Ravalli County and Ravalli County Deputy Sterling Maus are among three counties and several law enforcement personnel named in a federal lawsuit filed by Paul Jenkins and his children Kenneth Jenkins and Crystal Combs. Jenkins, who served over 23 years in prison under two concurrent life sentences and a concurrent 40-year sentence for burglary with no possibility for parole, was released from prison in June 2018 after DNA evidence proved he was innocent of murder. He and his children have now filed a civil rights complaint in federal court in Missoula seeking damages for the injuries suffered by the family as a result of the wrongful conviction.
The case goes back to the robbery of the JCS, just off I-15, south of Helena in the early morning hours of January 12, 1994. Donna Meagher, a 34-year-old mother of two and sister of the owner of the business, was forced to turn over the keys to the gaming machines and the cash register. She was then bound at the wrists and ankles with rope and a rope was tied around her neck. She was driven 13 miles away to Colorado Gulch Road and savagely beaten to death with a claw hammer. Although there were no fingerprints at the scene of the robbery and a weapon was not found, a piece of rope was found at the scene and retained as evidence.
Several months later, Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins were arrested and charged with the crime and in February of 1995, both were convicted and sentenced to serve two concurrent life terms and a concurrent sentence of 40 years for robbery with no possibility of parole.
It was not until lawyers for the Montana Innocence Project got involved in 2012 that things began to change. In July of 2015, attorneys for MIP filed for a DNA analysis of the rope that was used in the kidnapping and murder. In 2018, the DNA evidence absolved the two men and implicated another man, D. Nelson, who the plaintiffs believe should have been a suspect from the very beginning.
The plaintiffs allege that Jefferson County Sheriff and deputies who were investigating the site of the robbery and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff and deputies working on the murder scene used fabricated evidence, coerced confessions and withheld evidence that led to the conviction of the men in 1994.
Ravalli County enters the case in 1999 when, according to the lawsuit, Ravalli County Sheriff Deputy Sterling Maus received information from a Mr. F. Nelson that his uncle Mr. D. Nelson had admitted to murdering a woman at a hotel casino in Montana and stating that two kids were taking the rap for it. Jenkins claims that F. Nelson was interviewed by law enforcement and disclosed information that could only be known by the killer as well as a photograph of the vehicle that D. Nelson was driving when the crime was committed. Jenkins claims that this information was not passed on to any of the other investigating agencies, or if it was sent it was not used. Jenkins argues that this led to another 19 years in prison when it should have led to his release.
Jenkins claims that this information was not passed on to any of the other investigating agencies, or if it was sent, it was not used. Jenkins argues that this led to another 19 years in prison when it should have led to his release.
The DNA analysis from the rope in 2018 showed no other identifying DNA other than Meagher’s and Mr. D. Nelson’s. Nelson’s car was also identified by more than one person as being in the vicinity the night of the murder. Nelson is currently in jail for another crime. He is a known serial killer and has been convicted of multiple robberies. According to the court documents, he is also suspected of having committed multiple additional robberies, abductions, and murders, in Florida, California, Nevada, and Washington.
Both Lawrence and Jenkins were released in April of 2018. All charges against the two were dropped in June, 2018.
Jenkins and his children are asking for a jury trial over the damages for the wrongful conviction.
Lawrence has also filed suit seeking damages.
The Ravalli County Commissioners have scheduled a meeting on October 10 to discuss the litigation. The discussion will most likely take place behind closed doors.