Not the usual suspect 

Detention officer nabbed for attempted robbery

Missoula’s well-publicized spate of recent casino robberies, in addition to generating headlines, also spawned increased police surveillance of local gaming houses. That extra attention, in turn, dredged up an unexpected result in the early morning of Friday, March 31, when undercover Missoula police officers netted a Missoula County Detention Center officer apparently preparing to rob the Lucky Lil’s casino at 3109 Brooks. What officers probably didn’t suspect at the time is how complex their seemingly simple arrest was about to become, or how unresolved its status would remain even now.

According to a warrant later prepared on Saturday, April 1, for the suspect’s arrest—but as of Tuesday, April 4, unserved—Missoula police officers eyeballing local casinos in an unmarked car spotted Joshua A.J. White at about 4 a.m. as they drove southbound on Brooks Street. According to court documents, White was dressed in camouflage fatigues and wearing what looked like a turban on his head. The officers circled back again with their headlights off to take a closer look and saw White moving nervously and suspiciously toward Lucky Lil’s. When they got out of the car and approached him, they noticed he was Caucasian, and that his hands and face were painted black.

White had a fully loaded .38 caliber pistol and another 26 rounds of .38 caliber ammunition in a pack. He was also carrying a lock-blade knife, a wrench, a screwdriver, a flashlight and the black ski mask that, bunched on top of his head, had first looked like a turban.

When they asked him what he was doing, he said he was looking for his car, which wasn’t there and never turned up.

So the officers arrested White for carrying a concealed weapon and transported him to the Missoula County Detention Center.

That appears to be where White’s trajectory intercepted that of his employer, Sheriff Mike McMeekin.

McMeekin declined to comment on the case, referring questions to Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.

Van Valkenburg confirms that White was effectively “unarrested” at the Detention Center and subsequently hospitalized—a decision Van Valkenburg says was predicated on an unspecified issue or issues related to White’s health. The call, Van Valkenburg says, was made by McMeekin in conjunction with the county attorney himself and Missoula police. No doctor, according to Van Valkenburg, was consulted.

The next day, Saturday, April 1, an arrest warrant for White alleging attempted robbery was signed by Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech, even though prosecutors and law enforcement officers had already taken White into custody and technically released him.

Van Valkenburg says White is not considered a suspect in any other Missoula casino robberies.

As of Tuesday, April 4, White had been charged with attempted robbery, a felony, and had a warrant filed for his arrest. He had not been brought before a judge, he had not been incarcerated, and he had not paid his assigned $50,000 bail. Still, and despite having been apprehended, he remained effectively at large.

The aggregate scenario, several surveyed lawyers agree, is highly unusual.

White apparently remains under medical care for undisclosed reasons at an undisclosed location.

The status of his case, Van Valkenburg says, hinges on decisions yet to be made about the state of White’s health. In the meantime, White remains voluntarily under hospital care; the state, aside from the threat of the so-far unserved arrest warrant, cannot compel him to remain there.

•••

It’s an election year, and Sheriff Mike McMeekin faces motivated challengers in the primary and general elections. People close to his department have suggested that the unorthodox prosecutorial approach to White’s case amounts to McMeekin’s attempt to avoid election-year newspaper stories about Sheriff’s Department employees attempting armed robbery of local casinos. If that’s the case, the strategy failed when the Missoulian broke the news Wednesday.

Van Valkenburg suggests that any insinuation of special treatment due to White’s position as a Sheriff’s employee is entirely unwarranted.

The fact remains that Joshua White, even disregarding his current health and employment status, is a man with a recent history that almost begs for special treatment of some sort or another.

Accused robber Joshua A.J. White is the same Josh White whose family tragedy was recently the subject of a sympathetic Missoulian profile by Tristan Scott, who first reported White’s story in late January.

White was a 22-year-old Marine when he returned from Iraq last summer. He and his wife Laurie became pregnant and White took a job at the County Detention Center in October. In November, the Whites attended a Marine birthday ball in Red Lodge, where a pool heating system leak poisoned more than 40 attendees with carbon monoxide.

Laurie White gave birth to the couple’s son Carson Dec. 10, four months prematurely, at 1 pound 9 ounces—a circumstance doctors attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Scott’s article went on to detail the young family’s daunting prospects, including the likelihood that Carson would continue to face severe health challenges, and the fact that Josh White, still new on the job, had no health insurance from the county to help cover the mounting medical bills for long hospital stays and multiple surgeries.

At the time, White told the Missoulian he was grateful for his “life-changing” military experience, and that being a Marine had taught him patience and discipline. He expected to need them.

On Feb. 1, 2006, Carson Aley James White died in his parents’ arms at Community Medical Center.

Attempts to contact Josh White’s parents have been unsuccessful. No attempt has been made to contact Laurie White. Josh White’s location is unconfirmed, and by standard hospital policy he is unavailable to press inquiries.

With what’s currently known, it would be as irresponsible as it is irresistible to speculate about what Josh White thought he was doing Friday morning sneaking around Lucky Lil’s casino with a gun. And there’s far too little evidence to ascribe a sure motive, nefarious or kindhearted, to county and city law enforcement personnel who agreed to spirit White away to his present perch on the periphery of standard legal protocol.

What does seem sure is that Josh White is not your average casino burglar. And that there will be much more to his story, as it makes its way into light, than a foiled attempt at robbery.

btyer@missoulanews.com

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