Associated Press HELENA - State investigators have charged an East Helena woman with mailing hundreds of threatening letters and death threats to Helena-area residents and public officials since 1996, and charged her police officer husband with tampering with evidence in the case.
Special prosecutor Betsy Horsman charged Cheryl Clifford on Wednesday with tampering with or fabricating evidence and three counts of threatening public officials.
Larry Clifford, an officer with the East Helena Police Department, is charged with tampering with or fabricating evidence and official misconduct, a misdemeanor.
Attorney Palmer Hoovestal said the Cliffords "steadfastly deny the allegations."
District Judge Thomas Honzel refused Hoovestal's motion to seal the case records.
The Cliffords themselves have claimed to be the targets of threatening letters for several years.
According to court documents, East Helena Police Chief Mac Cummings called in the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation in February 2000 after his department received an envelope containing nine .38-caliber cartridges. Cummings said he perceived the message as a threat to his nine officers.
DCI investigators thought the receipt of the cartridges could be related to an ongoing case that began in 1996 and revolved around the Clifford family.
In 1994, Larry Clifford helped investigate a sexual assault against the 9-year-old son of a family who attended the same church as the Cliffords. Investigators say Cheryl Clifford discouraged the family from prosecuting, but the family went ahead.
A young East Helena man was sentenced to prison for the assault in November 1995. In that same month, Larry Clifford pursued criminal charges against the 9-year-old's mother, accusing her of negligence for letting the young man have access to her son. Those charges were dismissed by East Helena's city attorney.
"Larry Clifford was openly devastated by the dismissal of the charges against (the mother) and took it very personally," court documents read. In fact, Larry Clifford resigned his position with the church after that and ceased regular attendance. It was shortly after the failed prosecution of the sexual assault victim's mother that the Cliffords said they started receiving harassing letters.
Several other families in the church received more than 150 handwritten envelopes containing pornography, sexually explicit messages and threats between October 1996 and March 2000. It appeared that law enforcement officers involved in the investigation of the case also became subject to the threats.
Horsman and the Helena Independent Record opposed Hoovestal's motion to close the court records of the charges against the Cliffords, partly because of their prominence in the area.
Larry Clifford, an officer in the Helena area since 1978, ran for Lewis and Clark County sheriff in 1990. Cheryl Clifford, a former private investigator, is a process server.
"The mere factual allegations reek of something the media is going to jump on," Hoovestal argued.
"Yes, the press will pay attention to (the case), and yes, the press should pay attention to it," said Ron Waterman, representing the newspaper.
Horsman said Cheryl and Larry Clifford's prominence should not allow them "any higher rights than any other person," and that sealing the records could lower public confidence in the judicial system.