The prosecutor on the case of a former Missoula County Sheriff’s deputy accused of strangling a man in handcuffs said he never talked to the victim before agreeing to dismiss the case.
Prosecutor Steve Eschenbacher said earlier this week he agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with Doug Hartsell, the former deputy, because, in part, the victim had been uncooperative "with everybody."
But Brandon Shea, the man in handcuffs during the incident, said no one has contacted him since Missoula County officials made Eschenbacher, the Lake County Attorney, special prosecutor on the case to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
"I've tried to call him on the phone," Eschenbacher said. "His mailbox is full, or he wouldn't answer. He just didn't cooperate with me."
Reached at his home by the Missoulian on Wednesday, Shea said it shouldn't have been very hard for Eschenbacher to reach him, considering he is already monitored by law enforcement.
"They could have called my probation officer," Shea said. "They can't say I was uncooperative if they never talked to me."
The case was dismissed Jan. 24 after Eschenbacher and Hartsell's attorney reached a deferred prosecution agreement. Under a deferred agreement, a defendant's record is erased if the person follows several conditions for a certain amount of time.
According to three other law enforcement officers at the scene, Shea was in handcuffs when Hartsell strangled him during an arrest. Charging documents filed in December say Hartsell reached for Shea's throat after Shea had kicked him in the stomach.
Eschenbacher said he would be unable to show records that calls were made to Shea because the calls were made during December, he said.
“I don’t have that,” he said.
Shea and his mother, Kim Halvorson, who live together, said they've received no calls, mail or emails about the case since it went to the Lake County prosecutor. The last person who contacted them about the November 2017 incident was an agent with the Montana Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation, while the state was investigating the incident last year. Shea still has the agent's business card.
Shea has admitted to being so drunk he was out of control that night, and said he was being uncooperative during his own arrest. He's also accumulated 15 shoplifting tickets since taking a plea agreement on the case associated with his arrest.
Halvorson said she was the one who called police the night of her son's arrest by Hartsell and the other deputies after Shea and her other son got into a fight at their home.
"I don't know if I want to call again," she said Wednesday. "What if there's more like him (Hartsell) out there?"
When contacted by the Missoulian on Monday, Eschenbacher said he didn’t believe he had enough evidence to secure a conviction against Hartsell at trial, but added that Shea had not cooperated with his office.
Eschenbacher was also sympathetic to law enforcement, he said Monday. He said he believed investigating the case would show the community that the criminal justice system is open to keeping law enforcement officials accountable.
Eschenbacher previously has been criticized for not pursuing a high-profile case. In 2017, Lake County Sheriff Don Bell issued an official statement challenging Eschenbacher's decision not to charge Ryan Black with negligent homicide after shooting and killing a man who was causing a disturbance on Black's doorstep. Bell said a joint investigation by the sheriff's office and state officials pointed to negligent homicide; Eschenbacher believed, due to Montana's Castle Doctrine, Black would have prevailed at trial.
And in December, the day before trial, Eschenbacher agreed to change a negligent homicide charge to criminal endangerment for Joseph Conko Parizeau Jr., who was implicated in the death of Cassandra Harris. Harris was found dead on a Lake County road; investigators believed Parizeau had thrown Harris from a moving truck, but Eschenbacher said the medical evidence didn't add up to a strong case.
"I'm really angry and disappointed in our county attorney's office," said Amy Castlio, a friend of the Harris family and organizer of demonstrations held seeking "Justice for Cassandra." On Wednesday, Parizeau was sentenced to 10 years, with no time suspended and no possibility of parole.
The Montana Public Safety Officer and Standards and Training Council said Monday it will begin its own investigation now that Hartsell’s criminal case has come to a close. The POST Council will look to determine whether Hartsell violated the state’s law enforcement Code of Ethics.