On the night of Monday, April 6, hours before his 18th birthday, Carl John "C.J." Storkson was hanging out with his friends Mario Daniels, 15, and Chris Showen, 18, at the Whitefish house where Daniels lived with his mother Diana and her boyfriend Chad Levi.
Levi said he chased the boys from the house at about 10 p.m. because they were doing drugs in the bathroom. With no place to go, the trio headed out for a drive in Storkson's car, a Buick Le Sabre. Daniels later told investigators they were heading to the nearby town of Columbia Falls to score some crystal meth, a form of methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant. Levi never saw Storkson alive again.
The three teenagers drove across the green, open Flathead Valley, ringed by steep mountains. No one was home at the house they visited, according to Daniels. But on East Edgewood Avenue, on the way back to Whitefish, something went wrong and set in motion a series of events that left Storkson dead, and friends and family ensnared in a web of deceit worthy of a screenplay.
Authorities now believe Showen shot Storkson in the head as he sat in his car by the side of the road. The rest of the story is full of twists and turns. Several witnesses have changed their stories during the course of the investigation, and at least some believe the members of the Daniels family are simply protecting one another.
As Showen sits in jail awaiting his trial in January, his court-appointed lawyer, Phyllis Quatman, told the Independent she thinks Daniels killed Storkson. A jury has yet to decide if the authorities got the wrong kid. And as Daniels put it, while under questioning by investigators, "Me and one other person is the only one of 'em who knows what happened."
A few basic facts are undisputed: Before the time the sun rose on the morning of Tuesday, April 7, Storkson's body had been stuffed in the trunk of his own Buick and driven back to Daniels's house in Whitefish, where Levi saw the body. The car ended up in Stillwater State Forest, about 20 miles from Whitefish near Olney, the tiny hamlet where Storkson lived with his parents and his 1-1/2-year-old daughter, whom his mother called the "joy of his life."
Storkson's body was left partially covered by brush at the side of the forest road. His car was torched. The next day, according to Shawn Willis, another young man from Olney, he and Showen returned to bury Storkson. Two days later, April 9, Storkson's family reported him missing. His mother Joan had become anxious, she says, because he was never away from the family, especially his baby daughter, more than a couple of days without an explanation.
Despite some problems with drugs and a daughter born to him when he was 16, Storkson's mother Joan says Storkson was not that different from other kids. He loved outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and snowmobiling. Although his formal education ended in the eighth grade, she says, he was getting his young life back on track and had recently begun a job at Tri City Wrecking in Kalispell.
Storkson, Showen and Daniels were familiar faces around the Pin 'n' Cue, a 24-hour bowling alley and pool hall on Whitefish's main retail strip, as were Jesse Kaczmarek, 17, and Willis, 19. Except for Willis, all were drop-outs.
When Storkson was reported missing by his family, investigators discovered a cover-up that involved the Daniels household and this posse of misguided youth. It took several days of interviews with at least a half-dozen witnesses for investigators to feel they had the story straight-that Showen shot Storkson, and that after the shooting he and Willis buried the body and burned the car.
The detectives on the case got their best lead after Diana Daniels told her friend Ruth Hammond about the shooting. On Friday, April 17, Hammond phoned in a Crimestoppers report and told Whitefish detectives the story she had heard from Daniels's mother about the crime. That day, police found the car, and the next day Showen was arrested.
|Chris Showen, 18, has been accused of murdering his friend C.J. Storkson last spring, but the details of the crime remain murky as the star witness in the case keeps changing his story.|
Initially, Willis was dragged into the case around 11:15 p.m. on April 6, when Kaczmarek called him to say that Showen would be arriving in Olney. Unsuspecting, Willis says, he walked out on the road and met Showen, who was driving Storkson's car. Willis said later that Showen showed him Storkson's body and told him that he had had shot him. Showen also told Willis he'd kill him too if he told anyone, according to Willis' statements to investigators on April 19.
Not far behind, Kaczmarek and Daniels drove the 18 miles from Whitefish and met Willis and Showen in Olney, all the young men but Showen say. The four boys drove in two cars up Lupfer Road toward Stillwater State Forest, where the boys say they split up. While Kaczmarek and Daniels waited near the railroad tracks for two hours in Kaczmarek's car, Showen and Willis, wearing socks on their hands so they wouldn't leave fingerprints, drove the bloody Buick up the road, took Storkson's body out of the trunk and covered it with brush.
In an interview, Willis told police that Showen tried to torch the car, but it wouldn't catch. He says they drove the car further up the dark road, used some sticks and brush to kindle a fire, and headed back to meet the other boys.
