On a recent evening in Billings, Barry Beach sifted through stacks of handwritten notes in his garage. They were bundled and meticulously sorted by era and by which prison he was housed in during his 29 years behind bars.
"Very special stuff in this tub," Beach said. "This here actually holds all the letters that were written to me while I was in the Louisiana jail when I was first arrested."
There were other bins holding other mementos from Beach's life. He still had his childhood baseball mitt and Boy Scout's manual, along with his Little Britches rodeo outfit. In another bin were reams of press clippings that detailed his long legal fight. The clippings were stored alongside a faded copy of a list of Poplar High School's 1979 graduates. "There's Kim's name right—Kim Nees right there," he said, pointing to the yellowed paper. "I keep that as a memorial to her."
It was 30 years ago this month, on May 3, 1983, that prosecutors charged Beach with deliberate homicide for the murder of 17-year-old Nees on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
A jury found Beach guilty. He received 100 years in prison with no chance of parole. However, in an unusual move, a district court judge in 2011 freed Beach after reviewing new evidence that could alter the verdict if presented to a jury during a new trial. The evidence hinged on an alternative theory that a group of young women killed Nees.
The Montana Attorney General's Office appealed the district court's decision.
For the past year and a half, Beach has been out of jail and a productive member of society. He had a full-time job. He made regular public speaking appearances. He talked about wanting to buy a house. He wanted to travel, although the terms of his release mandated that he get advanced permission before leaving Montana. He knew there was a looming uncertainty that the Montana Supreme Court, at any time, could either send him back to prison or uphold the district court's decision to grant him a new trial.
On May 14, he received the news. He was likely heading back to prison.
"I don't understand," he said to a reporter who delivered the information. There was a long pause. "I need to make a few phone calls."
Peter Camiel, Beach's attorney, learned of the Montana Supreme Court's 4-3 decision just after leaving a court appearance in Washington state. When the Independent contacted him on his cellphone, he was rushing back to his office to digest the court's 93-page document and identify what it will mean for his client. His initial reaction was that Beach would be remanded into custody to continue serving out his 100-year sentence.
"I think that probably the Attorney General's Office will seek an order or a warrant to have him remanded into custody," Camiel said. "It could be right away."
Camiel said that he and his colleagues will regroup this week to evaluate their next course of action, potentially appealing the Montana Supreme Court's decision in the federal judicial system. "We have to go through our options," he said.
The State Supreme Court's decision sides with the Montana Attorney General's Office in its appeal of the 2011 district court order for a new trial. The state's highest court opined that Beach's new evidence "was not reliable" and that the lower court erred when it allowed Beach to go free. Specifically, the decision noted that key evidence contradicted the theory that a group of women killed Nees and that her injuries were consistent with those of a single attacker.
Justices Jim Rice, Beth Baker, Laurie McKinnon and District Court Judge Richard Simonton, who sat in place of Chief Justice Mike McGrath, voted with the majority. (McGrath recused himself because during his tenure as Attorney General his office prosecuted Beach).
"Beach's new evidence—in the form of testimony that is primarily hearsay, internally inconsistent, and inconsistent with evidence presented at Beach's 1984 trial—does not reliably displace the evidence tested at Beach's trial, including his confession," Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice wrote for the majority.
Justice Brian Morris wrote the Supreme Court's dissent, with Justices Patricia Cotter and Michael Wheat concurring. They argued that the district court is better positioned than they are to determine the credibility of Beach's new evidence.
Morris struck a bittersweet tone when noting that Beach would not be granted a new trial. "This ruling marks what will likely be the final chapter in the saga of Barry Beach," he wrote. "We oversee a criminal justice system that seeks to resolve a defendant's guilt through processes created and administered by humans. Humans, by nature, are fallible and the processes that humans create share this same fallibility."
Morris went on to quote a 1953 precedent in his conclusion: "We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final."
