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Joshua Paniagua

Joshua Paniagua

An 18-year-old Missoula man pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to intimidation, evidence tampering and drug distribution charges stemming from a fatal stabbing on New Year's Day. 

Joshua Michael Paniagua appeared in court Wednesday via video link from the Missoula County jail, where he was held on $25,000 bail. 

Paniagua was arrested days after the fatal stabbing of Benjamin Mousso, 18, in a casino bathroom. Prosecutors charged Paniagua with the two felonies and a misdemeanor after investigators "could not disprove his justifiable use-of-force claim," Deputy County Attorney Brittany Williams said at Paniagua's initial appearance on Wednesday. 

"The fact that he killed someone, in self-defense or not, and then made death threats, shows he is a danger to the public," Williams said in arguing for Paniagua's bail to be maintained at $25,000. 

Investigators with the Missoula Police Department said earlier this month Mousso was killed in what appeared to be a botched drug robbery, in which Paniagua was the target.

Mousso, Bridger Christensen and a third person, a juvenile, allegedly made a deal on Jan. 1 to trade Paniagua meth for his marijuana; the three did not have any meth, however, and planned to rob what marijuana Paniagua brought to the Montana Jacks Casino, according to court filings. 

When Paniagua arrived, he handed the marijuana to the juvenile and went inside, according to prosecutors. Once he was inside the casino bathroom, Mousso attacked him, punching Paniagua multiple times before Paniagua pulled a knife and stabbed Mousso four times in self-defense, he told detectives.

Mousso was later transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Christensen was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit robbery, a felony.

Paniagua, according to court filings, later broke his phone in half because he believed police would be after him. The juvenile involved in the incident also told police Paniagua threatened to "personally kill" the juvenile "if anything happened to his family," according to court documents. 

At Wednesday's hearing, Missoula District Judge Leslie Halligan said she was familiar with Paniagua from his juvenile court cases. Records from 2018 show he was also facing a felony assault charge in District Court while simultaneously charged in juvenile court with drug offenses. While the felony assault case was dismissed as part of a plea deal in the juvenile court case, Paniagua was sentenced to time in Pine Hills Correctional Facility for youth offenders.

"I do know he has some underlying addiction and mental health issues," Halligan said during the hearing. "Some of those conditions in the past have been difficult for his family to manage."

Public defender Robert Greenwell asked Paniagua be released to his family while the case is ongoing, but Halligan ordered he be screened for pretrial supervision prior to any change in his bail amount. 

She set Paniagua's next hearing for Feb. 5. 

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