The next evening around 6 p.m., according to Willis' statements, Kaczmarek dropped Showen and Willis off at Willis' house in Olney along with a shovel Showen brought from his house. Willis claims that he and Showen returned to the body, dug a grave and buried Storkson
The statements of other witnesses, while in many cases offering different accounts, fill in more gaps. Levi told the cops that the last time he saw Storkson alive was when he kicked Storkson and Showen out of his house after he caught them snorting speed in the bathroom. The prosecution has acknowledged it believes Storkson stopped the car on East Edgewood Avenue, which bends at right angles through a bucolic world of small farms and ranches, horse trailers and red barns.
When Daniels stepped out of the car to relieve himself, he told investigators, Showen was sitting in the back seat. What happened next remains less clear, but someone pulled out a stolen Smith and Wesson 9mm semi-automatic handgun, and shot Storkson in the head as he sat in the driver's seat.
In one of his statements, Daniels said he thought Showen said, "You wanna be next?" Daniels and Showen then reportedly stuffed Storkson's body into his own trunk. Prosecutors say Showen used his shirt to wipe Storkson's blood off the rear bumper and the two boys continued back to Whitefish.
When the two young men arrived back at the Daniels', Kaczmarek was hanging out with Daniels' mother and Levi. Daniels was reportedly hysterical, and his pants and shoes were bloody. Then, when Daniels told Levi that Showen had shot Storkson, Levi and Daniels' mother went out to see the body for themselves, Levi admits.
When police questioned Daniels on Monday, April 16, however, he denied knowing what happened. He refused a polygraph test, calling it "horseshit."
"OK," said Detective Larry Merical of the Flathead County Sheriff's office, the lead investigator on the case. "Well this horseshit, son, is gonna cost you about 25 years of your life."
Some estimate that methamphetamine, also known as "the poor man's cocaine," is at the heart of up to 90 percent of the violent crimes in the Flathead Valley, including the Storkson murder. Shirley Eichelkraut, a drug dependency counselor with Pathways Treatment Center in Kalispell, says that to understand this crime, you need to understand destructive power of crystal meth.
"I don't think people have a clue what it does. I don't think people have a clue how available it is," says Eichelkraut. "I really don't believe they have any idea. It is already epidemic and we will see more.
"We have treated people here from every major city in Montana and the surrounding areas. Sometimes people will come in, and we can't determine if they're actually having a psychiatric episode of some sort, or if it is a drug-induced psychosis." From Eichelkraut's viewpoint, moreover, violence and guns seem to accompany the drug.
That would make sense in terms of the case of Storkson's murder, given the lack of an obvious motive beyond the rumor of an explained grudge borne by his friend Showen. The lack of an obvious motive is but one of the problems defense attorney Quatman sees in the case against Showen.
Appointed by the courts to defend Showen, Quatman says there are other gaps in the tale told by Flathead County Attorney Tom Esch, which make her think the prosecution has it wrong. Her main point is that the central witnesses have no credibility. She claims no physical evidence links Showen to the murder-or even the burial.
Showen and Storkson were friends who had planned on sharing a trailer home together in Whitefish, she says-adding that the prosecution has failed to show a clear motive for the crime. She says that despite reports that the boys were doing meth, Storkson tested clean in his autopsy.
Perhaps most important to Showen's case, however, is the reliability of the key witnesses, particularly Daniels, who changed his story time and again in interviews with authorities through April. Daniels has admitted to tampering with evidence, in particular moving the corpse to the trunk and burning bloody clothing. His mother and Levi, meanwhile, have pleaded guilty to lying to law enforcement because of their earlier denials of any knowledge of the crime.
The prosecution's star witness, in fact, is far from naturally charismatic. He's uneasy and inarticulate in court. He stumbles over his words, and doesn't sound like the master conspirator of much of anything. But Quatman asserts that the destruction of evidence and the series of lies shows that the key witnesses for the most part have circled the wagons to protect Daniels and blame the crime on Showen, the proverbial new kid in town, who had been living in California for some time before returning to Montana late last year. "They targeted this kid because he was from out of state, he was 18 and [Detective] Merical thought he was a gang member," says Quatman.
Quatman also takes exception with the oft repeated claim by authorities that methamphetamine played a central role in the case. Although Levi and Daniels both said Storkson did the drug on the night in question, Quatman says that's just one of many untruths that investigators still believe.
|Covered by snow now, law enforcement found C.J. Storkson’s body buried near this spot on the Stillwater State Forest outside of Whitefish.|
Complicating the prosecution's case as well is the fact that none of the witnesses reported the crime to police until more than a week after it took place, when the tip from Diana Daniels' friend Ruth Hammond led investigators to begin asking the family questions.
Daniels, his mother and Levi all denied knowledge of the crime when initially confronted by authorities-but their stories changed. Quatman argues that Diana Daniels and Levi not only failed to go to the cops for 11 days after the murder, but also maintained their ignorance even as police questioned them.
"And surely," she writes in a statement to the court, "if Showen had killed Storkson he would have taken the body to his own house, to change, get a shovel, get latex gloves, destroy his clothing, or seek help from his own family.
