Updated: Oct. 20, 6 p.m.
Nearly five months after he stabbed Wade Allen Rautio to death in the woods east of Creston, Robert Matthew Wittal was convicted of deliberate homicide on Thursday in Flathead County District Court.
A 12-person jury deliberated for just under four hours in Kalispell following a four-day trial to determine the fate of the prime suspect in the drug-related murder case.
At 3:08 p.m., the jury handed its verdict to the court clerk, who read it aloud inside the crowded courtroom. Wittal, wearing a white collared shirt and black tie, dropped his head and began to cry as his mother sobbed two rows behind him. On the other side of the courtroom aisle, members of Rautio’s family embraced one another with strong emotions.
Flathead County deputies took Wittal into custody, where he will remain until sentencing on Jan. 17, 2017. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
After the verdict was announced, Deputy Flathead County Attorney Andrew Clegg offered a stern response.
“We still have three more co-defendants,” he said. “We’re not done yet.”
Defense Attorney Steven Scott declined to comment.
Wittal, 29, was one of four people arrested in June after Rautio’s body was discovered in a creek up Peters Ridge near Creston. The three co-defendants — David Vincent Toman, 21, Christopher Michael Hansen, 28, and Melisa Ann Crone, 29 — have been charged with accountability to deliberate homicide. Prosecutors say the three co-defendants helped Wittal plan and execute the May 26 murder.
Over the course of the four-day trial, Clegg and fellow deputy county attorney John Donovan presented evidence showing Wittal held a vendetta against Rautio because the victim had stolen from both him and Crone, who was dealing drugs from her home in Evergreen. Prosecutors said Wittal was an enforcer who went by the nickname “Ghost.”
Rautio had been living with Crone and Hansen in late May in what prosecutors called a “flop house” on South Cedar Drive where drug users would frequently come and go. Crone became angry with Rautio because he had been stealing items, and she kicked him out of the house on the night of May 25, a plan she shared with Wittal, according to prosecutors.
Just three days before the murder, Wittal wrote on Facebook, “I’m going to kill the next person that [expletive] with me.”
Multiple witnesses testified that they heard Wittal talk about wanting to hurt Rautio in the days before the murder.
“(When) he gets kicked out I can stab him,” Wittal texted Crone just hours before the murder.
Christina O’Lexey, Wittal’s girlfriend at the time of the killing, testified that Wittal had threatened Rautio the day before he was killed.
Sometime between 3-7 a.m. on May 26, Wittal, Hansen, Toman and Rautio left Crone’s Evergreen home and drove roughly six miles up Peters Ridge in the mountains east of Creston. After their vehicle parked near Brown Creek, Wittal told Rautio to get on his knees and empty his pockets. Rautio fled and Wittal chased after him with a large hunting knife inscribed with “Peace Be With You.” Rautio fell and Wittal began to slash and stab him, prosecutors said. At one point, Wittal dropped the hunting knife in the creek and Hansen handed him a smaller knife, which was also used to stab Rautio.
All together, Rautio was stabbed 25 times, according to an autopsy conducted by the Montana State Crime Lab, including eight times in the back and once in the head. One of the slashes occurred in the jugular in what Clegg described as an “immediately lethal wound.”
Rautio’s body was left under a log in the creek, and Wittal, Toman and Hansen returned to Crone’s home.
Nearly three weeks later, Toman reported the murder to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and led officers to the body. Wittal, Toman, Crone and Hansen were all placed under arrest within days.
When questioned by sheriff’s deputies, Wittal described Rautio as a “low-level street junkie” who would do anything to get methamphetamine.
Prosecutors presented evidence showing that Wittal and the others were heavily involved in the area’s drug trade. Crone was a mid-level drug dealer in the Kalispell area and Wittal described himself as one of her “enforcers,” according to court records.
“Rob Wittal said Wade Rautio was a ‘low-level street junkie’ but that’s not true,” Clegg said during his closing statement. “Wade Rautio was a human being who did not deserve to die, and that’s why you the jury must convict Rob Wittal of deliberate homicide.”
Scott, Wittal’s defense attorney, questioned the prosecution’s evidence and validity of testimony from Crone, Toman and Hansen, all three of whom pinned the murder on Wittal. On numerous occasions during the trial, Scott pointed out that there was no physical evidence connecting Wittal to the murder. Neither knife contained any DNA or fingerprints. The large hunting knife was found in the creek approximately 18 days after the murder and the smaller knife, discovered at Hansen’s workplace, had been cleaned with dish soap.
Due to the lack of physical evidence, Scott sought to have the case dismissed after prosecutors rested their case, calling it a “miscarriage of justice.” Allison denied the request.
Wittal’s phone ended up playing a key role in the prosecution as county attorneys presented evidence showing the device was at the scene of the crime between the hours of 3:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. on May 26. Scott countered that the other defendants had used Wittal’s phone in the days before and after the murder.
“The state’s case boils down to the testimony of a bunch of druggies,” Scott said.
On Oct. 19, Wittal took the stand in his own defense and claimed his co-defendants framed him. Wittal said he had even warned Rautio that people were out to get him in the days before he was killed.
“I told him to get out of town, that they were going to hurt him if he didn’t,” Wittal said as he started to break down and cry on the stand. “He didn’t deserve what they did to him.”
But that theory unraveled during cross-examination, when Clegg questioned the sincerity of Wittal’s tears, noting that when detectives first questioned him about Rautio’s murder, Wittal said, “I didn’t know him enough to be in tears.” And many of the details Wittal presented were never disclosed to law enforcement during the initial investigation, Clegg said.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence was a confiscated jailhouse letter that Wittal had tried to send to his fiancé a few weeks after he was arrested. In it, Wittal outlined the story he was going to tell his attorney and ordered his fiancé to distribute copies of it to other family members.
“It is very, very important that you remember all this so that we are on the same page at trial,” Wittal wrote. “Do this for me and I’ll give you the world.”