Great Falls Tribune

February 12, 2007

Advocates for the wrongly imprisoned win parole hearing for man sentenced to 100 years in 1979 Poplar murder

By KIM SKORNOGOSKI
Tribune Staff Writer

POPLAR — Barry Allen Beach has maintained his innocence every day since he confessed two decades ago to the brutal 1979 murder of 18-year-old Kimberly Nees outside Poplar.

A nonprofit group, Centurion Ministries, believes Beach and hopes to free him as the group has 40 others who were wrongly imprisoned across the nation.

Just 17 years old when the crime happened, and barely 21 when sentenced to 100 years without chance of parole, Beach has spent more years in prison than out.
For roughly six years, Centurion Ministries has been digging up witnesses and evidence in the 27-year-old case.

Their work culminates on March 1, when Beach, who turns 45 this week in prison in Deer Lodge, is scheduled to go before the Montana State Board of Parole and Pardons.

"This is essentially Barry's last chance for freedom," Centurion Ministries founder Jim McCloskey said from the group's headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey.

Centurion investigators spent the last few weeks knocking on doors to line up witnesses.

And in late January a Dateline NBC crew spent a week in Poplar interviewing people for an hour-long show that will include footage from the upcoming clemency hearing.

Around 7 a.m. on June 16, 1979, two tribal police officers went to investigate a truck parked on a bluff overlooking the Poplar River bridge. They saw blood inside the locked vehicle. A clump of bloody hair was on the ground.

Following a drag trail, they discovered Nees partly submerged, face up in the river.

Just two weeks earlier, she was giving the valedictorian speech at her graduation.

Popular and pretty, Nees' death rocked the town of about 1,000 people.

"Everyone was wondering who the hell did it," said Poplar rancher Richard Holen, who was 19 at the time. "A lot of people were afraid. There was a lot of talk — there still is talk. They've got a lot of unanswered questions."

People moved in with relatives, too frightened to live alone.

"It was a real shocker," said Glena Lockman, Nees' cousin. Four years older, she babysat Nees and her sister Pam when they were growing up. "She was a fun-loving kid. It's still hard to talk about."

Being on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the FBI, tribal police, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Poplar city police and Roosevelt County Sheriff's Office all investigated the crime, but no one was immediately charged or arrested.

Twenty years later, the case is once again the talk of the town.

"Maybe they'll get to the bottom of it, maybe the truth will be brought out," said Dun O'Connor, who has lived north of Poplar all his life. "If they're digging into it, there must be a reason. We'll wait and see what they find out."

More than 100 Poplar residents have signed a petition for Beach's release.

crime scene
THE CRIME SCENE: The body of 18-year-old Kimberly Nees was discovered near Poplar River Bridge in June, 1979. Two years later Barry Beach went to jail for her murder with no chance of parole.

Barry Beach
Barry Allen Beach

Kimberly Nees
Kimberly Nees /PHOTO BY LOUIS MONTCLAIR

Most of Nees' family has left Poplar. Lockman is one of a few relatives that met with Centurion Ministries to hear their case. While she once believed Beach was guilty, she now says she is certain he wasn't there that night.

"I feel strongly that he's been imprisoned wrongly for the last 25 years," Lockman said. "Something's got to be done."


In 1991, Beach saw a 60 Minutes' story about Centurion Ministries freeing a wrongly convicted Texas man from death row.

He wrote the nonprofit group a letter begging them to take on his case. The group gets more than 1,000 such requests a year and Beach's didn't rise to the top of the pile for seven years.

For two years the group reviewed court and police records before deciding to meet Beach in Deer Lodge in August 2000.

"Right then and there we began an investigation of his case," McCloskey said. "We are convinced Barry had nothing to do with the crime."

McCloskey said considering the group's resources — they have a paid staff of five people in addition to volunteers — Centurion only takes cases when they believe the person convicted had no role in the crime.

Since taking on Beach's case, investigators Richard Hepburn and Paul Henderson have visited Poplar more than 40 times, each spanning 10 days. McCloskey visited Montana a dozen times.

Centurion interviewed more than 200 people, following tips to North Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Louisiana.

Living in Louisiana with his father, Beach was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of minors in January 1983.

