Robert Matthew Wittal took the witness stand at his own murder trial Wednesday and testified that he was framed for the murder of Wade Allen Rautio by a group of dangerous and manipulative drug dealers.
But in a dramatic exchange on the third day of the deliberate homicide trial in Flathead County District Court, prosecutor Andrew Clegg confronted the accused murderer with a confiscated jailhouse letter to his family that allegedly detailed his version of events and included a note that read, “It is very, very important that you remember all this so that we are on the same page at trial.”
In the letter that was supposed to go to his fiancé, Wittal added that if she followed his directions, “I’ll give you the world.”
Wittal, 29, has been accused of deliberate homicide in the May stabbing death of Rautio. Wittal and three others, David Vincent Toman, 21, Christopher Michael Hansen, 28, and Melisa Ann Crone, 29, were all arrested in June following the discovery of Rautio’s body on Peters Ridge near Creston. Toman, Hansen, and Crone have all been charged with accountability to deliberate homicide. All defendants have pleaded not guilty.
On Wednesday, the jury heard testimony from Montana State Crime Lab experts detailing the nature of Rautio’s injuries and evidence that was gathered from Peters Ridge near Creston where prosecutors believe the murder took place.
Dr. Jaime Oeberst conducted the autopsy on Rautio’s body and testified that the 35-year-old Kalispell man had been stabbed approximately 25 times, including eight times in the back and once in the head. Rautio was also stabbed in the jugular in what Clegg described as an “immediately lethal wound.”
Crime lab technicians also testified about how they reviewed the alleged murder weapons, a small pocketknife and a large hunting knife engraved with the words “peace be with you.” Although prosecutors said the two weapons were used to kill Rautio, there was no blood or DNA evidence found on either knife. Prosecutors have said that is because one knife was cleaned with soap and the other spent three weeks in a creek.
John Burrell, a criminal intelligence analyst, presented evidence that Wittal’s phone had moved from Evergreen to Peters Ridge between the hours of 3:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. on May 26, when prosecutors said Rautio was killed. But on cross-examination defense attorney Steven Scott noted that it was impossible to know if Wittal was in possession of his own phone at the time of the murder, reminding the court of previous testimony and evidence that other people had been using the phone.
After two-and-a-half days of testimony, the state rested its case and handed the floor to the defense. Scott made a motion to dismiss the trial, arguing it would be unfair to let the jury decide Wittal’s fate when the state hadn’t proved the defendant was guilty.
“There is absolutely zero physical evidence connecting my client to this murder,” Scott said. “There’s no DNA evidence. There’s no finger prints. There’s no blood on his clothing.”
“To allow this case to go to a jury is wrong,” Scott added.
District Court Judge Robert Allison denied Scott’s motion. The defense then took the floor to make its opening statement. Scott said the only way for the jury to find Wittal guilty would be for someone to prove the defendant was with the phone and the best person to answer that was the accused.
Wittal took the stand in his own defense and talked about his struggles with drugs and his initial meeting with Crone, a mid-level drug dealer and the woman prosecutors have said ordered Rautio’s murder.
“I didn’t like her, she rubbed me the wrong way,” Wittal said of his first meeting with Crone earlier this year. “I knew she was bad news.”
“I’ve seen her order assaults on people,” he added. “I’ve seen her order robberies on people.”
Wittal testified that Crone had wanted to kill Rautio because of past thefts and that she wanted to prove her power to others. Wittal said that in the days before Rautio was killed he tried to warn the man of his impending doom but that the victim wanted to stay in Kalispell to protect his family.
“I told him to get out of town, that they were going to hurt him if he didn’t,” Wittal said, as he started to break down and cry on the stand. “He didn’t deserve what they did to him.”
Wittal said that Crone had framed him for the murder because she had wanted a drug distributor’s contact that only he had. Wittal said Crone was obsessed with getting the distributor’s contact information, so much so that she stole his phone. He hypothesized that one of the co-defendants had the phone with them when they killed Rautio. Wittal also said that he had been giving information to law enforcement about Crone’s drug dealings and that that is another reason she would have tried to frame him.
Wittal had said he was trying to quit using methamphetamine and get his life back on track. He also wanted to regain custody of his young son.
“My drug addiction has caused so much pain to others,” he said, breaking down again. “I was getting better and then I got arrested on this charge and everything went down hill again.”
But prosecutors instantly attacked Wittal’s version of events during cross-examination, noting that he had never told law enforcement any of what he testified in court.
“You never told any of this to the cops,” Clegg said. “You never told them Melisa had stolen your phone.”
“No one asked,” Wittal said.
Clegg also questioned the sincerity of Wittal’s tears on the stand, noting that when detectives first questioned him about Rautio’s murder, he said, “I didn’t know him enough to be in tears.”
The tense exchange continued as Clegg confronted Wittal with text messages and Facebook posts where he made threatening comments about the victim and others.
“I’m going to kill the next person that [expletive] with me,” Wittal allegedly wrote on May 23, the day before he said Crone stole his phone.
Clegg questioned Wittal about his past and his job as an “enforcer” for Crone, who he said collected drug debts. Clegg questioned how Crone, Hansen and Toman could have had the foresight to construct an elaborate ruse to pin the murder on Wittal.
“How did you let these people frame you? How could you let these people get the best of you, Robert?” Clegg said. “I thought you were a bad ass.”
Clegg then revealed the letter Wittal had allegedly written in jail a few weeks after being arrested, explaining what he was going to tell his defense attorney. Although few details from the letter were revealed in court, Wittal reportedly directed his fiancé to make copies and distribute it to other family members so that they were “all on the same page at trial.”
Wittal claimed it was a note he had written to himself and that it had been stolen from his jail cell.
Shortly after noon on Wednesday, the defense rested its case. Judge Allison released the jury until 9 a.m., Thursday, giving prosecutors and the defense time to finalize jury instructions. Both sides are expected to give their closing arguments on Thursday morning before handing the case to the jury to decide Wittal’s fate.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.