FERNDALE – On New Year’s Day, bleary-eyed locals filed into the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse on state Highway 83. They ordered chili fries, smoked and nursed hangovers, reflecting on the previous night’s escapades. But in some corners of the bar, discussion turned to one of their neighbors, Clyde Wilson, 24, found dead in his small cabin on Meadow Creek Road early on the morning of Dec. 31.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Department had not yet declared Wilson’s death a homicide – as it would do the following day. But based on the aggressive investigation underway by police at that point, it seemed unlikely Wilson’s death would be ruled a suicide or accident.
In this intimate community, tucked into the northern edge of the Swan Valley, Wilson’s death raised questions. Friends and neighbors of Wilson – who asked not to be identified – characterized him as a hard-working, good-natured young man who lived with his girlfriend and their baby girl. A roofer and a carpenter, they said, Wilson did what he could to get by, and didn’t have much money. A man who said he knew Wilson well, believed Wilson would have told him if he thought his life was in danger.
“He didn’t have no enemies,” the man said.
Lake County authorities have been extremely tight-lipped about the case, as of this writing, and have released only the bare elements of the incident. On Tuesday, Sheriff Lucky Larson issued a release stating Wilson was the victim of multiple gunshot wounds, and that robbery was not a motive in his death. Evidence taken from the scene is being processed at the state crime lab in Missoula, the statement said, and the FBI has been contacted to help examine some specific evidence from the scene. The case currently has several persons of interest in connection with the death.
Wilson’s murder marks Northwest Montana’s fourth violent death in a three-week span. Police pull up short of calling the string of fatalities a trend, but also acknowledge that they’ve had their hands full with high-profile crimes recently.
Charles Smith of Hungry Horse recently pleaded not guilty to fatally shooting his wife in a Dec. 9 incident that authorities said began with drinking and a domestic disturbance, then escalated. The victim was shot four times. In Libby, a woman allegedly shot her husband twice Dec. 28, before turning the gun on herself. Authorities said they do not expect many surprises when the results come back from the state crime lab. And two suspicious deaths in Marion and Columbia Falls, later ruled accidents, have kept investigators busy.
Flathead County Detective Commander Jeanne Landis doesn’t consider December’s fatalities a trend, and notes that the department had two homicides last year, which is normal. But she has noticed an uptick in violence lately across a number of crime categories.
“To have them all within the same timeframe is unusual, but it happens,” Landis said. “It does seem like the violence has escalated in a number of things.”
Domestic disputes have been more likely to result in a significant injury lately, Landis said, while break-ins and thefts are resulting in greater property damage. Assaults are increasing as well, and few of these crimes are misdemeanors.
“We have an influx of felony cases,” Landis said, adding that Flathead County’s six detectives reviewed or worked on roughly 650 cases last year. “Each detective is carrying a significant caseload.”
Sitting around the bar, some Ferndale locals said crimes increase slightly around this time every year. Dark, cold weather has people drinking more, staying inside and getting cabin fever – sometimes leading to arguments that end badly.
Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan agrees that the weather plays a role in crime at this time of year.
“I think without a doubt, that is a factor,” Meehan said. “People are more depressed during the holiday season and you always have alcohol as a factor.”
Domestic violence is reported more frequently now, Meehan said, and in cases like the shooting death in Hungry Horse, the tragic ending often comes after years of abuse: “When it gets to that point, we usually find there is a history of domestic violence.”
Like Landis, Meehan doesn’t believe the area has seen an unusual number of homicides and violent deaths, but it’s getting close. “Another homicide, it would start to be uncommon,” he added.
But according to an academic expert, the idea that violence in Montana increases during the winter months is a myth. David Eitle is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he also teaches in the Law and Justice Studies program.
“The summer months are actually the season when we typically experience the highest rates of violent crime,” Eitle said. “When we see a rash of homicides like this, however, we can look to factors that precipitate violence that may be exacerbated during this time of year.”
The factors Eitle cited are in line with those described by Landis and Meehan, including financial strains and mental illness. “Additionally, the lack of social support for some, in the form of family and friends, can increase the risk that violence will occur,” Eitle added. “And for some, the isolation that accompanies cold winters may increase the risk of violent occurrences.”
Eitle also emphasized that the majority of homicides in the United States are not premeditated; they begin as arguments that escalate into violence.
In Ferndale, questions of weather and mood are irrelevant. A friend is gone, and no one knows why – yet. In the meantime, the locals at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse are dismayed that violence has once again found its way into their corner of the valley. Wilson just wanted to live a simple life, said one man, shaking his head, then added, “There ain’t nothing wrong with wanting to live a simple life.”
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