By Tim Eberly
The scene Ric Munfrada witnessed stirred memories of paintings and movies he'd seen that were set in prehistoric times.
Aug. 20 had been a sluggish day for law enforcement in Hill County. Then a domestic dispute call came in from a nearby trailer park.
Munfrada, a sheriff's deputy, responded first, followed by two Havre police officers. A pile of people stood in the dirt road, pointing Munfrada in the direction of a steep, grassy hill after he had navigated his vehicle into the heart of the trailer park.
Munfrada flashed his high-powered spotlight on the incline.
"He looked like a caveman dragging her up the hill by her hair," Munfrada said of Jeffrey Wayne Hardie, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound transient, and his petite 5-foot girlfriend. "He just dragged her like a sack of potatoes. There was a huge difference in their size."
On 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve, Munfrada drove a reporter to the scene of that incident at the start of a ride-along with the Hill County Sheriff's Office.
On that late August night, Munfrada said, he climbed the hill while Hardie, 39, straddled his girlfriend with his enormous hands wrapped around her neck. When Hardie spotted Munfrada, he moved toward the deputy.
Without hesitation, Munfrada delivered a blow to Hardie with his expandable baton, breaking several bones in Hardie's wrist but eliciting no response.
"When I hit him and he didn't register any pain, I thought, This isn't going to be good,' " Munfrada, 42, said.
The deputy's feet got tangled in wire and he fell backward. Just as Hardie stood over Munfrada, police officer Mike LaBaty pepper-sprayed him. Though Hardie fled on foot aided by his dog's well-timed attack on one of the officers' backsides he was taken into custody a couple days later when he attempted to get treatment at Northern Montana Hospital for his wrist.
"It was good to have LaBaty and (officer Shane) Hutson out there because those guys are good in a pinch," Munfrada said.
Eight days ago, Hardie pleaded guilty in District Court to charges of attempted aggravated assault and resisting arrest. Hardie is scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 14.
Eleven individuals have been sworn in to protect rural Hill County as members of the sheriff's department 10 men and one woman. While Sheriff Tim Solomon and Undersheriff Don Brostrom perform most of the administrative and managerial duties, seven deputies must cover the 2,927 square miles in the county. One deputy is assigned to the jail, while another is assigned to the Tri-Agency Task Force.
The deputies also protect the neighboring towns of Inverness, Kremlin, Hingham, Gildford, Rudyard and Box Elder and the areas just outside the Havre city limits. On almost any evening, however, deputies also assist the Havre police on calls.
Munfrada, a divorced father of two daughters, started working as a deputy in the sheriff's office in 1990 on the same day Brostrom worked his first shift. But after four years, Munfrada moved to Missoula, where he worked for five years as a deputy three of which were spent on mountain bike patrol.
"I figured I wanted to try out the big city," Munfrada said. Patroling on a mountain bike "was good duty. It's the way to do business in a town like Missoula."
Two years ago, Munfrada returned to Hill County and moved into a home 34 miles west of Havre, in Hingham. "I'm kind of the Hi-Line deputy out here," he said.
Assisting Havre police, Munfrada entered through the back door of a downtown Havre bar about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday after hearing a call about a man who refused to leave the establishment and was starting a fight. Munfrada whisked straight through the bar as patrons and employees said the man had just left.
Two Havre police officers were already interviewing the 21-year-old man, a resident of Washington in town to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family. According to witnesses, he had hassled two women in the bar.
The man, with tears welling up in his eyes, admitted he was drunk and said he was looking out for one of the women because her boyfriend had gotten her addicted to crank.
After 15 minutes, Munfrada asked one of the officers if he planned on making an "Adam-1" an arrest and when the officer said he wasn't, Munfrada exited through the back door.
Only two deputies Munfrada and Corey Matkin worked that shift, as deputy Dottie Dwyer's request for a vacation day had been granted. In order to coordinate their movement with only two deputies, Munfrada went to the sheriff's office at 9:05 p.m. to discuss the game plan with Matkin.
While Matkin checked his e-mail deputies are instructed to check their messages before each shift he and Munfrada mapped out their respective patrols: Munfrada to Box Elder and Matkin to Havre's surrounding areas.
Halfway to Box Elder, Munfrada stopped along U.S. Highway 87 to check on Montana Highway Patrol officer Mark Bosch, who had just herded a group of black cows off the highway.
"This is all open range out there," Munfrada said, pulling his car back onto the road. "What that means is that it's the responsibility of the driver to look out for cows because they range over" on the roads.
On an unmarked road leading to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, Munfrada drove past a worn-out Chevrolet with six teenagers packed into the vehicle. Because the car had only one headlight and a broken left taillight, Munfrada executed a quick U-turn and performed a motor vehicle stop. "Your car needs some fixing up," he told the driver as he approached.
The group five girls and one boy said they were heading to the store. Since the driver didn't have a license, Munfrada told them their punishment was to head back to the reservation.
Havre police notifed Munfrada that an officer had seen a red Dodge Neon run a stop sign while he responded to a separate call. Unable to follow the car at that time, the officer took down the license plate number for later. At 12:44 a.m., Munfrada drove to the address of the registered vehicle, and found the Neon parked next to the home. Because all lights were off and the offense was not serious enough to warrant a late-night interview, Munfrada did not disturb the family. On Thursday, a Havre police officer would make a call to the home.
Upon returning from a night of drinking, a young woman called the police to request that her agitated boyfriend be removed from their apartment on Eighth Street. Munfrada and Matkin assisted Havre police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson at 2:15 a.m. on the call. The 25-year-old boyfriend fled on foot before the officers arrived, but while Wilkinson interviewed the woman in her kitchen, Munfrada spotted a small bong in plain view on a stereo stand. Tears flowed from the woman when Munfrada confronted her about the drug paraphernalia. But since she did not admit the bong belonged to her, no arrests could be made.
"Since it couldn't be established who the owner of it was, we just seized it and destroyed it," Munfrada said. "Any time you find contraband and you can't find an owner, you're still obligated to destroy it."
Munfrada and Matkin drove to the sheriff's office shortly after 3 a.m. to meet before Munfrada's shift ended. That evening, not a single criminal call was placed to the sheriff's office and no arrests were made. Matkin referred to the evening as "preventive policing," as the deputies had investigated all of the problem areas in the county.
Following the brief discussion, Munfrada stepped in his vehicle to embark on the lengthy commute to his home. Matkin drove off to finish the remaining two hours on his shift.
Editor's note: This is the second in a series about the jobs of local law enforcement officers.