Jury reaches guilty verdict in Yaak murder trial

August 18, 2018

LIBBY - After an evening and morning spent deliberating, a jury in Montana 19th Judicial District Court found Sarah Carpenter guilty on Wednesday of deliberate homicide and tampering with physical evidence in the January 2017 death of Travis Gillett.

Though Gillett’s mother cried when the verdict was read, she and the rest of the court contained most of their emotions.

Carpenter maintained the blank demeanor she kept during her testimony and most of the trial.

Over six days of testimony that began Aug. 6, the jury heard from Carpenter and the man she was arrested alongside, Ezra Skinner. Jurors also heard from expert witnesses for the prosecution, while defense attorney Greg Rapkotch only called Carpenter.

Carpenter and Skinner married in the time between Gillett’s death on Jan. 14, 2017, and their arrests on Aug. 24, 2017. In jail, Carpenter gave birth to twins that Skinner had fathered.

On March 9, 2018, Skinner came forward with a confession, accusing Carpenter of shooting Gillett to death. He revised his story March 19, a point Rapkotch returned to repeatedly when questioning his credibility.

On the stand, Carpenter accused Skinner of Gillett’s murder, claiming she had been protecting Skinner, whom she saw as a provider for her and her children.

The two offered contrasting and sometimes overlapping stories of events on and around Jan. 13 and 14, 2017.

Skinner painted Carpenter as manipulating and plotting, going so far as to pick Gillett up from a shelter and taking him home with the intention of throwing him from a bridge.

Skinner told of two separate trips into Lincoln County from Ponderay, Idaho, on Jan. 13. During the first, shorter trip, Skinner said he followed Carpenter while she drove with Gillett in her vehicle. During the second trip, Carpenter and Skinner were in Carpenter’s Trailblazer, Carpenter’s 8-month-old son with them, while they drove for up to 12 hours with a bound and sedated Gillett in the back.

In the second trip, Skinner described reaching U.S. 2 by way of Montana 56, heading through Libby to the Rexford Bridge north of Libby Dam, returning the way they came, and eventually traveling the Yaak River Road to mile marker 48, where Gillett’s body was later found.

Skinner said they stopped more than once to contemplate throwing Gillett from a height.

In the Yaak, Skinner said Carpenter ordered Gillett down an embankment and shot him. They returned to the scene to look for a government benefit card Carpenter had dropped, and Skinner said she shot Gillett again at close range.

Carpenter countered that the night Skinner said they took the trip, she was in her bedroom with Gillett, and both were intoxicated. She claimed Skinner bound Gillett with duct tape, rope and a blanket, and kidnapped him.

Carpenter said Skinner returned hours later and took her with him as far as the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak, about 20 miles from where Gillett’s body was found.

She said that accounted for how they were recorded on the bar’s surveillance video on Jan. 14 about 1:30 p.m.

Skinner said they were recorded when returning from Carpenter having killed Gillett. They stopped when Carpenter wanted a drink.

The tampering charge came from Skinner and Carpenter initially concealing and later selling Skinner’s gun to a relative of Carpenter while at a wedding in Texas.

Skinner reached a plea agreement with Lincoln County Attorney Marcia Boris, pleading guilty to the tampering charge.

Skinner will not be sentenced until October. His agreement stipulates the maximum 10-year sentence, but he could be eligible for parole within two years if he is given credit for time served in the Lincoln County Jail.

However, Judge Matthew Cuffe is not bound by the plea agreement.

Carpenter is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 2. She faces the possibility of life in prison.

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