Officials Claim New Interest in Hardin Jail

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Officials in the rural town of Hardin say they’ve received new interest in their empty, 464-bed jail in the wake of collapsed deal with a California company run by a man with a history of fraud.

Saying there’s “no such thing as bad publicity,” Al Peterson with the city’s economic development agency says at least four corrections corporations and agencies have asked for more information about the facility.

Peterson, who is also superintendent of Hardin schools, declined to offer more details. He also acknowledged the city’s two-year effort to fill the jail suffered a major setback from its dealings with Santa Ana-based American Police Force.

The company’s lead figure, ex-convict Michael Hilton, convinced city officials he had the financial wherewithal to take over the jail and fill it with prisoners.

One of Hilton’s last connections to Montana — a pair of Mercedes SUVs he once offered to Hardin for use by law enforcement — were returned to California this week.

They are in the possession of Maziar Mafi, a Santa Ana attorney who represented American Police Force for about two months before cutting his ties to the project.

Mafi, who guaranteed Hilton’s purchase of the vehicles last month, declined to say what he was going to do with them except that they were not going back to Hilton.

The company’s departure from Montana has left officials in Hardin with no choice but to regroup and try yet again to come up with a way to fill the jail.

Completed two years ago at a cost of $27 million, the jail has sat empty ever since. The construction bonds used to build it went into default last year.

But Hardin’s Two Rivers Authority — the city development agency that owns the jail — lost two key personnel when its executive director and attorney resigned following the American Police Force debacle.

Peterson the agency will be hobbled until replacements are found, but added that in the interim the publicity brought by Hilton and his proposal could work in the city’s favor.

“As far as TRA and getting the detention center open, it certainly opened up more calls and more possibilities,” he said.

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