By Tim Eberly
A district judge on Monday dismissed charges against a North Havre man stemming from a Christmas party shooting because several key witnesses, including the victim, could not be located.
District Judge John Warner dismissed felony charges of aggravated assault and assault with a weapon against 52-year-old Wilmer Cleveland Hart, who pleaded not guilty to both charges.
"There's no use dragging it out until the very end," Jeremy Yellin, Hart's attorney, said today. "It's good that they did it early enough so we were not getting all geared up for trial."
Deputy Hill County Attorney Cyndee Faus on May 1 filed the motion for dismissal without prejudice.
Faus could not track down 38-year-old Randall Murphy, the victim who was shot in the chest at the Dec. 26 party, and two other key witnesses in the case. Leonard Owen, who was present during the incident, and Elizabeth Harvey, a neighbor who had contact with Hart the morning of the shooting, also could not be found.
All of the witnesses are transients who are known to ride trains, Faus said. Transients ride trains more frequently during warmer seasons, she said.
"They're long gone," Faus said. "I can't do the case without them."
Early in the case, Faus anticipated difficulty in keeping the witnesses in the area.
"The Sheriff's Office has been all over looking for them," Faus said. "We tried to get them served early because we were afraid we weren't going to find them."
Several months ago, Faus interviewed Murphy in her office with Yellin. A sheriff's deputy also spoke with Murphy on more than one occasion. The victim appeared ready though not willing to testify.
"He was set to go but he could not remember a lot about it," Faus said. "He was going to testify but he did not want to testify. He basically wanted to put the entire thing behind him and he did not want to get involved."
If Faus makes contact with the victims in the future, she has five years from the date of the shooting to reopen the case.
In recent months, Hart's case had been delayed several times because Yellin had difficulty tracking down witnesses and later because Faus was awaiting fingerprint and ballistics test results from the state crime lab.
On April 17, Warner denied Faus's request for a postponement of Hart's May 22 trial.
Hart was released from the Hill County Detention Center on Feb. 1 after posting $2,500 bond.
Hart was arrested after he allegedly shot Murphy in the chest with a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle when an argument turned physical in the bedroom of his residence in Head's Trailer Court.
A half-hour after the shooting, at 2 a.m., officers found Hart hiding in Harvey's shed, according to a criminal complaint filed in District Court.
The weapon used in the shooting was recovered Jan. 5 from underneath a neighboring trailer, Faus said.