The mood among Beach's scattered supporters on May 14 was in stark contrast to that of Dec. 7, 2011, when Beach walked out of the Fergus County Courthouse to a cheering crowd and reporters from Montana, Germany and Canada. Back then, cameras flashed and Beach gave interviews. His family and friends hugged him. Signs at a reception held for him a few blocks from the courthouse welcomed him home.
"I was so overwhelmed," Beach said.
Too busy to eat at the reception, Beach's first meal was a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese, fries and a strawberry milkshake.
Once out of prison, Beach set off on a whirlwind of activity. He attended rodeos, plays and sporting events, and visited with family that he hadn't embraced for decades. Last July, he caught his first Montana trout on a fly rod on the Boulder River. On his 51st birthday in February, Beach went skiing for the first time. He mostly stuck to the bunny hill.
During Beach's initial days of freedom, even pumping gas was an adventure. "You assume that the button says, 'Start,'" he said. "I stood there for over 30 minutes before I figured out that it was the little yellow grade button."
Beach wasn't allowed to leave the state without permission, but he notes that Montana is big enough to allow for substantial road trips. "I will actually travel quite a distance just for ice cream," he said. On a whim, Beach would drive the nearly 30 miles from Billings to Rockvale to a fast-food restaurant that offers dozens of ice cream flavors, including pineapple. He went to Roundup one day for a root beer float, chili dog and tater tots. The license plate on his blue 1996 Ford Ranger reads, "BBFree."
When he wasn't driving for ice cream, Beach kept a busy schedule. His phone constantly rang with calls from friends, family and supporters who kept in regular contact. He had a good job, working as the chief engineer at Billings' Clock Tower Inn, and he maintained a good sense of humor about his situation. "I come from a different style of mass housing," Beach quipped. "The guests where I come from aren't so picky."
Beach also accepted invitations to talk about what had happened to him. He rattled off a list of all of the public speaking engagements, including four high schools, two elementary schools, 15 churches, seven colleges, the Montana Wyoming Leaders Council, the Kiwanis Club and the Elks Club.
His talks varied depending on the audience. When addressing kids, Beach focused on how his lifestyle as a young man left him a prime target for law enforcement. Before his arrest for Nees' murder, Beach had exhibited a pattern of unruly and unlawful behavior. "I was a thief, a drug addict, a drug dealer, a liar, a cheater, you know? I was everything dysfunctional about society that you can possibly be," he said. "But I wasn't a murderer."
When addressing crowds on behalf of the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries, Beach talked about the importance of supporting such groups. If not for Centurion Ministries, it's doubtful Beach would have been released from prison in 2011.
Beach's public appearances and ongoing media attention have brought fame. He said that waitresses and gas station attendants often recognize him. He bristled, however, when asked if his celebrity status was a boon to his social life. He was aware that a stigma lingered. Dating, for instance, was tough. He said that because women in Billings largely steer clear of him, he hadn't been on a real date since his release.
"I don't know about famous," he said. "I'm still fighting for my life."
Beach's biggest problem remains the fact that in 1983 he confessed to the crime. Weeks after admitting to the murder, Beach said that he "broke weak" on the heels of a seven-hour law enforcement interrogation. Beach, who was 21 at the time, said detectives threatened him with the electric chair. He was willing to say anything to make the questions stop.
Even without Beach's disputed confession, the case constitutes a classic who-done-it. There's the bloody palm print on the truck Nees was driving the night of her death that has never been identified, a pubic hair that the prosecutor erroneously told the jury belonged to Beach during the initial trial, and missing evidence—including the sweater Nees wore the night she was killed, an audio recording of Beach's admission and the suspected murder weapons, a tire iron and a 12-inch chrome crescent wrench.
June 15, 1979, was a warm and dry day in Poplar. It was the Friday before the town's Wild West Days, filled with rodeo events and raucous parties. Nees had graduated from Poplar High School just two weeks earlier as valedictorian of her class. Her 18th birthday was less than two months away.
Nees was a sturdy and athletic girl. She was on the school track team and hauled hay bales effortlessly. The day before her death, she went to a drive-in movie with her boyfriend. They got into a fight. Unwilling to stew at home, she took her dad's pickup truck for a drive.
