Sliter killed in rollover; top Martz aide injured

HELENA - For the cream of Montana's Republican Party, Wednesday night began as a jovial gathering and ended in tragedy with the death of their rising star, House Majority Leader Paul Sliter of Somers.

Sliter, 32, was killed in a single-vehicle wreck on his way back from Marysville, 25 miles northwest of Helena, where he and a group of leading Republican decision-makers spent the evening having dinner at a landmark restaurant and saloon in the old mining town.

Few details of the accident emerged Thursday, as investigators said it would take time to determine whether Sliter or Shane Hedges was driving the car and if alcohol played a role in the crash.

Hedges, chief policy adviser to Gov. Judy Martz and the only other person in the car, was treated and released from a local hospital early Thursday morning. Hedges, 27, submitted to a blood-alcohol test but apparently didn't give details of the wreck to investigators. He did not sustain serious injuries, according to the governor's office.

"He's battered and bruised, but he's doing OK physically," said spokeswoman Jean Branscum. "Emotionally, he's very distraught."

Lewis and Clark County Coroner Mickey Nelson said the call about the wreck came in just after 11 p.m. Wednesday. The person driving Hedges' 2001 Ford Explorer down the winding dirt road from Marysville toward U.S. Highway 279 had started to veer off the road toward a steep drop-off to the right. The driver overcorrected to the left, Nelson said, and hit the dirt embankment on the other side of the road. The car bounced, rolled at least 1 1/2 times and landed in a stand of trees below the 20-foot drop.

Sliter was thrown from the SUV and the vehicle rolled over him. Nelson said Sliter's death was immediate and would-be rescuers who arrived moments after the wreck had no luck trying to resuscitate him.

Nelson, who performed an autopsy Wednesday, said Sliter died of massive head and internal injuries. The overall investigation, he said, was "not anywhere near being completed."

"It may be a couple of days before we get the answers to the big questions - who was driving and how much were they drinking?" Nelson said.

Also unclear, Nelson said, was whether either man in the Explorer was wearing a seat belt.

A group of prominent Republicans, including Sliter and other lawmakers, got together in Helena on Wednesday to discuss GOP strategy on the state's energy debate. Later that night, they convened at Marysville House for dinner. The party included Commerce Director Mark Simonich, Agriculture Director Ralph Peck and Leo Giacometto, one of the state's two members of the Northwest Power Planning Council.

Peck, who didn't learn of Sliter's death until Thursday morning, said the dinner was "just a bunch of us getting together as friends." Martz had planned to dine with the group but changed her mind later in the day.

"We sat around and had dinner and talked. And then headed home after dinner," added Peck, who said the men drank beer over the course of the evening.

Sliter and Hedges wrecked while driving away from Marysville, about 1 1/2 miles down the road toward the highway that would take them back to Helena.

Both the Montana Highway Patrol and the Lewis and Clark County sheriff referred all questions about the accident to the county attorney's office. County Attorney Leo Gallagher failed to return repeated phone calls Thursday, but did speak to the Associated Press. He said there was an ongoing investigation into the accident.

"We're investigating who was driving the vehicle and we're also investigating whether or not alcohol was a factor," Gallagher told the AP. "Beyond that, I'm not willing to comment."

Marysville House is a popular spot with Helena locals and legislators who make their home here for four months once every two years. The wooden chalet-style restaurant and bar near the Great Divide ski area has played host to several end-of-session parties for legislative committees.

The dirt road leading to and from Marysville has a reputation of being dangerous. Nelson said that in the past 10 years, four other people besides Sliter have died on the winding stretch. Three victims, like Sliter, died while traveling down the hill away from Marysville. Alcohol was a factor in those deaths, Nelson noted.

Ironically, the 2001 Legislature approved a measure to pave the road, at a cost of $1 million in federal special transportation funds. The Legislature intended to pressure Montana's congressional delegation to find funding to pave the road and Sliter was a major push behind the bill. The money hasn't come through yet from Congress.

"Paul was the main reason I got that passed," said Rep. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, sponsor of the Marysville road legislation.

Lewis said he pressed for the paving project because of growth in the number of skiers at Great Divide and as a safety measure for Marysville-area residents.

"It does need to be done, and it's just a damn shame that it takes something like this to illustrate it," said Lewis.

Replacement decision in hands of Flathead officials

By the Missoulian State Bureau

HELENA - Montana law provides a specific procedure for filling a legislative vacancy such as the one created Wednesday night by the death of House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers.

Because Sliter was a Republican, the Flathead County Republican Central Committee must come up with the three names of people to succeed Sliter within 15 days, according to Secretary of State Bob Brown, the state's chief election official.

These names go to the all-Republican Flathead County Commission, which can pick someone from the list or reject the names and send the matter back to the GOP Central Committee. If the county commissioners call for a new set of nominees, the central committee has to provide three different names of potential successors to Sliter. This time, the Flathead County Commission must choose from those names.

Brown said the Flathead County Commission must select someone and notify his office by Aug. 30, and he will immediately prepare a document certifying the person is the new representative from House District 76.

There was speculation Thursday that Sliter's wife, Elaine, might be offered the appointment. She is a former executive director of the Montana Republican Party.

However, she would not be able to serve in the Legislature as long as she serves on the Montana Districting and Apportionment Committee, which is drawing new legislative districts that reflect the results of the 2000 census.

On another matter, McGee said he would appoint House President Pro Tempore Doug Mood, R-Seeley Lake, as acting House majority leader to succeed Sliter. If there is a special session, he said the House GOP caucus will formally elect a new majority leader.

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