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Indian journalist threatened after taking up Barry Beach's cause in hometown

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Montclair

Journalist Louis Montclair took up Barry Beach’s cause after a 2008 “Dateline NBC” segment on the Beach case.

Louis Montclair says he's used to the threats.

But now they've taken on new urgency. "They scare me more than any threats I've gotten before," he said.

Montclair, a reporter for the Fort Peck Journal, is among those convinced that Barry Beach was wrongly imprisoned for the killing of Kim Nees in 1979 when both were teenagers living in Poplar. Montclair backs up that position with newspaper stories laying out information that supports that view.

Beach - who was released from Montana State Prison last week after a judge ordered a new trial for him - has his share of high-profile supporters. His case was the subject of a "Dateline NBC" episode in 2008.

After Beach left the Fergus County Courthouse last Wednesday, the throngs of television crews and other reporters and photographers went back to offices hundreds of miles from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation where the killing occurred.

Montclair, though, hung around long enough to give Beach a hug - it was the first time he'd touched his relative-by-marriage and the subject of so many of his stories - and then drove more than 250 miles back to the reservation, where he worked until 3 a.m. to put out the newspaper displaying the biggest story of his career.

It's a story with a dark side that rarely surfaces in accounts by outside news organizations. As passionately as Beach's supporters believe in his innocence, a number of people on the reservation are convinced he's guilty. They're furious about his release while awaiting a new trial.

"I've been getting a lot of calls and text messages and tips saying a group of people in town are telling anyone who'll listen that Barry's guilty," Montclair said. "And (they say that) if he shows up in town, they'll kill him."

On Thursday night, just before Montclair went to sleep, his cellphone started buzzing with text messages. "They said they were going to have someone beat me up and rape me."

He texted back: Why?

"But I never got a response."

*****

Montclair, 28, hadn't been born when Beach went to prison in 1984. He's only a few years out of the University of Montana's School of Journalism. He interned at the Missoulian in 2004 and then, in 2006, went to the Fort Peck Journal just months after that newspaper's extraordinary beginnings.

The paper was founded by Bonnie Red Elk, a longtime reporter for the reservation's tribally run newspaper, Wotanin Wowapi. She was fired in 2006 after writing a story about the tribal chairman conducting Assiniboine and Sioux business from out of state. Red Elk immediately started the independent Fort Peck Journal. Her actions earned her the Wassaja Award, the Native American Journalists' Association's highest honor, along with the Montana Free Press Award.

Bonnie Red Elk is Louis Montclair's aunt. Beach's mother is Montclair's grandmother by marriage. That said, Montclair never heard much about Beach while he was growing up, other than the fact that he was in prison.

"Louis was kind of ho-hum (about Beach) because even though he's a relative, he really hadn't gotten into it," said Beach's mother, Bobbi Clincher of Laurel. "He didn't know the depths of this case."

The "Dateline" feature changed that.

"The whole town kind of locked onto it" the night it aired, Montclair said. The episode showed him "for me for the first time ever ... (that) he's locked up in prison and it looks like he's innocent." After the episode ended, Montclair said, "I went outside and cried for about 10 minutes."

Montclair said his courses at UM taught him that journalism could help people. "I decided I would write whatever I could" to help Barry Beach, he said.

That position of advocacy is a different approach than most news organizations take, and Montclair said he was sensitive to that. "But I believed strongly in it," he said of what he sees as Beach's innocence, "and so did the paper." That said, "I try to be as objective as possible."

Beach said Friday that he'd never asked Montclair to do any work on his behalf. "But the more he dug into documentation, the more he realized the things I was saying were factually supported."

*****

Dennis Swibold, a professor at UM's School of Journalism, said that Montclair's work in some ways falls into "a very old tradition ... of journalists looking into cases like this, looking into inconsistencies, holding the justice system up to scrutiny."

But there's a risk, said Swibold, who teaches public affairs and investigative reporting. "These things still need to be adjudicated. You can be an independent verifier of information, but your credibility rests on how you do that."

Montclair said the Journal made a rule: Everything it printed about Beach had to be documented. Montclair has written stories that have never run, and has others he wants to write, but Red Elk has nixed them because that documentation is lacking, he said.

Beach's sister, Barbara Salinda, who grew up in Poplar and now lives in Southern California, said the family appreciates that rigor.

"We are truly interested in fighting for justice for Kim Nees as well and pursuing who the actual killers really are," she said. "We don't want there to be any doubt in anybody's mind as to Barry's innocence. We don't want anybody to feel that Barry is getting off on technicalities."

Salinda is upset that there's been no action against the people making threats against her brother and Montclair.

"I do worry about his safety, absolutely," she said of Montclair. "Every time I speak with him, I tell him, ‘Please be safe. Please don't go anywhere alone. Please make sure someone is with you at all times' because of the violence and the gang mentality that is back there."

Beach himself said he has no concerns for his own safety, in part because he's staying in Billings, more than 300 miles from Poplar.

As for Montclair, he said, "I trust God to take care of him. And I know he will."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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