It was sometime after midnight, prosecutors say, that Nees met Beach at the Exxon station in Poplar. Beach said in what his family refers to as his "so-called" confession that he had been drinking in the sun that day, took a nap and then woke up after dark to go for a walk.
According to Beach's recanted confession, he asked Nees if he could ride around town with her. Cruising was a popular pastime in the rural community. She agreed. They drove to the "train bridge," a gathering spot for teenagers on the banks of the Poplar River. They parked, talked and smoked a joint.
Beach tried to kiss Nees, he told detectives in 1983. She turned him down. He became enraged. A heated verbal exchange ensued. "I started asking her questions about why girls around here don't like me," Beach said in the confession. "She said it was because I was a—because I was an asshole."
A scuffle ensued, according to the confession. He hit her with his fist and then picked up a 12-inch chrome crescent wrench off the truck's floor. He hit Nees in the head. "I was going to kill her," Beach told police, "calling her a bitch and cussing her."
Nees lay motionless in the sand. Beach checked her pulse. It was weak. Beach said in the confession that he threw the crescent wrench and another murder weapon, a tire iron, into the river. He then found a plastic bag in the truck and used it to haul Nees' body to the water and pushed her in.
Beach told law enforcement that he burned his clothes in a Burlington Northern boxcar and ran home in his underwear, shoes and socks.
"I went in my bedroom and shut the door and I started thinking about it and telling myself, 'I didn't do it,'" Beach said in the confession. "And I finally went to sleep. And then I went—I woke up a couple of hours later and I went down and my mother was cooking eggs and bacon and she asked me if I was hungry. And I said, 'Yeah.' And she asked me where I had been all night and I told her I had been upstairs in my bed asleep. She said, 'Oh, I was wondering where you had been. I been looking for you.'"
Sissy Atkinson had been drinking at Poplar's Bum Steer Bar the night Kim Nees was killed. The bar's owner, Roberta Louise Ryan, called "Bobby," testified later that the Bum Steer was busy that night until closing time. Ryan recalled that Atkinson had been in and out of the bar into the early morning hours of June 16, sneaking alcohol to her underage friends, Maude Greyhawk, Jordis Ferguson and two sisters, Joanne and Roberta Jackson.
Atkinson had a baby at home. The child's father, Alex Joseph Trottier Jr., had also dated Kim Nees. Beach's legal team believes that Atkinson was the ringleader behind Nees' attack. They say jealousy was the motive.
Ryan testified that the young women seemed energized as they came and went through her bar. She noticed the girls because they were underage and kicked them out.
When investigators arrived at the crime scene on the morning of June 16, there was a blood spot about 10 feet to the right of the truck. Nees' bloody purse and sweater lay on the ground outside the passenger side of the vehicle. Officers followed a trail littered with pieces of hair and spots of blood to the river where they found Nees lying in about two feet of water.
In Nees' truck, there was blood spatter on the ceiling and the driver's side rear window. There was blood and urine on the truck's seat and three gouge marks on the ceiling with hair hanging out of them.
The Roosevelt County Sheriff, FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fort Peck Tribal Police and Poplar City Police investigated the crime. According to a 1979 autopsy, Nees sustained injuries to the head and neck and defensive wounds on her hands. Her attacker, or attackers, struck Nees more than 30 times, causing extensive skull fractures and brain bleeding. A forensic pathologist believed that Nees could not have lived longer than 30 minutes after receiving the head injuries.
For the last 18 months, Beach says he would read his Bible every morning inside his Billings home. He'd sit next to his living room window, under a buffalo head that's mounted on the wall. Beach said he's always believed in God. While in prison, his faith strengthened.
"I really believed that they were going to end up executing me and that my life was going to end in the electric chair," he said. "And so I just wanted to know that there really is a spirit world ... I just wanted to know, so that when they pushed that button on me and that electricity raced through my body, I'd be able to smile because I'd know."
