Food for thought, for a change, in crime news


Ed Kemmick

Reading recent editions of the Billings Gazette—known fondly by some as the Billings Police Blotter—has been an eye-opening and thought-provoking experience.

Amid the usual catalog of serial drunk drivers, oil-patch meth runners, girlfriend-assaulting miscreants and keno-addicted embezzlers, there were a few crimes of genuine weirdness, riveting in their strangeness and even, in a couple of cases, their moral ambiguity.

The most tragic story by far was the one involving the murder that reportedly grew out of an argument over whether the Army or the Marines was the better branch of the military.

The argument played out in Laurel between William Earl Cunningham, an Army veteran, and Nathan Horn. Cunningham was found guilty Friday of deliberate homicide for slashing Horn’s throat. Cunningham’s claims of self-defense were flimsy, as the jury recognized, and he deserves to pay heavily for what he did.

But he didn’t seem like a cold-blooded killer, either. He seemed like an old vet with a bad ticker who drank so much Southern Comfort with an erstwhile friend that he overreacted (a horribly inadequate word, I know) and did something phenomenally stupid and very, very wrong.

What I mean to say, with all due respect to the family of Nathan Horn, is that I feel sorry for Cunningham because he did not seem like an inherently evil man, someone for whom it was just a question of time before he did something reprehensible.

Which brings us to William Krisstofer Wolf, the antigovernment fanatic charged with firearms violations resulting from an FBI sting. My first impulse was to feel some sympathy for Wolf, who lived near Bozeman. The guy criticizes the government for being too powerful, so the government finds a convenient way to charge him with a crime?

I kept the reading the story, however, and if the charges are true (one assumes the FBI undercover man was wearing a wire), Wolf was more than ready to graduate from mere dissent to active criminality, even murder. He spoke of creating some kind of homemade flamethrower and had this to say about the Russian automatic shotgun he hoped to buy from the FBI agent:

“One of those or a few of those on the street, and those cops aren’t going to know what’s coming.”

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the government, or calling for its overthrow. But if you start hatching plans to kill the local boys in blue, you probably need to spend a good long while in government-supplied housing.

A much lesser crime, though just as easy to condemn, was the burglary at the office of Eagle Mount, a nonprofit agency that provides recreational therapy for people with disabilities. The thieves made off with $3,000 worth of items that had been donated to Eagle Mount for a fundraising auction.

It was like stealing presents from under the Christmas tree at an orphanage, like pilfering coins from a Salvation Army bucket, like robbing a Girl Scout of a crate full of cookies.

If they catch and convict the people responsible, I would recommend a sentence of at least 1,000 hours skiing, riding horses, swimming and ice-skating with Eagle Mount clients. That would be a beautiful instance of restorative justice, and Eagle Mount can always use an extra hand or two.

I don’t think there will be any punishment quite so fulfilling for Scott Yorke, the former Butte Central High School band director accused of getting several female students blind drunk and sexually assaulting one of them.

This is assuming he is found guilty. You never know. He might claim that he drank all the cheap alcohol he bought at the convenience store next to the motel where the assaults were said to have occurred. Authorities said there are surveillance tapes showing that Yorke made four trips to stock up on booze.

The oddest fact in the story was that Yorke is 26 years old. How did someone apparently that stupid make it to 26 without going to prison or being shot by an angry parent?

The saddest story in the latest crop of bizarre crime stories had to be the one about John Fesler Lance II, the 73-year-old Florence-area man sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for failing to get over his 1979 divorce.

Lance is the old codger who had already spent 28 years in prison for threatening the people who bought the Bitterroot Valley ranch he lost to his wife in their bitter divorce. He engaged in similar threats last September and told the judge during his sentencing hearing: “I own that ranch today. I’ll post my life on it.”

And that’s sort of what he did, since the judge sentenced him to 75 years in prison for felony intimidation and stalking. The emaciated Lance quoted Isaiah to explain the justness of his recent hunger strike. He would do better to read Mark 8:36, substituting “freedom” for the last word: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

To look at his pitiful photos and to read of his hopeless defiance was just depressing. This was a man with no criminal record before his first conviction, a man with only one fleeting life on this planet, and this is the bitterness he imposed on himself.

So thank you, Billings Police Blotter, for providing crime news that made me think for a change. It doesn’t quite exonerate you for posting the monthly roundup of mugshots, but it’s a start.

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