He was held in jail on the misdemeanor for three days before two officers questioned him for hours, trying to link him to the abductions and deaths of three young local women.

By the day's end, Beach confessed to their deaths and Nees' murder four years earlier.

Beach, then 20, told police that he and Nees were parked in her father's truck when Nees rejected his romantic advances.

According to the reported confession, Beach got angry and strangled her. Nees escaped out the driver's door and Beach came around the truck and repeatedly hit her with a crescent wrench.

He then dragged her body and pushed it over an embankment. He returned to the truck several times to cover his tracks, throwing evidence into the river, he told police.

His confession to the Louisiana crimes didn't stick — authorities later arrested other suspects. Centurion says Beach wasn't even in the state at the time.

But a jury sitting in the Valley County Courthouse in Glasgow a year later convicted him of killing Nees.

Lockman and others in Nees' family sat through the entire trial.

"It was a relief to us, especially her folks," she said. "I went to the trial and totally believed he did it. What are you suppose to think? He confessed. But I look back now ..."

Centurion Ministries maintains that the entire case against Beach is based on his confession and allegations that Beach's pubic hair was found on Nees' sweater.

The hours of interrogation before his confession weren't recorded. Therefore Beach can't prove his claims that the officers threatened that he would get electrocuted if he didn't confess and describe the process in gruesome detail.

In the mid-80s, DNA evidence was rare — Montana's state crime lab didn't start testing DNA until 1998.

Back then, crime lab specialist Arnold Melnikoff was making a name for himself with his skill of matching hair samples.

His analysis that said Beach's pubic hair was among three dozen found on Nees' sweater never was submitted as evidence.

But Marc Racicot, who was the special prosecutor from the state Attorney General's Office at the time and was later elected governor, mentioned the hair in his opening and closing statements as proof that Beach was guilty.

Years later, Melnikoff's methods have been widely discredited. He lost his job in the Washington state crime lab and two Montana cases were overturned after DNA evidence proved that Melnikoff was wrong in testifying that hair samples matched the suspects.

In a lengthy story last October, the Missoula Independent weekly newspaper reported that Racicot had to concede that the hair evidence was inadmissible because a Poplar police officer whose daughter was a possible suspect had broken into the evidence room on a night he was supposed to be guarding it.

The Montana Attorney General's Office reviewed nearly 400 cases that relied on Melnikoff's hair expertise, but Beach's was never considered because the scientist didn't take the stand.

Recently a court granted Beach the right to test the hair to see if it matched his DNA, but it's gone.

Centurion searched the Roosevelt County Sheriff's Office evidence room and interviewed officers and prosecutors in the case, but can't find the hair or other evidence potentially carrying DNA, including cigarettes, beer cans, a bloody towel found near the scene and fingerprint samples taken inside the truck.

Racicot told the jury that 25 details in Beach's confession could only be known by the killer. He never elaborated as to what those elements were.

In fact, Montana law enforcement told Louisiana police there were nine things that would verify Beach was the killer. Centurion Ministries says Beach only fit one of those elements — the murder weapon.

But the suspected murder weapon was so commonly known that a local hardware store displayed a crescent wrench, Nees' picture and a sign asking for tips to solve her murder.

Evidence at the crime scene doesn't fit Beach's description of how the crime occurred, according to Centurion.

FBI investigators said the crime scene suggests that Nees was first beaten in the truck. Blood smeared the passenger seat and was splattered on the ceiling.

She was then dragged out of the passenger door — not leaving on her own power from the driver's side as Beach said. Covered in blood, the killer or one of the killers then slammed the door, leaving a bloody hand print on the passenger window that matched neither Nees nor Beach.

Outside the truck, she was bludgeoned as many as 30 times, likely with multiple tools.

Three sets of footprints were spotted along the drag trail to the river. One person wore clogs or flip-flops and another was barefoot with feet far larger than Beach's size 8s.

The footprints and the location where her body was found also don't fit Beach's story. He said he dragged her then pushed her over the embankment.

But the evidence suggests that someone then climbed down and further pulled her along the river bank and into the water.

The state's former forensic pathologist, the highly respected Dr. John Pfaff, testified that Nees was never strangled, as Beach said. And though Beach said he grabbed her by the shoulders to drag her to the embankment, her shoulders and head were bruised as if she was dragged by her feet.

