By Alan Sorensen
Confessed double-murderer Reid Mitchell Danell will spend at least 35 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Half the value of all Danell's earnings and possessions are to be taken by the state and placed in the victims' fund.
That was the decision of 12th Judicial District Court Judge John Warner early Thursday afternoon.
Danell, who turns 19 Sunday, pleaded guilty May 15 to the two murder charges as part of a plea agreement reached with the state. In the agreement reached May 12, Danell admitted shooting Kristi Walker, 30, and Kevin Caplette, 30, to death during the early morning hours of an all-night party at a Walker's home in the 1200 block of Sixth Street on Sept. 16, 1999. The victims' bodies were found at the home shortly before 1 p.m. the same day.
Warner had spent most of the morning listening to arguments about sentences that lawyers for the state and for Danell thought would be appropriate.
At 1:34 p.m. Thursday, Warner reconvened the sentencing hearing and issued his decision. He gave Danell two life sentences to run concurrently. Warner added two concurrent 10-year sentences for use of a weapon in the shooting deaths. Those sentences are to be served consecutively with the life sentences.
According to court documents, Warner decreed that Danell must serve at least 35 years of the sentences before even becoming eligible for a parole hearing. Warner also wrote an order preventing the sentence from being affected by any future changes in state law.
The state has asked that $3,500 taken from Danell go to Kristi Walker's family to cover funeral expenses. The Caplette family reportedly has yet to ask for compensation.
The hearing began shortly after 9 a.m. with Hill County Attorney David Rice noting that letters from the mothers of both victims had been forwarded for consideration in the sentencing decision. He said that surviving family members chose not to testify in the hearing. Then Montana Department of Corrections Parole and Probation Officer Edward Schmidt taking the stand.
Under questioning by Rice, Schmidt said he transported Danell to Pine Hills, the state boys' reform school, a couple of times and has had numerous contacts with Danell since he was a teen-ager. He provided the court with records that showed Danell was frequently in trouble at Pine Hills, both with personnel and inmates. Danell's juvenile record in Hill County was examined and showed several incidents of violent behavior and crimes. He was arrested numerous times, including a burglary involving a weapon and an armed robbery.
Rice asked Schmidt to read an excerpt from a letter Danell wrote a fellow member of the Little Valley (LVL) gang while he was in Hill County Detention Center.
In the letter dated Dec. 14, 1999, Danell wrote that the experience of killing Caplette and Walker was "better than cocaine. It made me feel awesome." He also wrote that he was excited by the look in their eyes when they realized that they were going to die and the feel of the warm blood that splattered on him when he shot them.
Danell went on to say in the letter that he planned on killing someone in prison, too. He said he could hardly wait to sharpen a shiv and stab someone in the neck, "hopefully a guard."
Walker and Caplette's relatives openly wept when the excerpts were read.
Defense attorney Francis McCarvel of Glasgow got Schmidt to admit that Danell told him he wrote the letter because he knew the guards would read it and photocopy it.
In another letter written at about the same time, Danell told an employee of a school he attended in Tuskegee, Ala. that the path he took was the wrong one. He asked the man to encourage the students make the right choices and not to fall into the dark world of drugs that he had.
Rice asked Judge Warner to take into account when considering his sentence an incident involving Danell at the detention center in Havre. Schmidt testified to Danell's assault on another prison with a pencil that he learned during his presentencing investigation of Danell.
Danell, who has been in solitary confinement since his arrest, was in his cell when Dominic Hanway, a man awaiting extradition to another state for child molestation, was talking nearby. Schmidt said that Danell apparently became upset when Hanway began joking about having sex with children and corpses. Through a narrow slit in his door, Danell asked another inmate for the loan of a pencil. When he got the pencil, Danell reached through the slit and stabbed Hanway in the eye.
Hanway recovered from the incident and was extradited.
Schmidt explained other incidents of violence exhibited by Danell while incarcerated in Havre, including an incident just a few days ago in which Danell scratched gang graffiti on the walls and tried to destroy a light fixture and tear down a shelf. When a detention officer removed him from the isolation cell, Danell reportedly told her that he was going to shoot her.
McCarvel called three witnesses to speak on Danell's behalf: Tommy Jo Orcutt, Danell's great aunt from Conrad; Marylou Murray, his grandmother, who now lives in Conrad, and the Catholic priest from the Chester, Hingham in Inverness area.
Both women testified that Danell had had a tough childhood. They described his mother as a bartender who drank and used drugs and had numerous affairs. They said Danell had been sexually and physically abused as a child and was devastated when his favorite uncle hanged himself about 10 years ago. They said he was the one who found the body hanging in the garage.
Each said that Danell's attitudes and behavior improved remarkably during the year he spent at a church school in Tuskegee, Ala. He enjoyed life there, they said, earned his GED and made plans to go to college.
His grandmother said it wasn't long after his return to Havre that he fell back in with Kristi Walker. It was a short time later that he took his belongings from her home and the next she heard of him was that he was arrested in Great Falls for the double murder.
At Rice's request, Warner dismissed four other charges against Danell: two counts of felony intimidation, auto theft, and tampering with evidence.
Danell's codefendant, Jacob Gary Spang, 19, is free on $10,000 bond awaiting his sentencing, which also was rescheduled. Originally scheduled for 9 a.m. on July 19, it is now set for 9 a.m. on July 27.
Spang and his sister, Francine Spang, 16, were charged with the same offenses as Danell.
On June 14, a Hill County jury found Jacob Spang innocent of murder but guilty of two counts of felony intimidation. Jurors also found Spang guilty of tampering with evidence for wiping down the murder weapon and the car the trio escaped in. He was found innocent of stealing the car.
Francine Spang pleaded guilty to two juvenile charges just before the conclusion of her brother's trial. pleaded guilty in youth court the day before to the charges of tampering with evidence and theft by accountability. The agreement, offered a couple of weeks ago by Hill County Attorney David Rice, dropped the charges of murder and intimidation by accountability that had been leveled at the girl.
Francine Spang's sentencing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. July 12.