Flathead County Attorney’s Office Continues to Face Staffing Shortage

The Montana Department of Justice has agreed to take over three homicide cases scheduled for trial this year to reduce the workload of Flathead County prosecutors as the office struggles to recruit and retain staff

By Maggie Dresser
Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner delivering opening arguments for the state at the trial for Steven Justin Hedrick in Flathead County District Court in Kalispell on Jan. 16, 2024. Hedrick is charged with a felony count of deliberate homicide. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As violent criminal cases continue to pile up at the Flathead County Attorney’s Office, the department is facing a chronic staffing shortage and will have five prosecutor vacancies next month.

In recent years, deputy county attorneys have left the office for jobs with higher pay and lower stress and Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner said he has struggled to recruit and retain prosecutors who have left for municipal positions and remote government jobs that pay more than the entry level salary of $84,000.

“We’re losing folks to jobs that frankly pay more and demand less,” Ahner said.

The shortage has prompted Ahner to request assistance from the Montana Department of Justice to prosecute three homicide cases, which Flathead County commissioners approved last month.

Attorneys with the Prosecution Services Bureau have been assigned to prosecute the cases of Kenneth James Floyd, who is charged with negligent homicide, Del Orrin Crawford and Kaleb Elijah Fleck, who are both charged with deliberate homicide.

Floyd pleaded not guilty in November to a felony count of negligent homicide after fatally running over his ex-wife with his vehicle outside of a Martin City residence. He is scheduled to stand trial July 22.

Crawford is charged with killing 28-year-old Whisper Dawn Mari Sellars and injuring her husband during a shooting outside of a Martin City Bar in August 2022. He pleaded not guilty to three felony charges of deliberate homicide, attempted deliberate homicide and evidence tampering. He is also scheduled to stand trial in July.

Flathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Fleck pleaded not guilty to a felony count of deliberate homicide last June after allegedly beating a 60-year-old homeless man to death outside a Kalispell gas station. He is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 12.

Ahner said the three homicide cases were chosen for assistance due to scheduling reasons and the help is a relief as the office works through stacks of other criminal and civil cases.

“We’re extremely grateful for their assistance,” Ahner said. “It’s been a big relief for our staff. The big concern is we don’t want to make a mistake and we don’t want something to slip through the cracks in these big cases. We pride ourselves in making sure we are doing everything we can possibly do on these bigger cases so we can get justice for victims. We are concerned as we take on more of these cases, the burden grows that we’ll miss something.”

Historically, the Prosecution Services Bureau assists attorney’s offices in rural counties across the state that lack the experience and resources to handle cases like homicides and sex abuse. They also step in when there’s a conflict of interest, which happened in Flathead County in 2017 when former Commissioner Phil Mitchell was charged with felony count of criminal mischief for destroying trees on county land that adjoined his property.

But aside from conflicts like this, Ahner said his office has never received assistance from the Attorney General’s Office due to a lack of resources during his time at the county attorney’s office.

Flathead County prosecutors are currently working on eight active homicide cases while six additional homicides are under investigation and have not been charged.

Ahner said the number of overall caseloads has remained steady, but as prosecutors leave the office, the workload has increased for the remaining attorneys.

“There’s a bit of a spiral effect,” Ahner said. “When attorneys depart, other attorneys have to take on those cases. Our overall numbers haven’t increased, in part because we have to triage. We can’t charge certain cases that we did historically. We’re not charging as many as we could because of staffing and we’re focusing on the more significant ones.”

While case numbers have not increased, violent crimes have surged since Ahner started at the county attorney’s office 16 years ago. Flathead County currently averages 400 to 500 felonies per year and 10 homicides per year compared to fewer than two per year in the mid-2000s.

“We are extremely grateful for (the Attorney General’s) assistance,” Ahner said.

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