Pfaff also said Nees was not raped and sexually assaulted, leaving it unexplained why Beach's pubic hair would allegedly be on her sweater.

"The confession is full of contradictions and shows a complete ignorance for how the crime unfolded and the evidence left behind at the scene," McCloskey said.

No physical evidence places Beach at the scene and no witnesses place him outside of his house that night.

Before his Louisiana arrest, sheriff's deputies interviewed Beach twice. He told them he spent the day at a local swimming hole, where his vehicle got stuck in a sand bank.

Failing to get the truck out, he left his friends, walking to town and eventually hitching a ride home. There he ate and, being tired and frustrated, went to bed early.

His mother didn't know what time Beach went to bed, but did see him sleeping the next morning, wearing the same clothes as the day before.

In his confession, Beach told the officers he burned his clothes that night to destroy the bloody evidence.

When pressed to explain, Beach said that his fingerprints weren't in the truck because he wiped the interior clean. Yet investigators found 40 prints inside — 28 of which were identifiable but didn't belong to Nees, her family, the officers who found the truck or Beach.

Though their investigation has focused on finding evidence to exonerate Beach, Centurion developed a case that Nees was killed by a group of jealous girls.

Nees reportedly went on a date with the boyfriend of one of the girls, sparking them to beat her up. They went too far and killed her, Centurion claims.

The group found numerous witnesses who overhead the girls saying that they got away with murder. Others have more specific statements — that the women confessed to Nees' death.

A tribal policeman saw two of the women driving away from the murder site in the early morning hours.

Recently, a man who was just 10 at the time came forward. He lived near where Nees was killed and remembers hearing her scream before he hid in the brush, watching while the women hit her with a tool.

One witness died. Another, the soon-to-be ex-husband of one of the suspects, was killed by the suspect's then-boyfriend. He threatened to reveal his wife's confession to Nees' death as part of the divorce proceedings.

Before Centurion Ministries' investigation, Beach lost multiple appeals before numerous courts.

So they took the case to the only person who can free Beach — Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The Montana Board of Parole and Pardons agreed to give Centurion latitude in bringing in witnesses and evidence to prove Beach's innocence at the March hearing. They will choose whether to recommend to Schweitzer that Beach be granted clemency or his sentence be changed to allow a chance for parole.

"We believe any objective and fair-minded person will look at the facts and come to the same conclusion that we have," McCloskey said. "And that is that Mr. Beach is a completely innocent man."

Centurion will put on what amounts to a second trial. But unlike his first trial, no one can be ordered by the court to testify at the upcoming hearing.

Witnesses must choose to drive 488 miles on winter roads from Poplar to Deer Lodge.

McCloskey has a dream list of 20 witnesses — some of whom are character witnesses, others offer evidence of Beach's innocence.

He hopes half will actually make the drive.

Richard Holen plans to be there. Nineteen at the time, he remembers seeing Nees driving toward where she was murdered around 2 a.m. He saw at least three other women crammed into the truck cab.

Lockman also will testify — as much to push the state to prosecute the "real" killers as to help free Beach.

Nees' mother Diane won't talk to Centurion. She stays steady in her conviction that Beach killed her daughter. Nees' father has died.

"You can't blame her," Lockman said. "Until there's hard proof, facts, evidence — you have to remember what they've been through."

As for Racicot, he told the Independent last fall that Beach confessed and that the case has been appealed unsuccessfully to numerous courts.

"Any notion that there was somehow a mistake in the process is wanting for credibility," Racicot said.

McCloskey counters that false confessions occur frequently, as demonstrated by numerous exonerations achieved by his group and The Innocence Project, another nonprofit group that bases most of its cases on DNA evidence.

Back in Poplar, the whispers that had at one time hushed are buzzing again.

It hasn't been easy for the Nees family. And it hasn't been easy for witnesses, who fear they will be targeted for their testimony.

"I guess I can honestly tell you that I have no problem with Barry being released," Lockman said. "Deep down I just want the real murderers to be charged and brought to justice like they should be.

"I pray that it comes to rest one day. Whether that will happen ... who knows."

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, 800-438-6600 or kskornog@greatfallstribune.com.


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Truth in Justice