stated that 'Don't bother looking, there's nobody else here.' "
The firefighter continues to search and hears someone say, "Let's just get him in the truck and get him to hospital," in a "softer tone."
"He (Hedges) was already loaded in a pickup truck and it was after I asked them (who is) going to the hospital, is when the vehicle stopped and somebody got out … So it appeared they were leaving until I questioned them."
n Unidentified emergency medical technician from the Canyon Creek Fire Department, interviewed by Highway Patrol Officer Mike Swingley on Oct. 4, 2001:
"I said - is there anybody else in the wreck. No, No - he was single by himself."
Nevertheless, he and at least one other, unidentified person, look for more victims.
"Well we started to do our sweep, well here is the guy that you guys arrested - I am not even sure what his name is - hiding the in brush."
The "guy" is Hedges, and the witness says he helped him to the road.
n Aug. 28, 2001, interview with an unidentified witness, conducted by Highway Patrol Officer Scott Swingley:
"I observed Mr. Giacometto pick up a couple of cans of Bud Light and dispose of them by throwing them down in the ravine, in a different direction."
Giacometto flatly denies moving evidence at the scene and was not charged with any wrongdoing.
n Report from Detective Ray Potter, following an interview with Giacometto, Nov. 21, 2001
"I asked Leo why the first responders would have a story with inconsistencies to his story as far as not knowing Paul, that Paul was the only person involved in the accident and that someone tried to remove Shane from the accident scene prior to law enforcement arriving. Leo attributed this to the fact that when the first responders initially arrived (section blacked out) he and John (Maddox) thought the first responders would take over medical care for Paul when they arrived. Leo said that neither of the first responders wanted to give rescue breaths to Paul as they both had forgotten their mouthpieces. Leo told me that he questioned their manhood and had some not nice things to say to them due to this fact."
n Shane Hedges, interviewed Oct. 10, 2001, by County Attorney Leo Gallagher:
Hedges was granted immunity for anything he said in this interview, unless he lied under oath.
Hedges and Sliter left the Marysville House at about
9 p.m., then turned around to go back:
"… Paul said, 'You know, we gotta go back,' and I said 'no, I'm tired, I'm full, we were up until 2:00 the night before, up at 6:00 that morning for meetings, I said, I'm tired, I want to go home.' He said, 'no, why don't you, let's go back, we can have a little more fun with those guys,' 'cause three people were still there in the restaurant. And so, we turned the vehicle around."
Hedges can't remember how many drinks he might have had at Marysville House after he and Sliter returned, or what they might have been drinking.
"Then I don't remember leaving Marysville. … Did I put (on) my seatbelt, did I adjust my mirrors, what CD did I put in, and what was our conversation, I don't recall any of that and I don't recall actually turning down the road. … I remember that I started to lose control, and I don't remember what was happening, it was all happening so quickly I don't really recall what was all happening around me. …
Gallagher asks Hedges why he said he wasn't driving:
"Why I did that I have no idea. I would guess that when up on a mountain side, you're looking for the body of your best friend, you're in hysterics, you're in an overturned vehicle, you're probably a bit in denial. And I probably said things that were inappropriate and in some cases, probably false."
Portions of wreck file edited, blacked out
By CHARLES S. JOHNSON of the Missoulian State Bureau
HELENA - District Judge Thomas Honzel of Helena on Wednesday ordered the release of investigative file of the Aug. 15 wreck that left state House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers, dead.
The file was released with certain passages and names edited or blacked out as agreed to by the various parties.
Fourteen news organizations, including the Missoulian, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 13 against Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher on grounds that the documents were of public interest. The lawsuit specifically said the news organizations weren't interested in Sliter's autopsy photos.
The driver of the vehicle was Shane Hedges, formerly Gov. Judy Martz's chief policy adviser. Some top Martz appointees and her national political consultants in 2000 had come across the accident scene on Marysville Road after a dinner party at Marysville House, a popular Helena steakhouse.
Mark Taylor, a Helena attorney representing Sliter's widow, said she didn't want any of the graphic details about her husband's death made public because she didn't want their young daughter to ever have to read about them.
Gallagher said the names of witnesses who happened on the accident scene and certain emergency and health-care personnel shouldn't be made public.
Lawyers for the news organizations were able to negotiate back and forth with the other attorneys to make sure far more of the 400-page investigative file would be made public.
In the end, the various parties reached a stipulation on what in the file shouldn't be released and what should be. The stipulation made it clear the agreement was for this case only and was not a precedent. Honzel accepted the stipulation on Wednesday.
"Ninety nine point nine percent of the investigative file has been disclosed to the public," Kim Wilson, a lawyer for the media groups, said Wednesday. "That wasn't the case initially."