Montana legal odyssey ends with murder charge dismissed

THOMPSON FALLS, Mont. (AP) — For a moment, the entire courtroom froze.

Judge Amy Eddy had spent the last several minutes winding her way through a painstakingly detailed explanation of her impending decision, touching on each argument she had been presented with while alternately glancing at prosecutors, defense attorneys and Rachel Ann Bellesen, the 37-year-old mother of four sitting stoically with the weight of the last seven months dangling over her head.

Then two heavy words knifed through the tension in the crowded room: “with prejudice.”

When the power of those words eventually sunk in, Bellesen leaned back in her chair, opened her mouth wide and let out a long-stifled sigh, expelling much of the fear, anger and horror she’d been carrying for the 229 days since she said she killed her ex-husband in self-defense.

“When she said ‘dismissed with prejudice,’ just for a second I was like, ‘OK, and?’” Bellesen said. “And then I realized that was it, that she was done talking, and it was surreal.”

Bellesen and her team of pro bono attorneys, led by Missoula-based lawyer Lance Jasper, mounted an unusual challenge at the hearing on May 25, responding to a motion from prosecutors to dismiss deliberate homicide charges against her by saying, in so many words, that their motion wasn’t good enough. Montana Assistant Attorney General Chris McConnell, assigned to the case as a special prosecutor, acknowledged in filings and in open court that the state lacked sufficient evidence to convict Bellesen, and that pending lab results — the only evidence not yet collected by the state — would do nothing to change his view of the case, regardless of what it showed.

But the Flathead Beacon reported that McConnell still requested that Judge Eddy dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning Bellesen could still be charged with deliberate homicide in the future, so long as the statute of limitations had not expired. Since there is no statute of limitations on deliberate homicide, a dismissal without prejudice would have meant Bellesen could have been re-charged at any time. Jasper laid out what Bellesen’s life has been like, and would continue to be like, if not for the dismissal with prejudice.

“Every single day,” he said. “She has to worry about a knock at her door.”

Jasper called the decision “awesome” in the moments after it was handed down and praised a team of 10 people — including attorneys, law enforcement experts, mental health professionals, a crime scene reconstruction artist and more — who all worked for free on Bellesen’s case after learning of the details.

“To get 10 people to do something like this, for free, I can tell you, you better have the best client in the world that’s innocent,” Jasper said. “It’s the best team I’ve ever worked on, whether I was paying for it or not. Everyone’s heart was into it.”

In defending his client, Jasper questioned several decisions made by law enforcement during their investigation, including the fact that they failed to medically examine Bellesen as a rape victim despite her claim that she was sexually assaulted just before shooting Glace and that she showed obvious physical signs of being attacked. Bellesen, who called 911 to report the shooting, led law enforcement to Glace’s body and turned over the murder weapon, said she knew her explanation was not being taken seriously when she was first taken to Clark Fork Valley Hospital to be treated for her injuries.

“We got to the hospital and no one was giving me straight answers,” Bellesen said. “I definitely was under the impression that I was in custody, like I was under arrest. I didn’t feel like I was being treated like a crime victim, at all.”

But details of Jasper’s questions about law enforcement never made it to open court since he held off on filing nine motions he said he planned to submit because he was negotiating with the Sanders County Attorney’s Office before the case was handed over to the special prosecutor.

The publicly available explanation of the events of Oct. 8 come primarily from the original charging document filed by then-prosecutor and Sanders County Attorney Naomi Leisz last October. That filing spells out how Bellesen, who lives in Lakeside, met Glace in Sanders County, shot and killed him at a spot known as Orchard’s Fishing Hole in the town of Paradise, then drove to Hot Springs and called 911 to report what had happened. She said Glace tried to rape her, and Jasper said she had “significant bruising” after the encounter and that her shirt, bra and pants zipper were broken.

Prosecutors offered no motive for why Bellesen would have shot Glace other than the attempted rape.

Bellesen’s attorneys also argued that the murder charge was brought without a thorough examination of Glace’s extensive criminal history. He was convicted in Washington after assaulting Bellesen in 2004, when the pair was married, and in the months before he was killed Glace had been accused of partner family member assault twice, once in Sanders County and again in Mineral County. A description of one of those assaults, provided by the alleged victim, was filed as part of the defense’s argument for a dismissal with prejudice.

Jasper also said he offered to provide prosecutors with his entire case investigation, including an interview with Bellesen, in exchange for an agreement to dismiss with prejudice if a year passed before charges were re-filed. That offer was declined.

“I’ve never in 20 years offered my client up and said here’s my whole case, come look at it,” Jasper said. “Because we knew the case. They don’t. They didn’t. Their investigation told them nothing.”

The small, cramped Sanders County courtroom was packed for Tuesday’s hearing, with 20 or so friends, family and supporters of Bellesen filling the chairs behind the defense table. They broke into applause at the judge’s decision and spent several minutes after the hearing exchanging the kind of hugs and smiles they hadn’t shared in months.

Those supporters included several of Bellesen’s co-workers at the Abbie Shelter in Kalispell, the area’s domestic violence resource. Bellesen is the nonprofit’s shelter coordinator, and because this case tied in so closely to her work, it inspired a prolonged, public outcry from her co-workers and other advocates.

“I consider my co-workers at the Abbie Shelter my Abbie family and they are my best friends in the world,” Bellesen said. “To feel that level of support today, I could not ever say enough words to express my gratitude to them.”

Glace was represented in the courtroom as well, with 10 or so friends and loved ones wearing matching “Justice for Jake” T-shirts. They left the court quickly after the decision was read, reconvening in the rain on the side of Montana Highway 200 just outside the courthouse, steps from where a large sign that read “Rachel Murdered Jake” was hanging off a car.

“She walked out of there after she killed my best friend because she knew the right people, she knew what to say, she knew what she was doing,” Anthony Young said. “It was premeditated. This was premeditated murder.”

Glace’s supporters questioned why Bellesen and her ex-husband were together on the night of the shooting and the veracity of her claims of attempted rape. Jasper previously said Bellesen went to meet Glace after he threatened to harm one of their children.

McConnell, the prosecutor, did not push back against much of the defense’s argument on Tuesday, instead relying on previous court filings and pointing out that state statutes do not define dismissals with or without prejudice as it pertains to felony charges. One portion of the statute says a misdemeanor charge should be dismissed with prejudice if no case is brought in six months, but that section of the statute makes no mention of a felony like deliberate homicide.

Eddy challenged the seeming implication of McConnell’s argument — that the prosecutor should be given wide discretion on whether to dismiss with our without prejudice — by asserting that it was her right to make that decision.

The state has the opportunity to appeal Eddy’s ruling, which Jasper said he expected would happen. A spokeswoman for the Montana Attorney General’s Office said they would wait to review Judge Eddy’s written order before deciding how to proceed.

For now, though, Jasper and Bellesen were more than happy to celebrate a victory seven months in the making.

“I’m just glad the judge saw it our way,” Jasper said. “Damn. Feels good.”