Bearcreek drug bust ignites dispute between city, county

Pair

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon, left, and Sheriff Josh McQuillan have raised numerous concerns over how a drug bust in Bearcreek, led by officers with the Red Lodge Police Department, was conducted.

RED LODGE—A drug bust in Bearcreek in late January has opened a rift between the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office and the Red Lodge Police Department, and a city police officer involved in the raid has been relieved of his duties as a sheriff’s reserve deputy.

An attorney for a woman who lives in a house behind the one that was raided, meanwhile, said his client was wrongfully detained and was injured in the early-morning bust on Sunday, Jan. 24. The attorney, Tony Kendall, said he plans to file a civil suit on her behalf.

Red Lodge Mayor Ed Williams and Police Chief Steve Hibler flatly denied that city police officers did anything wrong, but a strongly worded letter from Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon to Williams said that a search warrant may have been obtained by fraudulent means and that the raid may have been badly bungled.

In Nixon’s letter, dated Jan. 27, the county attorney said the search warrant “appears to be founded on an implicit or intentional misrepresentation to the Justice of the Peace.” He said that Red Lodge Police Officer Greg Srock, who was also a sheriff’s reserve deputy, applied for the search warrant based on his representation that he was seeking it “in his capacity” as a reserve deputy.

“Simply put, this was not true,” Nixon said, and based on this “apparent misrepresentation,” Srock “will no longer work as a Carbon County Sheriff’s Reserve Deputy effective immediately.”

“Worse yet,” the letter from the county attorney to the mayor continued, “the Sheriff has received reports from a Reserve Deputy and Montana Highway Patrol Trooper on scene, that, in their opinion, the search was conducted in a haphazard and unprofessional manner, and created a serious liability.”

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Nixon said he and Sheriff Josh McQuillan heard that “an individual was injured in the execution of the warrant,” and that he and McQuillan “are uncertain if this individual’s property should have been included in the warrant.”

In separate letters to Chief Hibler, to Carbon County Justice of the Peace L. Kevin Nichols and to the police chiefs in the Carbon County towns of Fromberg and Bridger, Nixon and McQuillan said they were “clarifying administrative requirements” regarding warrants “originating from city police departments to be executed in the county.”

From now on, they said, either the sheriff’s or county attorney’s office will have to sign off on warrants granted by a justice of the peace or District Court judge.

The letters from the county and the sheriff were given to Last Best News in response to a public records request. The mayor said he hand-delivered a letter to Nixon on Monday in which he attempted to lay out the city’s version of what happened before, during and after the raid.

The police chief and the city prosecutor, Joel Todd, said they couldn’t release the mayor’s letter to Nixon because it contained confidential criminal justice information. However, Todd said, “virtually everything” in Nixon’s letter was rebutted by the mayor in his response.

Hibler

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Red Lodge Chief of Police Steve Hibler says his department did nothing wrong.

Mayor Williams said he believes that the city’s account was correct “in every instance” and that the county attorney’s description of what happened in Bearcreek was wrong.

Todd said the Police Department is trying to assemble a complete report on the Bearcreek bust, a process that has been hampered by the temporary absence of an administrative assistant in the department. He said the full report should be delivered to Nixon by Monday.

Todd also said several times that he didn’t understand why Nixon wrote his letter to the mayor before he had seen the complete report.

“We’re as mystified as you are as to why this thing blew up prematurely,” Todd said, speaking to a reporter.

Nixon, for his part, said the concerns he and the sheriff have about the incident “pre-exist any report.” And while the mayor’s response did contain some information that clarified what happened on the day of the bust, he said, he didn’t regret having sent out the letters to county officials.

Nixon also declined to release the mayor’s letter, saying it was “chock-full of confidential criminal justice information,” including the names of witnesses and victims.

Both sides agreed that a week before the warrant for the drug bust was issued, the Police Department applied for another search warrant for the same address in Bearcreek, a tiny town six miles east of Red Lodge that is best known for pig races at the Bear Creek Saloon.

Both sides also agreed that the earlier search warrant was not related to a drug investigation. McQuillan said it was his understanding that the earlier warrant had to do with a crime that had occurred in the city of Red Lodge.

That first application for “an out-of-city search warrant” was denied by Justice of the Peace Kevin Nichols “because the City lacked jurisdiction to execute the warrant,” Nixon said in his letter to the mayor.

“Nevertheless,” he continued, “one week later, there was subsequent City application to search the same house,” and it was granted because Srock applied for it in his capacity as a reserve deputy.

Todd, the city prosecutor, said that was not true. He said the warrant application identified Srock as representing the Red Lodge Police Department, and that when Srock signed his name, it was followed by his Police Department identifier, “RL-4.”

However, on the first page of the warrant application, Srock added, in his own handwriting, this description of himself: “I am a sworn reserve deputy for Carbon County and have been since 2010.”

Todd said Nichols, the justice of the peace, asked Srock to add that information, which Nichols confirmed. Asked why he did so, Nichols said only, “I wanted to…” before saying he didn’t think it was his place to interject himself into the dispute.

House

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

This is the house in Bearcreek that was named in the search warrant. In the rear is a smaller house inhabited by a woman whose attorney said she was hurt in the raid.

County Attorney Nixon said it didn’t matter how Srock identified himself on the warrant.

“Officer Srock acted as a Red Lodge Police Officer,” Nixon wrote in the letter to Mayor Williams. “Srock wore an RLPD uniform, issued citations into Red Lodge City Court, and wrote reports as a Red Lodge Police Officer. All of these actions are counter to the representation made to Justice Nichols necessary to secure the warrant.”

