Attorney Questions Police Response Before Christmas Murders

By Beacon Staff

An attorney for the Kalispell man who admitted murdering his former girlfriend and her daughter on Christmas day in 2010 is questioning law enforcement’s response to the events leading up to the killings, asserting that better communication is needed between agencies.

Noel Larrivee, a lawyer with the state public defender office, said that while Tyler Michael Miller is responsible for the deaths of Jaimi Hurlbert, 35, and Alyssa Burkett, 15, there were a number of “missed opportunities” for law enforcement to derail the shootings.

On Feb. 10, Miller, previously known as Tyler Cheetham, was sentenced to two life sentences in prison without eligibility for parole. He initially pleaded not guilty to two counts of deliberate homicide, but changed his plea in January.

During Miller’s sentencing hearing in Flathead County District Court, Larrivee went through a timeline of phone calls made on Dec. 24, 2010, to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Kalispell Police Department regarding Miller’s threats against Hurlbert and her family.

According to a sentence recommendation memorandum filed in the case, the calls began at about 5:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve, when one of Hurlbert’s friends called law enforcement about Miller’s threats.

Sheriff’s deputies then pulled over Miller and dropped him off at home at about 5:45 a.m., records state. At least eight more calls were made that day, either to inform authorities about Miller’s activities or to request welfare checks on Hurlbert.

Larrivee said the timeline would have been a major part of the trial if Miller had not changed his plea. He said he has reviewed cases in which police had contact with a person who later committed a crime, but none with this many instances.

“I’ve never, in 36 years of lawyering, been involved in a case that had this many different officers involved,” Larrivee said in an interview after the sentencing.

The attorney also questioned the communication between law enforcement agencies, since it appears that information about Miller was not shared among officials.

Local authorities, however, disagree with Larrivee’s assertions. Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset said there has been a review of the incidents on Dec. 24, 2010 and he believes his officers acted appropriately.

“I have no problem and no concerns with the way that the Kalispell Police Department handled the investigation,” Nasset said.

Nasset said it is easy to put a situation like this under the microscope after the fact, but the unfortunate reality is that his officers handle domestic violence cases similar to this one – short of murder – on a weekly basis.

“In this case, it ended up very bad,” Nasset said. “In 99 percent of the cases, it’s handled like this one was handled.”

Police responded to calls that Miller was acting aggressively in the Scoreboard Lounge in Kalispell, where Hurlbert worked, at about 11:57 p.m. on Dec. 24. They locked the place down, questioned witnesses and brought in the Ballistic Engineered Armored Response vehicle to approach Miller’s vehicle, which was still in the parking lot. But Miller was already gone.

Nasset said KPD worked with the sheriff’s office and Montana Highway Patrol that night, and his department relayed information about Miller to the other agencies.

“For (Larrivee) to underestimate the effort given by law enforcement is inaccurate,” Nasset said.

Nasset also believes this case occurred before the new 911 center was fully functional, and the records management system was not yet consolidated. Streamlining communication between agencies in cases like this was one of the driving factors behind the new 911 center, Nasset said, and he believes communications have improved since it has opened.

“Would that have made a difference in this instance? I don’t know if it would,” Nasset said.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry did not take office until 2011, and said he has not reviewed his office’s response to the Dec. 24, 2010 calls. However, Curry said he thinks his deputies respond to domestic violence situations appropriately.

Domestic violence cases are rarely cut and dry, Curry said, and with verbal threats, it is difficult to determine who the primary aggressor is. One person may call and say their spouse threatened to kill them, he said, but when deputies question the spouse, they might say the other person issued similar threats the previous day.

“We try to respond to those as appropriate we can, but they’re all different,” Curry said.

“This case had a very tragic outcome, and it’s easy to point at the system and say, ‘Well, they did this wrong and they did that wrong,’ in hindsight,” Curry said. “It’s not that simple.”

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