Essex Residents Seek More Law Enforcement After Thefts

Dozens of landowners appeal to county commission for help

By Molly Priddy

What began as a scheduled hearing for Essex and Pinnacle residents to air their grievances about the lack of law enforcement in their area turned into an impromptu town hall meeting with the Flathead County sheriff on Tuesday at the county commissioners’ chambers.

Dozens of residents from the relatively remote communities located on U.S. Highway 2 along the southern border of Glacier National Park filled the seats at the Flathead County Commission’s chambers, and spoke about a rash of burglaries and thefts.

The crimes included more than 20 incidents, Mary Phippen of Essex told the commission, which occurred around May 17.

Two men – Merlyn Marceau and Leif Ness – were arrested for the crimes and both charged with six counts of burglary and one count of theft. According to charging documents, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office began receiving calls reporting break-ins in Essex on May 16.

Responding deputies found that multiple residences and businesses had been burglarized, and many more showed evidence of attempted forced entry. At one house, someone had left food in the oven and the oven on; the food started burning, and smoke filled the residence and a crowbar lay on the ground.

Front doors were pried open or kicked in, and valuables, including tools, firearms, electronics, and knives, were stolen.

Ness and Marceau were apprehended after deputies found a car matching the description of a suspicious vehicle in the Essex area the day before the break-ins. When questioned, Marceau allegedly admitted to committing the burglaries with Ness, and that the stolen items were headed to Browning.

Both men pleaded not guilty on June 18 to the charges of burglary and theft.

But for the residents of the affected town, the rash of thefts was an unsettling experience, with many left on edge after feeling that the sheriff’s office took too long to respond.

One resident said it took deputies seven hours to respond to his call, and another said no one from the sheriff’s office came to his house to investigate.

Calvin Dezort said he and his wife went out to gather firewood, and by the time they returned to their family’s cabin, burglars had turned it upside down. Dezort said he felt personally violated by the intrusion, and his wife is wary of staying at the cabin by herself anymore.

The residents asked the county commission to put pressure on the sheriff’s office to add more patrols to the area or to appropriate additional funds if necessary.

After the residents were done speaking, Sheriff Chuck Curry stood and told them that they live in one of the safest areas of Flathead County, and while the burglaries are a shock to their community, his office has limited resources when it comes to responding to calls.

Curry said there are typically four to six officers on duty, and they respond to 125 to 150 calls each day.

“Most of those are not in Essex and Pinnacle,” Curry said. “Most are in the valley floor.”

Curry said he tries to place officers where crime might occur, and a call about a property crime that happened two days prior would not take precedence over a call about a crime in progress against a person.

After his initial response, residents began asking questions about the case, saying communication had been almost nonexistent from detectives. Curry said the case is still open, though his detectives have had trouble getting anywhere with the tribal police on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Most of the stolen items will likely never be recovered, Curry said, and had probably been traded for drugs, and then transported and sold elsewhere.

Patrol commander Nic Salois said the FCSO is still working on the case.

“Hopefully down the road there will be more arrests,” Salois said.

By the end of the meeting, the residents decided to form a neighborhood watch with the promise of help from an outreach deputy, and Curry gave them a brief overview of their right to protect themselves in their own homes.

His office will try to improve communication, he said.

“If you’re disappointed in my office or the response of my office, please call me,” Curry said. “I’m your elected sheriff.”

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