While in prison, Beach took Bible classes through the mail, creating his own hybrid of Christianity and Native American traditions. Beach said his evolving belief system helped him fend off depression. In the early days of his imprisonment, he prayed that God would end his life. He contemplated suicide. "Because you just can't do another day of it," he said. He eventually figured that his death would only concede victory to the state.
"I would never give the state of Montana that satisfaction," Beach said. "I was never going to let them win."
He learned to channel his emotions and energy. Beach got a job in the prison maintenance department. He took classes and honed his skills in construction, electrical wiring and computer basics. During Beach's nearly three decades in prison, he earned 64 certificates of achievement for his educational accomplishments.
Beach appeared destined to never leave prison until Centurion Ministries picked up his case in 1999. The New Jersey-based nonprofit, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted, was struck by its initial findings. "We felt that Barry demonstrated in his confession a complete ignorance of the crime and how it happened," said Jim McCloskey, Centurion's founder and executive director. "So we were very, very skeptical of that confession."
McCloskey estimated that he and his staff have made at least 100 trips to Montana since taking on Beach's case. While Nees hasn't been ruled out as the person who left the bloody palm print, FBI scientists say that it doesn't belong to Beach. Furthermore, Centurion investigators have discovered multiple people who say that Atkinson and Greyhawk admitted to harming Nees.
Maude Greyhawk's sister-in-law, Judy Greyhawk, testified during Beach's 2011 evidentiary hearing that Maude admitted to luring Nees to the river and kicking her. Another witness, Janice White Eagle-Johnson, said that Greyhawk admitted to her that her car was present at the crime scene.
One of Sissy Atkinson's former coworkers, Carl Four Star Jr., testified that he overheard Atkinson say that law enforcement "Got the wrong man." Four Star said that Atkinson admitted to beating Nees with a few other women. He added that Atkinson bragged that the women, "'Got away with the perfect crime.'"
A fourth witness, Richard Holan, testified during Beach's evidentiary hearing that he noticed Nees' truck early on June 16. Inside the vehicle, he saw silhouettes of five people, including who he believed to be Nees and an unidentified male. He testified that he saw two vehicles in the train bridge area that night.
Holan told the court that a few days after the crime he reported what he saw to Poplar Police Officer Steve Greyhawk, but Holan said nothing came of it. Bobby Atkinson, Sissy's brother, was the Poplar Police Chief at that time. Steve Greyhawk is Maude's father.
On June 17, before the Poplar Police sent evidence collected at the Nees crime scene to the county sheriff, Steve Greyhawk admitted to breaching an area that had been locked temporarily to keep the evidence safe. Greyhawk said that he kicked the door down because he had to use the restroom.
Beach's legal team also notes that during the opening statements of Beach's trial, Marc Racicot, the prosecutor from the Montana Attorney General's Office, said that a forensic scientist from the State Crime Lab would present the jury with a pubic hair found at the crime scene. Racicot specifically told the jury that the scientist "will tell you ... that this hair located on the sweater of Kim Nees was in fact the defendant's."
That hair was never proven to be Beach's. Nor was it introduced in court, because Steve Greyhawk breached the evidence room. Beach's attorney, Peter Camiel, believes that Racicot's comments about the hair still influenced the verdict.
"You can't get that out of the jury's mind," he said.
McCloskey acknowledged that it may seem odd for Beach to confess to a crime he didn't commit. McCloskey once believed it was odd himself. But after years of working with the wrongly convicted, he knows better.
McCloskey said roughly 20 percent of the 51 exonerated Centurion clients admitted to a crime that they did not commit. Of the 300 DNA-based exonerations across the U.S. to date, roughly 25 percent of them made incriminating statements, pleaded guilty or falsely confessed.
"I've come to understand that we human beings are a malleable species, we're not as strong as we think we are," McCloskey said. "Until you're faced with that situation—being alone in a room, being browbeaten by authoritative police officers one after the other, hour after hour after hour, they wear you down. They scare you to death. It's a very coercive environment. You will do anything to get out of that room ... They get psychologically and emotionally and physically worn to the nub."
