Murder Trial Offers Intimate Glimpse into Valley’s Drug ‘Subculture’

Law enforcement has confiscated far more methamphetamine in 2016 than in previous years

By Justin Franz
Meth confiscated by the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force. Beacon File Photo

Flophouses. Enforcers. Junkies.

Prosecutors used those terms this week during Robert Matthew Wittal’s murder trial to paint an intimate picture of methamphetamine’s pervasive impact on the Flathead Valley.

“You’re going to hear from people who live a different lifestyle than most of you,” said Deputy County Attorney John Donovan in his opening statements of the trial. “A lifestyle of drug use and violence. A lifestyle that you may not even realize exists in your community.”

While law enforcement officials have been saying for months that methamphetamine has become a major concern in the valley, the four-day trial offered the public a glimpse into the issue. Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said it was an accurate depiction of what his officers are seeing on the streets.

“That subculture exists here and it’s often out of sight of most people,” Curry said.

“(Methamphetamine) is a valley-wide problem, not just one house in Evergreen,” he added, referring to the home at the center of the Wittal trial.

During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence and testimony that showed how Wittal and his three co-defendants — David Toman, Melisa Crone and Chris Hansen — were deeply involved in the valley’s drug culture. Crone’s house on South Cedar Drive in Evergreen was called a “flophouse” where people would frequently come to use and buy drugs. The victim in the case, Wade Allen Rautio, was stabbed to death after he had allegedly stolen drugs and money from the defendants.

“There are other groups like this out there,” Curry said.

Curry said violent crime related to the drug trade is still rare in the valley, but it is a concern. Property crime, however, is on the rise, and Curry said most burglaries and robberies are related to drugs.

The amount of drugs in the valley has also skyrocketed in the last decade, exceeding even the levels found during the methamphetamine epidemic of the early 2000s that spurred the well-known Montana Meth Project prevention program. In 2014, the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, a law enforcement coalition that covers Flathead, Lincoln, Mineral, Sanders and Glacier counties, took nine pounds of methamphetamine off the street. In 2015, it purchased or confiscated 15 pounds of meth worth $5 million. So far this year, the task force has taken in 27 pounds of the drug.

Mark Mulcahy, commander of the drug task force, said his deputies have been especially busy this year, and he doesn’t see the work slowing down anytime soon. He worries that an increase of drugs in the valley could lead to an increase in violent crime.

“This is still a really nice place to live,” he said. “And we want to keep it that way.”

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