HELENA — The fate of Leon Ford is now in the hands of a Lewis and Clark County jury.
Ford’s three-week-long deliberate homicide trial wrapped up early Tuesday afternoon in Helena, with closing arguments from the prosecution and defense.
Prosecutors have accused Ford of killing John “Mike” Crites in 2011. Crites’ dismembered remains were discovered at two locations near MacDonald Pass in 2011 and 2012.
Ford and Crites owned neighboring properties along Turk Road, in a rural area outside Birdseye, northwest of Helena. The two men had a long-running disagreement over land access, and Crites had placed a gate across a road Ford used to reach his land. Prosecutors have argued that issue provided Ford with a motive.
While many of the residents in the Turk Road area were involved in disputes – including several with Crites – prosecuting attorney Leo Gallagher said it was notable that the situation changed after Ford came to Montana from his home in Washington state.
“It was Leon Ford’s arrival that suddenly results in Mike Crites disappearing,” he said. “That’s the variable that’s introduced into this ongoing dispute: Leon Ford comes back for the first time since 2007, and he’s going to get his way.”
It took years for anyone to be charged in connection with Crites’ death, as Ford was only arrested in 2020. However, Gallagher – the county attorney at the time of the killing – said Tuesday that the evidence pointed to Ford early on, and the case became stronger with time.
Prosecutors have pointed to a neighbor’s cameras, showing Ford’s truck going toward Crites’ property around the time Crites made his last phone call. They have argued Ford had requested large cable ties similar to ones found with Crites’ remains through his job on a military base in Washington. They also accused Ford of changing his story to investigators about his actions around the time Crites went missing.
“He has a meticulous memory of everything, except memory about what happened on June 26, 27 and 28,” Gallagher said. “Suddenly he’s all over the place with different stories – and provably untrue stories – about what happened.”
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys have consistently made the case that the prosecution hasn’t shown any evidence to link Ford directly to the crime. They questioned whether Ford was actually the one who obtained ties from his employer and whether they were even the same type of tie as those found at the site. They argued the cameras clearly didn’t show everyone who went up and down the road.
Attorney Palmer Hoovestal said too many open questions remain – about when, where and how Crites was killed, and how and when his remains were disposed of – for a jury to find Ford guilty.
“It’s all evidence of doubt, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “There were ample opportunities for other people to kill Mike Crites – other people who wanted him dead, other people who didn’t like him, other people who would benefit from his death.”
Hoovestal said inconsistent statements to officers alone would not be nearly enough to prove Ford was involved.
Ford took the stand in his own defense during the trial and directly denied killing Crites. Hoovestal said Ford had the law on his side in his land dispute with Crites, and he had no reason to kill over the issue.
“He is a decorated combat veteran – he is the kind of guy that follows orders, he is the kind of guy that does the right thing,” he said. “He is the kind of guy that would not freak out and suddenly kill Michael Crites for whatever reason – what, because he’s got a barricade across the road?”
The jury began their deliberations Tuesday afternoon, and no verdict had been reported by early Tuesday evening. MTN will have full updates once a decision is announced.
Follow MTN's previous coverage of the Ford trial: Defense rests case in Leon Ford trial; closing arguments set for Tuesday