The Cold Hard Cash Show traveled the United States for more than a decade as a successful, Montana-grown tribute act to the iconic country singer, even appearing on David Letterman's show.
Some bandmates, production companies and other performers said Felipe “Fel” Torres, the drummer for the three-piece Johnny Cash tribute act, had been nothing but a professional.
And while the allegations against him offstage — involving a decade of threats and violence against various women and others in his life, resulting in a string of protection orders — were an open secret in his social circle, much of the wider music scene remained unaware. Nick Checota, a prominent production company and venue owner in Missoula, said The Cold Hard Cash Show showed up, played and left without problems.
Through it all, including the departure of former bassist Ryan Yates due to Torres’ violent behavior, the band — dependent on Torres’ business skills — kept him on.
After Torres was briefly jailed in 2014, “we talked about how he could be a liability to the band because of his actions,” Yates said. “But at the same time, he is, well, when I was with the band, (Torres) handled the booking, the web presence, most of the business end of the band. And, you know, we both agreed that if Merle (Travis Peterson, the band’s front man) tried to push him out, he would basically try to burn The Cold Hard Cash Show to the ground.”
The murmurs following Torres for years rose to a shout in January, when an assault charge involving a woman who claims Torres followed her to her workplace and dragged her out of a friend’s car prompted a sound-off over social media, including an anonymous Google doc outlining past allegations, some of which are available in public records. Over the next few weeks, community members called Logjam Presents, Checota's production company, asking it to reconsider booking the band in the future. Logjam Presents owns the Wilma and Top Hat Lounge, where the band has played frequently.
On Tuesday, front man Peterson bowed out of Cold Hard Cash in a private Facebook post, citing a desire to spend more time with his son. He declined to be interviewed.
The restraining order put in place against Torres, 43, due to the January case represents the fourth time in 10 years a woman has sought out court-ordered protection against him. It’s the most recent in a pattern of allegations women have made about menacing, harassing, stalking and, in some cases, violent behavior, according to a review of Missoula Municipal Court records. The Missoulian is choosing not to name the women, whose names appear in court documents.
Yates was aware of the abuse allegations by Torres’ girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2014. The allegation included in court filings is that Torres physically intimidated the woman, flipped couches and threw her dog while demanding to look at the contents of her phone. The charge was later dropped, Yates said.
Despite a decade of allegations, Torres' was convicted only of a 2017 violation of one of those restraining orders less than a year after it was made permanent, and a handful of traffic tickets. He was found not guilty of an assault charge in 2005.
The women contacted by the Missoulian who were once involved with Torres either declined to be interviewed or agreed to speak only on background, for fear of retaliation by Torres.
Torres has not returned a call for comment.
In 2008, a doctor at the University of Montana’s Curry Health Center advised a woman dating Torres at the time that she should seek legal recourse against him, according to a report obtained by the Missoulian. The doctor noted a “nasal injury” and talked about treating her for post-concussion syndrome. The woman reported Torres had slammed her against the wall repeatedly and struck her head.
She noted her concussion when she sought a protection order against Torres the next year.
“Aside from a few jolts to the head, most of the abuse has been mental recently, with threats and name calling,” the petition reads.
Ultimately, the judge did not grant the order of protection. According to Municipal Court records, the woman decided she didn’t want the order in place. Instead she wanted some record of their turbulent past; Torres had by then moved out. Still, then-Municipal Court Judge Donald Louden issued a direct warning to Torres to watch his behavior in his order closing the case.
Two years later, Torres successfully sought an order of protection against the same woman, alleging she was harassing him and his new girlfriend. The first woman claimed she was only trying warn his new girlfriend of his behavior.
The same year, another woman sought a court order to prevent him from stalking her and harassing her employer. According to the woman’s petition, he sent a total of 37 Facebook messages to her employers accusing her of being sexually intimate with her supervisor to obtain her internship. She filed the petition the next day.
Two other women have described in court records incidents in which Torres berated them at work. In 2017, one former girlfriend said Torres came to her workplace and damaged some of the business’ property. In January, the most recent case, a co-worker told police she pepper-sprayed Torres when he allegedly attempted to drag his then-girlfriend from a car.
Multiple women described in court records controlling behavior and direct harassment online. At least one woman’s new relationship ended because of Torres’ reported harassment, according to court records.
Montana Department of Labor and Industry records show Torres had a private investigator license until 2010, as well as an alarm installer’s license ending the same year.
Karen Bunker, Torres’ former roommate, told the Missoulian he had an extensive surveillance camera setup in his home when they lived together for two years, until July of last year. She’s also friends with a former girlfriend whose protection order against Torres ends in 2092, according to court documents.
Bunker said he would track his girlfriend’s movements in and out of the house when he was on tour with the band. She said he tried intimidating her once during an argument, after she'd moved out. She says Torres raised a power drill toward her adult son’s head in a threatening manner, and she decided to cut ties with him entirely.
Yates, the former bassist for Cold Hard Cash, told the Missoulian he left the band in 2015 after two years because Torres’ violent outbursts were unpredictable and unnerving.
They were in the back of a van headed for the airport after playing in Daytona, Florida, when Yates brought up $70 Torres owed him in a dispute about cab fare. Torres, he said, “came at me with a raised fist.”
“He really turned that verbal argument into physically threatening me,” Yates said. “There wasn’t much I could do. We were on the shuttle bus from the car rental place to the airport terminal. I basically just sat there and looked at him until he went and sat back down.”
This incident would spur Yates to leave the band.
The year before, the band was in South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally when a girlfriend at the time said Torres suddenly lashed out from his sleep. The request for a restraining order in that case alleges Torres pinned the woman to the bed and choked her by shoving a blanket in her mouth. Yates said he had received a text from the woman about the assault by the time he woke up.
After the most recent case against Torres, an anonymous Google doc began circulating over social media through Missoula’s tight-knit performing arts community.
Some community members contacted Logjam Presents about whether they would continue to book Cold Hard Cash.
"We were contacted by a number of people,” said owner Checota. “Our position was that we took the charges very seriously and that we were awaiting to have a full understanding of all the facts and that if the charges resulted in a conviction that we would be unlikely to book the band in the future.”
A GoFundMe page quickly followed, seeking cash to help the woman from the January assault case pay for attorney fees and travel expenses to leave town. The page raised more than $2,000 in 17 days.
The band, formed here in Montana, had worked its way from small-time gigs to a 2008 appearance on “The Late Show” with David Letterman. Their band bio lists “hundreds of stages,” including sharing appearances with acts like Charlie Daniels.
Last Tuesday, Peterson, the front man, said in a Facebook post to his friends that he is a single father of a 12-year-old.
“I’m going to stop being a full time musician in order to be a full time dad” and that he was going to stop performing with the group and “return to a private life,” he wrote.
Torres’ next hearing in Missoula Municipal Court is set for April 8.