Man Cleared in Deadly Kalispell Shooting Arrested by FBI

Leon Paul Kavis is charged with running drug trafficking operation that reached into Flathead Valley; federal indictment raises questions about self-defense claim in September shooting

By Andy Viano
Sheriff's vehicle. Beacon File Photo

A man who was arrested but not charged in connection with a fatal shooting on Trumble Creek Road near Kalispell in September is in federal custody after investigators connected him to a drug distribution ring in the Flathead Valley and a notorious white supremacist prison gang.

Leon Paul Kavis Jr., 36, was arrested in Missoula on Nov. 18 and remains in custody awaiting trial on multiple charges, including conspiracy to distribute 500 or more grams of methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of meth, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Kavis made his first appearance in front of U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen DeSoto on Nov. 19.

In charging documents, Kavis is identified as a “large quantity meth dealer” who facilitated distribution in several locations in Montana, including Missoula, Great Falls and Kalispell. The indictment is based on wiretaps, text messages, social media messages and interviews with several confidential informants dating as far back as November 2019.

Kavis was arrested alongside Dylan Roy Mace, 28, and the criminal complaint against Kavis alleges the pair ran a shop together in Missoula that served as a hub for their operation, one powered in part by large amounts of methamphetamine sent from associates of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang targeted by the FBI in a multi-state takedown last month. One informant reported delivering more than 10 pounds of meth at a time from California to Missoula and law enforcement intercepted at least one package containing several pounds of meth shipped to the shop’s address.

The federal indictment against Kavis also delves into the fatal shooting of T.J. Kuchinski at a home between Columbia Falls and Kalispell on Sept. 10, although none of the federal charges are directly related to the killing. That afternoon, deputies from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office arrested Kavis after he and others called 911 from a house on Trumble Creek Road, alleging that Kuchinski arrived at the residence armed with a gun and “the intent to hurt” Kavis, according to Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner. Kavis was released from custody on Sept. 14, with Ahner saying at the time that initial law enforcement reports indicated the shooting was in self-defense, but leaving the door open for charges to be filed at a later date.

Ahner did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Just days after the killing of Kuchinski, however, agents with the FBI Montana Regional Violent Crime Task Force began to develop conflicting information about what happened inside the home. In August, federal agents were told that Kavis, Kuchinski and a third man, Scott Daniels, were involved in drug trafficking in the Flathead Valley and that Kuchinski had stolen at least $18,000 from Kavis. The informant speculated that the stolen money, not self-defense, “was motive for Kavis to murder Kuchinski,” according to court records.

Then in late September, after Kavis was released from custody in Flathead County, a separate informant told federal agents that Kavis had been “hunting” for Kuchinski in the days leading up to the shooting “as Kavis wanted people to know what happened to people who stole from him.”

Daniels, who an informant called “the biggest drug dealer in Flathead Valley,” was arrested by FBI agents at his home in Kalispell’s lower valley on Sept. 30 and indicted on drug and weapons charges in federal court. According to those indictments, Daniels admitted to having a drug-dealing relationship with Kuchinski and Kavis, and provided yet another theory for the shooting, alleging that Kavis killed Kuchinski because he was jealous “over a girl.”

More than a month later, just before Kavis was arrested, yet another informant raised doubts about the nature of Kuchinski’s death. This informant, who was directly involved in transporting pounds of meth from California to Missoula, smiled when he told investigators the shooting “went down exactly how Kavis wanted it to go down” and that Kavis planted a gun on Kuchinski after he was killed.

The arrests of Kavis, Mace and Daniels are part of a multi-agency operation that includes the Kalispell Police Department and county sheriff’s office, along with a half dozen other agencies, all focused on taking down large-scale regional drug traffickers. Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said his office was involved in the ongoing investigation of Kavis and others at the time of Kuchinski’s shooting, but became acutely focused on Kavis once it became clear he was capable of violence.

“The incident that occurred on Trumble Creek was very concerning,” Heino said. “When you start having people shooting at each other, we’re going to take notice and we’re going to start looking at how these incidents occurred and what options we have for keeping the community safe.”

Heino praised the collaboration between local and federal agencies in this case, and gave particular credit to patrol-level officers, whose arrests of drug users or small-quantity dealers are the first dominoes to fall when targeting high-quantity distributors. But while Heino said the recent arrests put a “dent” in the local meth supply, he cautioned there are always new faces to fill the void.

“The good news is, yes, you see a distribution guy being taken out you’re eliminating the product coming in, so that affects users in a lot of ways too. Less drugs on the street is always good,” Heino said. “But there’s other individuals that will come up, so it’s a constant investigation into these drug trafficking operations.”

Daniels pleaded not guilty to the charges against him last month. He is set to stand trial in January. Kavis’ next court appearance had not been scheduled as of Dec. 1.

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