THOMPSON FALLS – Two weeks ago, Richard Raugust happened to look out the window of his cell and saw a television truck approaching the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.
“They’re either here for me or Barry,” Raugust predicted to a fellow inmate. Sure enough, it was the day Barry Beach, convicted by a Montana jury for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees, was released from prison, his sentence commuted by Gov. Steve Bullock.
On Friday, it was Raugust’s turn.
After spending more than 18 years behind bars, Raugust – whose 1998 conviction for the murder of his best friend, Joseph Tash, had already been overturned by a District Court judge – was released on his own recognizance pending a new trial.
It was the first case taken up by the Montana Innocence Project, which was founded in 2008, to result in an overturned verdict.
“We are very excited – not just for Richard, but for the state of Montana and the justice system,” Raugust’s pro bono attorney, Brett Schandelson of Missoula, said afterward. “Richard is once again presumed innocent. He has spent the last 6,708 days – that’s 18 years, four months and 11 days – in prison for a murder we strongly believe he did not commit.”
District Judge Jim Wheelis of Libby made the decision to release Raugust on Friday morning in a Sanders County courtroom. In doing so, he denied Sanders County Attorney Bob Zimmerman’s request that Wheelis impose a bail amount of $75,000 that likely would have kept Raugust imprisoned while awaiting a promised appeal of Wheelis’ decision, and potential new trial.
About an hour later, Raugust, 49, emerged from the Sanders County jail and into the arms of his mother and sister, who traveled from their homes in Oxnard, California, for the bond hearing.
The Montana Innocence Project has made arrangements for Raugust to live in Missoula, and do volunteer work at both the project and the Missoula Public Library, during his release, with the hopes of finding him a paying job.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Raugust’s mother, Marci Jones, said while waiting for her son to be processed out of jail. “The Innocence Project has been incredible throughout this. We knew it was going to happen, we just didn’t know when.”
Raugust’s conviction was overturned after Wheelis ruled that prosecutors withheld key evidence from the defense that supported Raugust’s alibi at the time of Taft’s murder.
Raugust’s story has never changed. He maintains that on the night of July 23, 1997, he, Tash and a man named 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 a camper-trailer in the Swamp Creek area to continue the party. They stopped nearby outside Miller’s Market, then Ross pulled out.
Knowing he had to work the next morning, Raugust says he then asked Ross to stop where Montana Highway 200 intersects with Fir Street and let him out.
Raugust said Ross tossed him his backpack and left with Tash, and Raugust walked to a nearby home where he had already spent several nights.
He slept there so he could get to work early the next morning.
Later that day, while he was painting a house, authorities arrived and arrested him for deliberate homicide.
It was the first he learned of the death of his best friend, Raugust says. Witnesses to the arrest – including the arresting officer – described Raugust as “bewildered” and “dumbfounded” by what was taking place.
“He had to deal with the loss of his best friend, and being accused of his murder, all in the same moment,” his mother said.
Ross claimed he never dropped off Raugust.
He told authorities all three of them went to the Swamp Creek area, and said he 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, according to Ross.
The prosecution relied heavily on Ross’ eyewitness testimony, which the Montana Innocence Project has called “a self-serving lie.”
What the state never told Raugust or his attorney at the time, John Putikka, was that an on-duty Sanders County sheriff’s deputy not only witnessed the men leave the Naughty Pine that morning.
Wayne Abbey said he saw the brake lights on Ross’ car illuminate at Fir Street, and the car’s dome light come on as well.
It was too dark for him to see if anyone exited Ross’ car, 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 time as a Chinese fire drill.”
But the prosecution never asked Abbey about that while he was on the stand in 1998, and the defense never knew about it.
On Friday, Raugust broke down in tears when asked about his friendship with Taft.
They met when they were 12 years old, and each was duck hunting on neighboring ranches in California, Raugust said.
“We struck up a friendship that kept on going,” Raugust said. “He was quite the hunter.”
It was Taft who encouraged Raugust to move to Montana, according to Raugust’s mother.
“Joe brought him up here,” Jones said. “They’d been best friends since they were about 12 and went to high school together in California. Joe had been living up here, and Richard had only been here three or four months when Joe died.”
There was a bittersweet element to Friday’s proceedings for Raugust and the Montana Innocence Project.
Spencer Veysey, the investigator who uncovered Abbey’s 18-year-old observations of Ross’ vehicle, was killed in a climbing accident in Rocky Mountain National Park two months ago.
“We would not be here today were it not for his work,” Schandelson said.
After embracing his mother and Mary and David Webster, his sister and brother-in-law, Raugust read a statement he had written out.
He thanked the Montana Innocence Project and all the people who have worked on his case, and said, “I look forward to proving my innocence, and letting the new evidence speak for itself.”
Tears then began to roll down his cheeks as he added that he hoped “for closure for my best friend, Joe.”
“I knew this day would come,” Raugust said, “I just didn’t think it would take 18 years. Now I’m anxious to get a new trial, and interested in getting back in the swing of life.”
Zimmerman, who was not county attorney when Raugust was prosecuted, told Wheelis that Raugust remained accused of “one of the most heinous crimes,” and that “releasing him into Missoula is not going to protect anyone.”
“I have received a phone call from one witness asking that the state provide him or her with protection,” Zimmerman said. “It is perceived by one witness that the defendant poses a threat to him or her.”
He asked that bail be set at $75,000 “based on the nature of the crime, and to protect witnesses and the community.”
Schandelson responded that “Mr. Raugust is now the one in danger,” and said his client has neither the means nor the desire to flee.
“He wants his day in court,” Schandelson said. “He’s going to see this through.”
Wheelis imposed several conditions on Raugust’s release, including that he check in with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department weekly, and warned him that “any crime – including a parking ticket” – would land him back in jail.
Raugust and the recently freed Beach were “neighbors” for a year at the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby, Raugust said.
Beach’s case has received far more media attention over the years. Raugust described his former fellow inmate as “respectful, helpful, upbeat – a good role model.”
Raugust has been an exemplary inmate, according to Jessie McQuillan, former executive director of the Montana Innocence Project who now works as a private investigator, and has continued to volunteer on Raugust’s team.
“We review hundreds of letters,” McQuillan said of the project, “but I do remember when he first got in touch with us I was struck by Richard’s articulateness, and the fact that his claim of innocence has never wavered.
“We began investigating, and the more we learned, the more we were persuaded Richard had not committed the crime, and the real perpetrator was still free.”
Raugust, a U.S. Army veteran, took up writing while in prison, primarily poetry, and said he has a 230-page collection of poems he calls “Fishers of Trout and Men: Protectors of the Realm” he hopes to share with fellow vets.
“I think it will help ease their minds,” he said, “particularly veterans with combat-related issues.”
As for his plans for the holidays – it will be the first Christmas in almost two decades he won’t spend incarcerated – Raugust kept his wish list pretty simple.
“I wouldn’t mind throwing a lure in a lake, if there’s water open,” he said.