No redemption 

Montana Supreme Court denies Barry Beach's latest chance to prove his innocence

Page 2 of 4

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."

click to enlarge Longtime Beach supporters Stella and James “Ziggy” Ziegler in Billings. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Longtime Beach supporters Stella and James “Ziggy” Ziegler in Billings.

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.

click to enlarge Beach has kept the hundreds of letters he’s received from supporters in plastic bins in his garage. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Beach has kept the hundreds of letters he’s received from supporters in plastic bins in his garage.

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.

click to enlarge The crime scene from Kim Nees’ 1979 murder on the banks of the Poplar River.
  • The crime scene from Kim Nees’ 1979 murder on the banks of the Poplar River.

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.

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