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Garfield County Attorney Nickolas Murnion has some unusual stories to tell.

His is an unusual situation. He is not only the county attorney - has been since 1978 - he also is the only attorney in a county about the size of Connecticut with fewer people than Seeley Lake.

He also was the first to go after the Freemen in Jordan in the early 1990s. For that work, done while the Freemen were threatening his life, he was given the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 1998.

He will share his thoughts on these experiences Thursday in a lecture at the University of Montana Law School. The annual Blankenbaker Lecture on Professional Responsibility begins at 10 a.m. in the school's Castles Center.

Murnion grew up in Garfield County, where his family has lived since the early 1900s. He said he first ran for county attorney, in part, "to see if I had a job." It was 1978 and he wasn't yet out of law school, but he beat the Democratic incumbent in the primary election. He finished his law degree at the University of Montana and moved home to take the job he has held, unopposed, ever since.

"I actually have one of the best jobs in the state," Murnion said, adding that he has all the beauty and recreation central Montana has to offer right in his back yard. He tries not to tell too many people about it.

"Coming back here and being able to make a living - it's a great place to raise kids," he said.

As a general rule, there isn't a lot of crime in Garfield County. But Murnion realized in 1993 that he had a potentially huge problem on his hands in the form of a group of anti-government extremists who were recruiting down-on-their-luck ranchers for a get-rich-quick scheme that involved filing bogus liens. It wasn't the Freemen's ideas Murnion was so concerned about; it was their behavior, which he saw as clearly illegal.

"They need to be prosecuted for the crimes they commit," Murnion said. "They can have whatever beliefs they want."

In 1994, Murnion filed his first charges against 15 Freemen. That same year, the Freemen put a $1 million bounty on his head and made it clear they intended to try him themselves, then hang him from a bridge. He wasn't the only one. The Freemen were after other local people, including the sheriff.

"I don't really think there was anything different I could have done," Murnion said.

But it was his persistence in the face of personal harm that led to the national honor he received in 1998.

At the time, a press release from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum quoted the former president's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, as saying Murnion was a "shining example" of the kind of courage her father most admired in politicians.

"Although his life was threatened and a bounty paced on his head, he met the responsibilities of his office with honor and distinction," Kennedy said. "His passionate defense of our democratic system of government should be a source of pride for all Americans."

Said Murnion: "I'm still kind of in awe."

Murnion joins another distinguished list Thursday. Others chosen to present Blankenbaker lectures have included Navajo Nation Chief Justice Robert Yazzie, former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron White, and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sidney Thomas.

Thomas, who was Murnion's law school roommate, will introduce him.

Reporter Ericka Schenck Smith can be reached at 523-5259 or at essmith@missoulian.com

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