Charges Dropped Against Three in Lake County Killing

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – Prosecutors in Lake County have dismissed charges against three men in the July 2005 death of a former Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal chairman after the first man convicted in the killing changed his story.

Clifford Old Horn was convicted of deliberate homicide in the slaying of Harold Mitchell Jr., whose body was found in a burned trailer house in St. Ignatius. Prosecutors say Mitchell, 73, was beaten and died of a knife wound to his neck that severed the carotid artery and that a fire was set to cover up a robbery and the slaying.

Authorities got their first break in the case in 2008, when Old Horn, jailed on other charges, confessed to his part in the crime. He said he was there when Mitchell was killed and implicated the other three men.

However, during his trial this summer, Old Horn changed his story, saying he had lied about his presence at the crime scene in an effort to negotiate a lesser sentence for a fellow inmate.

After a five-day trial in which prosecutors argued Old Horn knew details from the crime scene that were not made public, he was convicted of deliberate homicide. Sentencing is set for Aug. 31.

The Missoulian reports part of the state’s case against Nathan Ross, Kyle Brown and Nigel Ernst is based on Old Horn’s confession.

“We could not ensure he would testify if called,” county attorney Mitch Young said Monday. “And if he refused, none of his statement would be admissible without his testimony.”

Deputy County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson said the case remains open and the charges could be re-filed if more evidence is found.

Brown and Ernst are serving federal prison sentences on unrelated charges.