‘It’s Put the Community on Edge’

By Beacon Staff

EUREKA – A late October fire here reduced a judge’s desk to ashes and scorched her robe, engulfing the entire room, melting her computer and spreading into the duct system. A quick response from the local fire department saved the rest of the building, but not before smoke crept to every corner of the 14 offices. The judge, who had previously received threats, believes she was targeted and watches her back now.

In a way, for a small town unaccustomed to major crime, the smoke still lingers.

“It’s put the community on edge,” said Justice of Peace Stormy Langston, whose office was burned. “I know it’s put my clerks on edge.”

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 25 on the northern edge of Eureka, police officer Ian Jeffcock noticed haze. Then he smelled smoke. Then he saw flames, burning bright in Langston’s office in the North Lincoln County Annex building. His call to authorities came at 12:22 a.m., his call to Langston at 12:30. The fire was put out by 1 a.m. Arson is suspected and authorities are interviewing several suspects. As of Nov. 2, no charges had been filed.

Several other offices in the same building were broken into, and four businesses were burglarized elsewhere the same night in what investigators think are related crimes, which raises the question: Why was Langston’s office the only one burned? Langston thinks she knows, but can’t say anything until the investigation is wrapped up. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office is on the case. The FBI also showed up to take statements.

“In my 27 years, this was the most violence I’ve ever seen toward a government entity,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose, who has been commissioner for 13 of her 27 years of government work. “People are angry – there’s total contempt and disgust for that to happen in the community.”

In the weeks leading up to the fire, Langston had been receiving anonymous threats over the phone: “Not direct threats, but insinuated threats,” she said. Langston is the only judge in Eureka, as she is both the county justice of peace and the city judge. She is currently presiding over a contentious case and, though she couldn’t elaborate on details, she suspects the threats and fire are connected to the case. She said the case is civil, not criminal.

For now, Langston can still carry out her city judge duties, but her justice of peace office was ruined by the fire and the courtroom is also in that same building. A small temporary courtroom has been set up in an office building in town. While Complete Restoration, a company out of Kalispell, is expected to have some rooms clean enough for use in the next couple of weeks, Langston doesn’t expect the charred court wing of the building to be usable for several months.

“This is pretty much big time for Eureka,” Langston said of the criminal activity.

As the only judge in a tough little logging town, Langston speaks less of fear than of an increased alertness. She pays attention at all times, wondering what might be around the corner.

“I’m not scared; I’m more aware,” she said. “I’m being more precautious, just watching everybody who goes by or drives by.”

Langston has told authorities about her hunch regarding the link between the contentious case and the fire. Lieutenant Steve Short of the sheriff’s office said investigators have interviewed people associated with Langston’s case, but said “I have no reason to believe, at this point, that it’s connected.” But Short hasn’t ruled out the possibility, saying that later evidence may show “that they also had a beef with the judge.”

“It is a little strange that they would set a fire inside that (office) and not the others,” Short said.

As of Nov. 2, investigators were still conducting interviews and, barring a confession, didn’t expect an imminent arrest. They are awaiting lab results for evidence such as fingerprints and footprints. Hundreds of dollars of cash were stolen from the four burglarized businesses, though nothing was taken from the North Lincoln County Annex, where Langston’s office was burned.

“We’re feeling a little bit more comfortable that we’re going to get this case solved,” Short said.

The North Lincoln County Annex houses 14 offices. Twenty employees total, Langston said, were forced to relocate to scattered spots in town. Among the offices are the motor vehicle department, Lincoln Conservation District, Child and Family Services, the county nurse and Commissioner Roose’s workplace. The DMV will be the first to re-open, hopefully within the next couple of weeks, Roose said. Smoke damage and soot can be found throughout the building.

Richard Newbury, co-owner of Complete Restoration, said the heat was turned on the night of the fire. As a result, once the smoke reached the ducting system, the circulating air quickly pushed the smoke to other areas of the building. It also spread under the doors and raced through the hallways, he said.

Cleanup will not be easy nor will it be cheap, with total costs estimated at more than $200,000, Roose said. The money will come from Lincoln County’s insurance policy through the Montana Association of Counties. Langston’s computer files are backed up and were salvaged.

The locks to all of the offices have been changed. Every night, then again in the morning, somebody checks the locks and secures the premises. For authorities in Eureka, the aftermath of such a crime is new territory and they’re not taking any chances.

“We’re very restricted until we’re finished here,” Newbury said.