NewsCrime and Courts


County dismisses charges against Ford in Crites' death

John 'Mike' Crites; Leon Ford
Posted at 3:39 PM, Mar 27, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-27 19:39:24-04

HELENA — Last June, after a three-week trial in Helena, jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict in the trial of Leon Ford – the man charged with deliberate homicide in connection with the 2011 killing of John “Mike” Crites. Now, the case against Ford has been dismissed.

“After a thorough review and in consideration of all of the information and evidence related to this investigation, the State will not proceed in retrying this case,” said Lewis & Clark County Attorney Kevin Downs in a statement to MTN.

Retired County Attorney Leo Gallagher, who served as the lead prosecutor on the case, filed a motion to dismiss on Monday. District Court Judge Mike Menahan granted the order Tuesday morning.

Palmer Hoovestal, Ford’s defense attorney, says he heard the news Monday afternoon.

“My immediate reaction was I think that that was exactly what should have happened,” he told MTN. “Leon Ford did not kill Michael Crites and there was absolutely no way that they were going to prove it, and they did the right thing.”

Ford had been scheduled for a retrial later this year, though Hoovestal had moved to block it, saying they hadn’t had access to some key evidence that could have supported Ford’s case.

Crites’ death remains unresolved, well over a decade after he was last seen alive, in June 2011. In October 2011, his dismembered remains were discovered in plastic bags on the east side of MacDonald Pass. His skull was found several miles west of the pass in September 2012.

Ford owned a property adjacent to Crites’ home on Turk Road, in a rural area outside Birdseye, northwest of Helena. The two men had a years-long dispute over land access, including confrontations in 2002 and 2007. Prosecutors had argued that the dispute might have provided Ford with a motive.

Leon Ford 2

After years without an arrest in Crites’ death, authorities took Ford into custody in August 2020. Ford repeatedly denied he killed Crites, including on the stand during his trial.

Hoovestal said Ford was “stunned” to hear about the dismissal.

“As you can imagine, it was a huge relief,” he said. “It's like the weight of the world was on his shoulders in this case. He was charged with something that he did not do – it was one of the worst crimes that can be prosecuted, deliberate homicide, and he didn't do it. And so, I think it took a minute for it to sink in.”

Hoovestal said he would have preferred Ford receive a clear acquittal, but he doesn’t believe the state’s case against Ford would ever have gotten stronger.

Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said he understood why the decision to dismiss the case was made.

“It is a letdown, but you have to have faith in the system of government that we have,” he said. “So they made a decision, and that's something that I have to pay attention to and go and look for more evidence.”

Dutton said he wanted to make clear Crites’ case was not “going on the shelf.”

“It's clear that someone murdered Mike Crites,” he said. “It's our job to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. That's our job; we will continue with that job. It's just going to take a little bit longer than we had anticipated.”

John Michael Crites
John Michael Crites

Hoovestal says the state isn’t going to find new evidence to tie Ford to this crime.

“There is somebody out there who had actually killed Michael Crites, who's still walking around, and my hope is that they find whoever that individual is and that they prosecute that person.”

“We know that this case is not solved; we will continue,” Dutton said. “So if you have information or if you did it, you don't need to live with that guilt. Come in and talk to us. You can resolve this.“

Connie Crites, Mike Crites' sister, told MTN the county informed them of the decision before it became public. She said their family remained disappointed that her brother hasn't received justice.

“At this point, somebody got away with murder, in a nutshell,“ she said.

However, Crites said she understood why the county wasn't pursuing a second trial, especially if the outcome might not be different. She said the three weeks of testimony had been some of the most difficult the family had gone through, and that they were more disappointed with the hung jury than with the dismissal.

Crites said she knows it's going to get harder for authorities to find physical evidence in her brother's death, but she remains hopeful something will turn up.

“If we get justice in this lifetime, that's great,“ she said. “If not, God's the ultimate judge.“