THOMPSON FALLS – On July 24, 1997, Richard Raugust was at work painting a house when Sanders County deputies arrived at about noon, placed him in handcuffs and said he was under arrest for the murder of his best friend.
Witnesses to the arrest – including the arresting officer – said Raugust appeared “bewildered” and “dumbfounded” by what was happening.
He pleaded not guilty and has maintained his innocence for 17 years – all of it spent in the Montana State Prison.
A one-time deadlocked Sanders County jury eventually found him guilty of shooting Joseph Tash in the head.
Starting Wednesday in a Sanders County courtroom, the Montana Innocence Project will present new evidence it says implicates the only eyewitness as the real killer.
In addition, it will present never-before-heard testimony “disproving” the prosecution’s timeline of events from the morning Tash was murdered, recall a witness from the trial who can corroborate Raugust’s alibi but was not asked to do so on the stand, and introduce expert testimony indicating problems with two “ear witnesses” who helped to convict Raugust.
The Montana Innocence Project also alleges that two jurors felt pressured to change their not-guilty votes after the presiding judge encouraged a deadlocked jury to try to reach a unanimous verdict, allegedly saying the county could not afford the financial cost to re-try Raugust.
District Judge Jim Wheelis of Libby will preside at the hearing and decide whether Raugust deserves a new trial.
The Montana Innocence Project says, given the new information, a new jury would be likely to find Raugust not guilty. The hearing is expected to last three days.
Raugust’s story has never changed, his attorneys say. He maintains that on the night of July 23, 1997, he, Tash and Rory Ross were drinking at the Naughty Pine Saloon in Trout Creek.
At 2 a.m. – closing time – on July 24, they got in Ross’ vehicle with the intention of driving to the camper-trailer in the Swamp Creek area Tash and Raugust often shared to continue the party. A fourth man, Randy Fisher, also said he was coming, but would drive his own vehicle.
The two vehicles stopped nearby outside Miller’s Market, then Ross pulled out. Raugust says he then asked Ross to stop where Montana Highway 200 intersects with Fir Street and let him out. Ross tossed Raugust his backpack, and Raugust walked to the home of Rick Scarborough, where he had already spent several nights, and slept there so he could get to work early the next morning.
Later that day, while he was painting a house, authorities arrived and charged him with deliberate homicide. It was the first he learned of the death of his best friend, Raugust says.
Ross, however, claimed he never dropped off Raugust, and later watched Raugust shoot Tash in the head with a shotgun in the trailer after the two argued about drugs. Raugust then set fire to the camper and fled in Ross’ vehicle, Ross said.
Scarborough also denied that Raugust had slept at his house.
Fisher’s car broke down en route to the party, and he never arrived.
Among other things, the Montana Innocence Project says Ross has told other people multiple times in the years since then, including in 2011, when Fisher alleges that Ross threatened him with a knife and said, “I can do you like I did that guy,” pointing toward the Swamp Creek area, and adding, “I can gut you right now for snitching.”
At the initial trial, court documents say, Ross was presented as “an innocent bystander” to the killing.
“Contrary new evidence that he may have confessed to committing the very act he claimed to observe, in the course of threatening another man’s life, would have unquestionably been considered by jurors,” the documents continue.
The Innocence Project also has a sworn affidavit from Wayne Abbey, a Sanders County sheriff’s deputy who observed all four men leave the Naughty Pine in the wee hours of July 24 while he was on duty and making a bar check.
Abbey says he watched the two vehicles rendezvous in front of Miller’s Market, and that Fisher’s vehicle was pointed in the opposite direction from Ross’. After Ross pulled out, Abbey says he saw the brake lights come on at Fir Street, and the dome light come on.
It was too dark for him to see if anyone exited Ross’ AMC Eagle, Abbey said, describing the time it took for the car to stop, the dome light to come on and the car to take off again as “the same as a Chinese fire drill.”
Meantime, Abbey said, Fisher was turning his vehicle around to follow Ross, which Innocence Project attorney Brendan McQuillan says explains why Fisher did not see Ross stop.
The brief moment witnessed by a law enforcement officer, approximately three hours before Tash was shot, casts doubt over Ross’ claim – the defense terms it a “self-serving lie” – that he never stopped his car, McQuillan argues in court documents. It also adds credence to Raugust’s long-standing story that he exited the car and never was at the site of Tash’s murder that morning.
Abbey’s observation of the brake lights/dome light did not appear in his 1997 reports, and he was not asked whether he saw Ross’ car stop on the highway during the trial.
The defense also has two new witnesses who say they saw Ross’ AMC Eagle arrive at Scarborough’s house in Trout Creek, briefly, between 5 and 5:15 a.m. on July 24.
Doug and Lori Cooper say Doug was eating breakfast when his wife pointed out a car she recognized as Ross' drive down the street without its headlights on and pull into Scarborough’s yard. It parked in a way that they could not see who, if anyone, got out of the vehicle.
She commented to her husband about how stupid it was for Ross not to have his headlights on while it was still dark. The car left a short time – between one and five minutes – later.
This new information wreaks havoc with the timeline the prosecution presented 17 years ago, and casts doubt on Ross’ testimony about when Raugust allegedly used the vehicle to flee the scene, McQuillan says.
The Coopers, who were not interviewed by law enforcement in 1997, remember the morning because at 5:42 a.m. Doug – the chief of the Trout Creek Rural Fire Department – received a page from Sanders County Dispatch to respond to a fire in the Swamp Creek area, and discovered it was also a murder scene when he arrived.
“The events of that morning have stayed with me ever since,” Cooper told investigators.
The Innocence Project will also show that Dan Yarmey, an expert in ear-witness identification, reviewed evidence in the case and says the court should view testimony from a family camping 100 yards away that they heard Raugust’s voice among the “whooping and hollering” at the campfire that night with “extreme caution.”
It will show why Rick Scarborough had reason to lie about whether Raugust spent the night at his house. A few days after Raugust was sentenced for Tash’s murder, Scarborough was charged with deliberate homicide in a separate Lake County murder that bore resemblances to the Trout Creek killing.
Scarborough was acquitted, but his brother and ex-wife were convicted in the case, and the gun used in the killing had been sold to Rick Scarborough by none other than Rory Ross, court documents say.
And, the Innocence Project has offered sworn statements from jurors, courtroom observers and a reserve deputy assigned to the courtroom that they all distinctly heard Judge C.B. McNeil tell jurors who were deadlocked over a Raugust verdict that they should return to the jury room and try to reach one because it would be too expensive for Sanders County to re-try the case.
The defense says the instruction was improper. The official transcript does not show McNeil mentioning a potential financial burden to taxpayers.
The statements include an affidavit from jury foreman Mary Harker, pastor of the White Pine Community Methodist Church.
“I remember the jury was upset because that late at night you ought to get done and go home,” Harker said in her statement. “We were given the impression that we would have to sit there until we could come up with a unanimous verdict. I was the last person to vote to convict Richard Raugust, and I really believed it would be futile for me to vote against the other jurors.
“It appeared that it was going to go against him regardless of how I voted. ... The instructions given to us by the judge did not leave me with the belief I could disagree with the rest of the jury, the way the judge put it, it seemed like a lost cause.”
Harker said she considered the verdict “a miscarriage of justice.” Now it’s up to Wheelis to decide.
Raugust apparently believes the judge will side with him. In a quote from prison provided by his attorneys, Raugust said, “After walking the fine line between living and existence these nearly 18 years for a crime I never committed and could never commit, the Montana Innocence Project is about to finally secure my physical freedom and bring justice to myself and my best friend, Joseph Tash.”