Mitchell to Plead Guilty to Misdemeanor for Destroying County-Owned Trees

Sheriff Chuck Curry says plea deal is 'embarrassing,' worries that it would appear that Mitchell is being let off easy because he is a public official

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell, center, pleaded not guilty on a felony criminal mischief charge in Flathead County District Court on Aug. 31, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell is expected to plead guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief on May 11, nearly a year after he was accused of destroying six county-owned trees at a public park near his home in Whitefish.

According to a plea agreement filed on April 30, Mitchell will plead guilty to an amended charge of criminal mischief, receive a six-month suspended sentence and pay $16,000 to the Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department.

Mitchell’s change-of-plea hearing was initially set for May 3 in Shelby, where Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Robert Olsen has been overseeing the case, but during a hearing there the judge decided to move the change of plea hearing to Kalispell. The hearing will be held in Flathead County District Court on May 11 at 1 p.m.

Although the Flathead County Attorney’s Office initially charged Mitchell last year, state prosecutors have been handling the case to avoid any conflicts of interest.

When reached on Thursday afternoon, following the hearing in Shelby, Mitchell declined to comment on the case.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry however said he was “embarrassed” that Mitchell was being given the opportunity to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. Curry said he worried that it would appear that Mitchell is being let off easy because he is a public official.

“For the first time in 34 years of being in law enforcement, I’m embarrassed to be a part of the criminal justice system,” Curry said. “When you are a public official and you commit a crime against the public that you represent you should be held responsible and that clearly has not happened in this case.”

Curry said he called Attorney General Tim Fox on Thursday to voice his displeasure about the plea agreement.

According to court records, on July 11, 2017, a Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department employee found six dying or dead cottonwood trees in a half-acre county-owned park known as Lake Park Addition just south of Whitefish Lake State Park. The trees appeared to be girdled, a tactic that involves removing a thick strip of bark ringing the tree’s circumference, causing the tree to die.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into the destruction in July and retained an arborist who determined it would cost more than $30,000 to replace the trees.

In an interview with law enforcement, Mitchell allegedly admitted to girdling the trees and pouring the herbicide Roundup on at least one of them.

Mitchell was charged with felony criminal mischief in August and pleaded not guilty on Aug. 31.

Mitchell later issued a written apology to county staff for destroying the trees and offered to pay for their replacement. He said he destroyed the cottonwoods because they were a “substantial nuisance” that frequently dropped limbs onto his adjacent property.

Mitchell, a former member of the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013, was elected to the Flathead County Board of Commissioners in 2014.

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