Lincoln County Law Enforcement Deals with Spike in Murders

By Beacon Staff

Law enforcement officials in Lincoln County have seen a staggering increase in homicides, investigating four separate cases over the last three months. On average, the rural Northwest Montana county sees one homicide a year and the spike in violence has surprised law enforcement.

In December, Kristina Welch of Libby was arrested after she was accused of shooting and killing her husband Charles Welch. In early January, Dale Kinniburg of Libby killed his wife Catherine Kinniburg before turning the weapon on himself. A few days later, James Bonifas of Troy was arrested and charged with killing his daughter. And two weeks ago Ernest Cleon Judd was found dead in his vehicle in the lower Yaak. Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe said his office is following up on leads in the Judd case but no suspects have been found.

“Everyone here has been busy,” Bowe said. “The detectives have been just taking it one case at a time.”

Bowe said there doesn’t appear to be any connections between the murders and that some included motives such as jealously or money. He added, “Obviously there are some mental health issues with some of these cases.”

With an increase in violent crimes, Bowe has also considered the mental health of his officers who are arriving at more unsettling scenes. He said that after homicide cases like these, mental health professionals have been made available to the officers and in some instances it is mandatory to meet with them.

“We want to make sure the (officers’) health and mental health is front and center. We want to make sure they get help if they want it,” Bowe said.

Bowe said the crimes have unsettled the community and said his office is doing everything it can to resolve the cases and provide answers.

“(These homicides) were all out of the blue and off our radar and I think that is something hard for the community to accept,” he said.

Public officials echoed the community’s concern. Libby Mayor Doug Roll said he trusted that local law enforcement was doing everything it could to solve the crimes and protect local citizens.

“I think everyone is handling it professionally as far as law enforcement is concerned,” Roll said.

Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose said that the spike in violence wasn’t unique to the area.

“If you read the papers you’ll see that these things are going on in other counties and all across the country,” she said.