"Instead, they brought the body back to Daniels' house, so that Daniels' parents could figure out how to get him out of this mess he had created by killing Storkson. And figure it out they did. Diana and Chad figured out a plan to cover for Daniels. They ordered Showen to bury the body and to get rid of the car and the gun. They told him how and where to do it, even supplying him with latex gloves in the process. They devised a story for the kids to tell the authorities about Storkson going to San Diego because of drug debts. They lied to the police. They destroyed evidence of the blood on Daniels's clothing.
"Only a parent who believed her son had committed murder would go to these lengths to protect him; and only that boy's very closets friends would lie to cover for him." (Emphasis Quatman's.)
But most telling for Quatman are the misdemeanor charges slapped onto Chad Levi and Diana Daniels. "Why were Mario Daniels' parents charged with a ticket? A ticket!" says Quatman. "I'm outraged, as a parent. It's appalling." Still, the two could be sentenced to up to six months in prison.
In Quatman's opinion, Daniels' guilty pleas have precluded him from ever being charged with the murder. Quatman says she figures that's plenty of incentive for Daniels to pass the blame on to Showen. "They don't have any physical evidence to corroborate anything against Showen, but they do against Daniels," she says. "And, so, to ask a jury to convict this 18-year-old kid, and send him away for the rest of his life on the uncorroborated evidence of these guys, is a bit of a stretch."
Prosecutor Tom Esch admits that the police don't get to pick who witnesses a crime. The killer, Esch counters, is the one who decided who would witness the crime. If Daniels was a bad witness, you might think, that made him a good person to bring. More to the point, Esch believes the multiple corroborations the witnesses will provide regarding the hours and days after the shooting will prove that Showen shot Storkson.
Beyond that, Esch declines to articulate the details of his legal strategy. Nor does he reveal what motive, if any, he feels drove Showen to shoot his friend Storkson on a lonely country road in a beautiful valley in the Rocky Mountains.
Despite the Olney murder, Whitefish still isn't the kind of place where you expect teenagers to kill and bury each other. Skiing and hiking are more on people's minds than gangs and crime. Strangers help strangers through the tough winters, and many don't lock their doors.
On a given weeknight, a few hundred of the town's 6,000 or so residents might watch the Bulldogs of Whitefish High School in a basketball game or wrestling meet. The town boasts families full of sports champions, from Olympic Gold Medal skier Tommy Moe to target shooting competitors in the Junior Olympics.
|Olney, a small timber-dependent town down the road about 15 miles from Whitefish, was the home of C.J. Storkson. His family runs a mill there which was damaged by a fire last year.|
Some feel an opportunity for self-examination has been missed, and that the town has dismissed the kids involved as rotten apples. A few go further, saying that many in the happy-faced town have turned their back on the murder and simply pretend the underlying issues of drug use, youth crime and alienation do not exist.
And some take offense at statements made by law officers when the story broke. Detective Roger Bergstrom, for example, told this reporter, then writing for the Whitefish Pilot, that he'd had a lot of "unofficial" contact with Storkson. Meth, said Bergstrom, had a lot to do with this crime. Some who knew the kids, however, say such a characterization of the victim is unfair.
Kaczmarek, already on probation for another crime, has been charged as an adult for felony tampering of evidence, as has Willis, who is free awaiting trial. Kaczmarek had another run-in with the law in June, when he entered a house outside town and called 911 to report that people were chasing him and trying to kill him. The arresting officer's report describes him as "stoned out of his mind." He has pled guilty to trespassing, and that probation violation has landed him back in the Pine Hills Youth Correction Facility.
Daniels has pled guilty to the theft of the gun used in the crime (from his mother's landlord) as well as an additional burglary on Packrat Lane in Whitefish. He's currently being held in Pine Hills.
Showen's trial for deliberate homicide (roughly the same as first degree murder in other states) begins in Kalispell on January 19. If convicted, Showen could get a sentence as short as 10 years and as long as life.
Esch doesn't think the trial will last especially long, and despite the pretrial publicity, he doesn't see a problem finding a jury. "I think we'll be able to get 12 people who can be fair and consider the evidence and make a decision."
As the perpetrators sit in reformatory, jail or await trial, life continues for the victim's family. Citing her concern about pretrial publicity, Storkson's mother Joan declined an interview with the Independent. Shortly after the murder, however, she spoke to local media including the Missoulian and the Whitefish Pilot.
Storkson's murder capped a string of tragedies for the respected and hard-working Olney family. Joan lost her mother and a brother, and both the family house and the family sawmill were damaged by fire in the last two years.
But right after the murder, one of his mother's first concerns was for the defendant's family. "I can't imagine the horror they're going through," she said. One local resident describes the Storksons as self-sacrificing and involved-even after the tragedy-in civic and volunteer activities. "I don't know where she gets her strength," he said. "She has a spine of steel and a heart of gold."
As for Joan Storkson, she expressed her grief in no uncertain terms: "This is not supposed to happen. You're supposed to outlive your kids."