Nixon said he and McQullian believe that because the search took place in an incorporated town outside Red Lodge, the sheriff’s office “should have been involved and needed to be involved.”

Nixon said McQuillan was notified of the warrant application only after it had been made, and that two reserve deputies, who also work as police reserve officers, were asked to take part in the search “and were the sole county presence.”

“The County,” Nixon wrote, “seems to have been invited to the execution of an out-of-jurisdiction search as an afterthought.”

City prosecutor Todd challenged that notion. He said Chief Hibler called McQuillan “while the warrant was being prepared and before it was executed.” He also said the chief received the sheriff’s permission to use the two reserve deputies, and he said dispatch logs referred to the search as an “inter-agency task force” operation.

McQuillan, however, said he was not called by Hibler until 12:02 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24, shortly before the search was executed. Nichols, the justice of the peace, said he was called at his home 24 minutes earlier, at 11:38 p.m. on Saturday, to authorize the warrant.

McQuillan also said that when Hibler told him about a search warrant, it was McQuillan’s understanding that Hibler was referring to the original warrant, dealing with a crime that had occurred in Red Lodge, not with drugs being dealt in Bearcreek.

“He was told it was a search warrant that had been discussed earlier,” Nixon said.

The search warrant was executed by Hibler, Srock and three other city officers, two reserve deputies and a Montana Highway Patrol trooper, none of them identified. At a house in Bearcreek on North First Street, they arrested William M. Evans Jr. and Stacey Palmer, both of whose birth dates were redacted from records released by the Justice of the Peace’s office.

Evans and Palmer were charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs and possession of drug paraphernalia, both felonies, and they were taken to the Yellowstone County jail. An evidence receipt filed by the Police Department said officers seized numerous pipes and other paraphernalia and “white powder from TV stand.”

During the execution of the warrant, according to private attorney Kendall, his client, a 25-year-old woman he declined to identify, was in her small detached house behind the main house. Shortly after 1 a.m., he said, a police officer “banged on her door.”

When she let him in, Kendall said, the officer “puts her down on her knees in her own kitchen and cuffs her hands behind her back.” He then got her back on her feet, and as they walked out of her house, Kendall said, the officer repeatedly swept the tiny house with his flashlight.

“If that’s not a search, that’s trespass,” Kendall said, and it apparently was done “for no other reason than they got excited.” As his client and the officer were walking to a police car, Kendall said, the woman slipped on some ice and fell to the ground with her hands cuffed behind her, then was placed in the back seat of the car for as long as 25 minutes before being released.

In his letter to the mayor, Nixon said Hibler “assured Sheriff McQuillan and I that the Red Lodge Police Department takes full responsibility for the injury to the individual.” Nixon also said Hibler indicated he had spoken with the injured party, saying that person’s injuries would be covered by the city’s insurer.

Hibler said that was not true. He said his statement was that if anyone was injured in the execution of the warrant, the city would be responsible. City Prosecutor Todd said Officer Srock, who was on the scene, was wearing a body camera that recorded the words of the woman who lives in the back house.

“She said on tape that she wasn’t (hurt) and she declined medical help,” he said. “And that’s all on tape.”

Nixon, when told that Hibler denied acknowledging that anyone was hurt on the scene, said, “the chief assured us that the woman was hurt but that the city would be responsible for her injuries.”

Kendall said he and his client are preparing a civil suit that will be filed soon in Carbon County District Court.

“What happened was, four or five Red Lodge officers, for some reason unknown, believed they had jurisdiction in Bearcreek,” Kendall said. “And they thought they could execute it in Bearcreek. That’s bad enough. Then they searched the wrong house.”

Todd said the warrant covered “the first unit,” but that it was standard procedure to make sure anyone in a house on the same property was safe and was not involved in the crimes being investigated.

He said the back house was not searched and that the woman who lived there was “briefly detained,” until it was determined that she had no relationship with the people named in the warrant.

Those two, Evans and Palmer, were arraigned in Red Lodge City Court by video from the Yellowstone County jail, at which time Todd dismissed the charges against them without prejudice, meaning they could be re-filed at a later time.

Todd said that also was standard procedure, and that he dismissed the charges “at the express direction of the Carbon County attorney.” City Court does not deal with felonies, he said, so dismissing the charges there would give the county attorney the chance to refile them, if he chose, in Justice Court.

Nixon said that was true, and that he had no idea whether he would charge Evans and Palmer in Justice Court, since he had not seen any of the incident reports from the city.

The whole thing was “abnormal,” he said, and the fact that city officers went into the county and arrested people on charges that could not be filed in city court showed why the city should not have been the lead agency on the operation.

Todd, though, said the search warrant was applied for in strict conformance with state law, specifically state statute 46-5-220, which says that a “peace officer, the city or county attorney, or the attorney general” may apply for a search warrant.

The statute also says such a warrant can be issued by a city or municipal court judge or justice of the peace “within the judge’s geographical jurisdiction.” So the jurisdiction refers not to the officer seeking the warrant, Todd said, but to the judge, and in this case Justice of the Peace Nichols’ jurisdiction extends all over Carbon County.

Todd said “there’s been a lot of false rumors flying around” Red Lodge, and he wishes the county attorney had waited for all the facts before writing letters to county officials.

Mayor Williams said there isn’t much to do now but wait.

“Everybody will have to take some time and figure out what the next best thing to do is,” he said.

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