In 2007, during Beach's three-day clemency hearing before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, the prosecutor, Racicot, conceded that the crime investigation was "a mess." Despite the mistakes, he also said that he remained convinced that Beach killed Nees.
The detectives that secured Beach's confession also continued to stand by their work. They testified during the clemency hearing that prior to his admission, Beach "was allowed snacks, drinks, cigarettes, and bathroom breaks."
Louisiana detective Alfred Calhoun denied threatening Beach with the electric chair, as Beach alleged. Calhoun said that Beach's confession came willingly and was bolstered by its emotional nature. Beach told detectives that he had a tendency to "fly off the handle" and dealt with frustration in a "physical way."
Law enforcement and prosecutors persuaded the parole board to discount Beach's claims. According to the board, "the facts simply did not unfurl as they were alleged and characterized in the Centurion Ministries claims. The multiple eyewitnesses, the allegations of physical evidence of the 'real killers' being ignored by law enforcement—either crooked or inept—did not materialize. We have great sympathy for those who read only the Centurion Ministries allegations and became alarmed, because that was our experience; but those allegations were not demonstrated as true even with the very wide latitude afforded Centurion Ministries—the facts simply have not been demonstrated to be as representatives for Mr. Beach have alleged. Mr. Beach's culpability has been contested vigorously and eloquently, but we have found that contest to be lacking in substance."
Despite the parole board's findings, Roosevelt County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips found Beach's arguments persuasive during the 2011 hearing to vet whether Beach's legal team had in fact discovered new evidence. The judge specifically noted in his opinion that Steffanie Eagle Boy was among the most compelling witnesses to testify. Eagle Boy wept on the stand in front of the crowded courtroom as she recalled being 10 years old and hearing the screams of enraged women early in the morning of June 16, 1979.
Eagle Boy lived on a bluff above the Poplar River that overlooks the area where Nees was killed. She testified that on the night that Nees died, she and a cousin were sitting on a rock on the edge of the bluff when they saw two vehicles enter the train bridge area. She told the court that she heard girls yelling, "'Get her,'" and, "'Get the bitch, kick the bitch.'"
Eagle Boy added that a police car with lights joined the two vehicles parked at the train bridge area. She said the police car shut off its lights and she heard digging sounds and the clinking of tools. Eagle Boy said in court that the girls' voices were, "High pitched, angry... It's something I'll never forget. I've had nightmares all my life about it. It's something I won't forget."
The state dismissed Eagle Boy's testimony, arguing that it was highly unlikely she could have heard the girls yelling from her perch on the bluff. But shortly after Beach's evidentiary hearing, Fort Peck Journal reporter Louis Montclair decided to conduct an experiment. He gathered several female friends at the train bridge and cued them to recreate the sounds that a group of angry women would have made. He asked them to yell, "Kill the bitch."
"We got the cops called on us twice," Montclair recalled.
That experiment proved to Montclair that Eagle Boy could have heard Nees' murder from the bluff.
The Montana Supreme Court's ruling, however, essentially discounted Eagle Boy's version and the others who testified at the 2011 evidentiary hearing.
Before Beach heard the news of the Supreme Court decision, he talked about being happy. His tidy home on a quiet, tree-lined street offered plenty of room to do woodworking in the garage. In the workshop, he built a squirrel feeder that hanged outside his house. A sickly squirrel that Beach called "Charlie" lived on his back porch. Beach fed it by hand. He referred to his four fish in a small tank in the living room as his "kids." A cottontail rabbit that Beach called "Baby Girl" sometimes accompanied him as he roasted s'mores under the moonlight in a backyard fire pit.
Beach admitted that he does get angry when he thinks about the resources the state has committed to preserving his conviction. But a few weeks ago, as he continued to wait for the Supreme Court's ruling, he said the emotion quickly passes.
"Am I going to give them the satisfaction of sitting here and worrying about what they may do?" he asked. "No. Absolutely not. Life is as simple as ice cream and I'm here to try every flavor there is. When they come down with their ruling, I'll deal with whatever comes my way at that time. Today I'm free."