Unsettling priorities 

When does vandalism trump rape?

In a strange twist of justice, 18-year-old Bigfork resident Patrick Larson has already faced a more severe punishment for allegedly acting as an accomplice in the destruction of property than for his admitted rape of a 15-year-old girl in November 2003. While Larson spent no time in jail for that Lake County rape, he has already spent approximately three weeks in Flathead County Detention Center on the new charge, says Deputy Flathead County Attorney Dan Guzynski. Larson was arraigned in Judge Stewart Stadler’s Flathead County District Court on Thursday, Oct. 14, where he pleaded not guilty to one charge of accountability to criminal mischief. A trial has been scheduled for March 14, 2005; Guzynski will argue that Larson drove a vehicle while three other youths, ages 19, 18 and 16, fired slingshots at the windows of cars and buildings around Kalispell.

On the stand for questioning, Larson told the court that he had instructed the others in the vehicle to “knock it off” and that he didn’t have a slingshot himself.

Guzynski also asked Larson about his admission of guilt to sexual intercourse without consent in August, and referred to the case’s eventual resolution in youth court as “a tremendous opportunity” for Larson.

In that prior case, Larson admitted to having sex with 15-year-old Brianna Torres-Moore, who, under Montana law, is not old enough to give consent.

According to police records, Larson supplied Torres-Moore with multiple beers, and Torres-Moore, who was unaccustomed to alcohol, became extremely disoriented.

Because the rape occurred at a party located at a home in Lake County, the case went to Lake County Attorney Robert Long, but Long refused to prosecute Larson, claiming that a law passed by the 2003 Legislature was unfair; that law states that 17-year-olds (Larson was 17 at the time of the rape) charged with serious crimes including rape must be tried in district court unless there is a compelling community interest not to do so.

The parents of the victim, Michael and Bridget Michlig, contend that it is not Long’s responsibility to decide whether state laws are fair or unfair, but merely to prosecute according to the law on the books.

When Long wouldn’t prosecute, Montana Assistant Attorney General Barbara Harris took up the case, which was ultimately sent back to youth court, where Larson signed a consent decree, including a contract governing behavior, under which Larson avoided imprisonment by agreeing to several terms and conditions, including payment to Torres-Moore of $2,665 in restitution and a promise to remain a law-abiding citizen. If Larson is found guilty of the criminal mischief charge, that could constitute violation of the consent decree, Harris says.

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, Lake County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Barbara Monaco told the Independent and the Michligs that she intends to file a report of violation of the consent decree in light of the new charges against Larson. Once that filing is made, it will be up to Harris to decide what, if any, punitive measures might be pursued. In her Polson office, Monaco inquired as to the status of the Michligs’ daugher after giving the parents their first restitution check for $120.

“How’s she doing?” Monaco asked.

“Not good,” Bridget Michlig replied. “She’s not happy that her rape is on the layaway plan.”

Both Michael and Bridget Michlig are angered by Long’s refusal to prosecute what they considered a “slam dunk” case. Earlier this year, the Michligs held a demonstration outside the Lake County Courthouse in which Brianna held a picket sign that read, “Bob Long did me wrong.” So tension was not unexpected when the Michligs met with Long Oct. 5, right after their meeting with probation officer Monaco.

“There’s no back door,” a receptionist told the Michligs as they waited outside Long’s office for an opportunity to see the prosecutor.

“Does he have bedsheets?” Michael joked.

In a meeting that lasted less than three minutes, the Michligs asked Long about the new Flathead County charges, and Long informed them that any further decision in regards to Larson’s consent decree would be handled by Barbara Harris.

“Where is your daughter now?” Long asked.

“Living with her [birth] father,” Michael responded.

“Why?”

“Private reasons.”

“If you’ve got private reasons, I’ve got private reasons,” Long told the parents. “We’re done.”

Brianna has since returned home to her Bigfork family on Saturday, Oct. 16.

“There’s a lot of buck-passing going on, but we will get justice,” Michael said outside of the courthouse.

Bridget, who also was raped as a young woman, believes that the judicial system has not progressed as much as she might have hoped since that time.

“There are still a lot of people who are very willing to lay part of the blame on the victim,” she said, pointing a finger straight at Long, who she says viewed her daughter’s rape as nothing more than “sex amongst teenagers” from the very beginning.

The next stage in the ongoing saga will begin on March 14, 2005, when Larson will face trial on the new Flathead charges.

“It’s not automatically a violation of the consent decree,” Assistant Attorney General Harris says. “It will be initially considered by Barb Monaco’s office and then potentially presented to me.”

Although Monaco told the Independent and the Michligs that she would file a report of the alleged violation on Oct. 5, Harris says she has yet to receive such a filing.

Larson cannot face new charges for Brianna’s rape due to protections against double jeopardy. After the Oct. 14 arraignment, Larson was released upon his own recognizance and placed under house arrest, meaning that when he’s not at work, he must be at his home. The new charge carries with it a maximum of 10 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. While it’s unlikely that such a steep sentence would be imposed, Guzynski made it clear at the arraignment that Larson’s criminal history will be brought up at trial, which could contribute to a more severe sentence than those typically found in vandalism cases.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, however, it’s unlikely to satisfy the Michlegs.

“He’s already spent more time in jail for [allegedly acting as an accomplice to] breaking windows than for raping our daughter,” Michael says. “Where’s the justice in that?”

mike@missoulanews.com

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