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Pastor on trial: Harris Himes representing himself in theft, fraud case

Serving as his own attorney, Hamilton pastor Harris Himes told a Ravalli County jury in his opening statement that he planned to attack the credibility of a Hamilton man who claims Himes bilked him out of $150,000 in 2008. Himes said he plans on calling between 15 to 20 witnesses in the trial that is expected to take the week to complete.

HAMILTON – Hamilton pastor Harris Himes will get to spend Christmas with his loved ones.

But, sometime after the first of year, the prominent vocal opponent of abortion and gay rights in the state could begin serving a 90-day jail sentence as part of his conviction on three felony counts of securities fraud.

Himes was sentenced Friday afternoon by Madison County District Judge Loren Tucker to a 10-year commitment to the Montana Department of Corrections, with all but 90 days suspended.

Himes will also be required to pay $150,000 in restitution to a former parishioner who was bilked out his inheritance by Himes and another pastor, James “Jeb” Bryant.

Court records said the two promised the man a large return on his investment in the Mexican-based building materials company Duratherm Building Systems.

At trial in September, the man testified that he was surprised to find the factory was nothing more than an empty agricultural shed when he traveled to Mexico to help with the company.

Himes represented himself both at the trial and the sentencing hearing.

Last year, Himes claimed he was the victim of “selective prosecution” by the state auditor’s office due to his conservative religious views in a failed attempt to get the charges dropped.

On Friday, Himes continued his plea of innocence and claimed the jury had been forced to convict him based on faulty jury instructions.

Tucker accepted none of that.

“There wasn’t a conspiracy,” Tucker told Himes. “The jury made their determination. These folks did not even know you before the trial. This was not a vendetta to blacken your good name.”

Himes spoke at length during the four-hour sentencing hearing in an attempt to persuade the judge that he had been wrongly convicted and argue for a lenient sentence.

A number of character witnesses at the hearing, including several who had either spent time or were still living at his Big Sky Christian Shelter for the homeless spoke on Himes’ behalf.

Himes said that without his income, the shelter would close.

“Real people will be out on the street,” Himes said. “They won’t have a place to go, and it is cold and it’s Christmas.”

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Himes asked the judge for a three-year deferred imposition of sentence that would be connected to his payment of restitution. Once the money was paid, Himes wanted the sentence to be expunged.

The state asked for a 10-year prison sentence with five years suspended. Prosecutors also wanted full restitution.

Tucker was challenged to find the correct mix for Himes’ sentence. At times, the courtroom went dead silent as he pondered.

Tucker said he agreed that Himes had done good things in the community, but the court was also obligated to address laws that were broken.

“Even if you conduct many good deeds, that does not allow you to exploit someone or commit criminal conduct,” Tucker said.

Himes was convicted of failure to register a security, failure to register as a security salesperson and fraudulent practices, all felonies. He was found not guilty on a felony count of theft by deception.

Tucker said Himes must repay his former parishioner.

Early in the hearing, Himes said he could make an immediate $5,000 payment and then pay $1,500 a month in restitution. After Tucker included that arrangement in the sentence, Himes said all the money he currently had, including the $5,000, was borrowed.

“My finances are slim,” Himes said. “Anything I do have is borrowed.”

As part of the conditions of the sentence, Himes will also be required to contact his probation officer before buying anything worth more than $500 and turn over whatever financial papers the officer might request.

Himes will also be required to complete a cognitive principles and restructuring course.

Himes asked the judge to reconsider both conditions.

“I’m not even sure what a credit report is,” Himes said. “Do I really need that cognitive course? Will it be productive?”

“I hope so,” Tucker replied.

The judge allowed Himes to stay the 90 days of jail time pending an appeal.

“You can spend Christmas with your loved ones,” Tucker said. “That’s probably the best the court can do for you today.”

If the sentence holds, Himes will be required to serve his 90 days of jail time five days a week.

“Out of the 90 days, you may have two days each week to go about the tasks that are important to you,” Tucker said.

Himes was released on his own recognizance.

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Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Northwest Montana Reporter

Ravalli Republic Associate Editor