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Judge's desk burned during crime spree in Eureka

by Kristi AlbertsonHagadone News Network
| October 29, 2009 12:00 AM

A judge's office was torched and a county building damaged late Saturday night in Eureka.

Someone broke a window in the back door to enter the building and set fire to a desk in Justice of the Peace Stormy Langston's office in the North Lincoln County Annex, Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose said.

The fire reportedly was confined to Langston's office, but smoke damaged the rest of the building.

"It went into the air conditioning system and into the other offices," Langston said.

Eureka Police Officer Ian Jeffcock called Langston at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, she said.

"He saw smoke coming out of the building," Langston said. "I think if he hadn't seen it … he caught it pretty early. I think the whole building probably would have gone up."

A dollar amount for the damage was not available at press time. An insurance adjuster was expected on scene Monday.

"Even with insurance, I'm sure the cost to constituents will be tremendous," Roose said. "And why?"

So far, Roose added, she has not heard of a motive for the crime.

The other offices in the annex building were broken into, Langston said, but nothing appears to have been taken. Langston's was the only office that had a fire in it.

Langston's desk "burned to the ground," Roose said. "It's just ashes. That's where [the fire] started, I think."

The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, which is handling the investigation, could not be reached for comment.

The annex building was one of at least five buildings broken into around the same time over the weekend. Business owners say they have heard the burglaries were related.

Farmers Insurance and Mountain Sentry Realty, which are connected by a door and are located a little south of the annex building on U.S. 93, were burglarized. Mountain Vista Veterinary Services, located across Montana 37 from the annex building, was broken into. North of the annex building on U.S. 93, the Lake Koocanusa Arena gym reportedly also was burglarized.

"They were totally after cash," said Ann Good, who owns the realty office.

The burglar or burglars ignored the office's new laptop computers and instead went straight for petty cash, she said. The same was true next door at the insurance office, owner Gail Burgess said.

"They threw everything around. They didn't take checks. They knew only to go for cash," said Burgess, who lost $380.

Normally the real estate office doesn't keep cash on hand, but Good has been helping with a raffle for Chris Neill, a Eureka man recently diagnosed with cancer.

Good had deposited $1,700 from the raffle early Saturday, but about $300 came in later that day, she said. The burglars, who had broken in through the insurance office next door, made off with the cash.

"They smashed through a back window and smashed in a door trying to get in through a door," Good said. "They were pretty aggressive."

Veterinarian Nancy Haugan reported a similar situation at her clinic. The burglars tried to get in through the door, and when that didn't work, they broke in through a window, she said.

"All they took from here was some cash - a little over $100," she said. "But that is a minor thing compared to the damage to the door and window."

Haugan didn't know how much the damage would cost to fix.

The real estate office didn't have an alarm system before but is getting one now, Good said. Typically the building is well-lit, but the insurance company's back light had burned out and hadn't been replaced, Good said.

"It's just not the type of community that that type of thing happens in," she said. "It is pretty devastating. You just feel violated."

Roose said FBI investigators were reportedly on scene Monday. Good said federal investigators were coming to her office to check out a "good clue" there.

FBI spokeswoman Debbie Dujanovic Bertram could neither confirm nor deny her agency's involvement in the investigation.

Langston said she was "taking some security precautions" for her personal safety. She said she had a few possible suspects and acknowledged that she is presiding over at least one contentious case.

"That's all I can say at this point," she said. "I can't add more yet, because it's an ongoing investigation."

Most of the items she lost in the fire can be replaced, Langston said. Almost all her records are automated and backed up in Helena. The few current files on her desk can be replaced at the county attorney's office, she said.

The annex building was closed Monday, but Langston held court in Eureka City Court. She works part time as a city judge and part time as a county justice of the peace.

Langston expects to be at city court all week but will have to find a new location for her county cases soon.

"On a permanent basis the city doesn't have enough room," she said.

An attempt to close the court could be a possible motive for the fire, Langston said.

"Hopefully law enforcement finds whoever did it," she said. "In the meantime, we find another place for the court, because we're not going to shut it down. They can't shut the courts down."

Several organizations have offices in the annex building, Roose said, including the Lincoln County Extension Office and the Lincoln County fair office. Roose has an office in the building, and the Lincoln County Commissioners meet there once a month.

The Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic has an office there, as does the state Department of Health and Human Services. A social worker from Libby uses the building.

"All of that is on hold right now until we're able to meet with the insurance adjuster," Roose said.

County nurse Micki Carvey, who also uses the annex building, is "right in the middle of H1N1 clinics," Roose said. "The school has offered her a room to hold her clinics for the H1N1 vaccines."

The Lincoln County clerk and recorder's office is fielding calls for offices that were housed in the annex building, Roose said.

The clerk and recorder's office is now also hosting a ballot box that had sat in the annex building, Roose said.

Lincoln County is running a countywide election on whether to have nonpartisan elections in the future, Roose explained. Constituents could mail in their ballots or drop them off at boxes in Eureka and Libby.

In Eureka, the box was located in the annex building. The box - and the ballots inside - were unharmed in the fire, and Roose gave them to the sheriff's office for safekeeping after the fire.

Voters can still mail their ballots, but those who prefer to drop them off may do so in Eureka at the clerk and recorder's office, Roose said.

The fire is one of the most devastating experiences in Roose's 13 years as a county commissioner. She worked for Lincoln County for 14 years before that.

"It's a sad, sad day," she said. "It's a pretty traumatic experience."

(Kristi Albertson is a reporter for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell).