Guilty verdict in Yaak murder trial

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After an evening and a following morning spent in deliberation in Montana 19th Judicial District Court, a 12-person jury today found Sarah Carpenter guilty of deliberate homicide and tampering or fabricating physical evidence in the January 2017 death of Travis Gillett.

Though Gillett’s mother cried when the verdict was read, she and the rest of the court contained most of their emotions until after court was adjourned.

Carpenter gave no sign of a reaction, maintaining the blank demeanor she carried throughout her testimony and most of the trial.

During six days of testimony that began Aug. 6, the jury heard from both Carpenter and the man she was originally arrested and charged alongside, Ezra Skinner. Jurors also heard from expert witnesses for the prosecution, while defense attorney Greg Rapkotch only called Carpenter to the stand.

Carpenter and Skinner were married in the time between the death of Travis Gillett on Jan. 14, 2017, and their arrests on Aug. 24, 2017. In jail, Carpenter gave birth to twins Skinner had fathered.

On March 9, 2018, Skinner came forward with a confession, accusing Carpenter of shooting Gillett to death. He revised details of his story on March 19, a point that Rapkotch returned to repeatedly when attempting to undermine Skinner’s credibility during the trial.

On the stand, Carpenter accused Skinner of Gillett’s murder, claiming she had not previously come forward to protect Skinner, whom she saw as a provider for her and her children.

The two offered contrasting and sometimes overlapping stories of events from Jan. 13 and Jan. 14 of last year, as well as the days before and after.

Skinner painted Carpenter as manipulating and plotting, going so far as to pick up Gillett from a homeless shelter and taking him home with her intending to eventually throw him from a bridge.

Skinner told of two separate trips into Lincoln County from Ponderay, Idaho, on Jan. 13. During the first, shorter trip, Skinner said he followed Carpenter while she drove with Gillett in her vehicle. During the second trip, Carpenter and Skinner were in Carpenter’s Trailblazer, Carpenter’s 8-month-old son with them, while they drove for what may have been close to 12 hours with a bound and sedated Gillett in the back.

In the second trip, Skinner described reaching Highway 2 by way of Highway 56, heading through Libby to the Rexford Bridge north of the Libby Dam, returning the way they came, and eventually traveling the Yaak River Road to mile marker 48, where Gillett’s body was later found.

Throughout the trip, Skinner said that they stopped more than once to contemplate throwing Gillett from a height, but that they never did. He described Carpenter climbing into the back seat and threatening Gillett with Skinner’s .40-caliber Glock handgun after Gillett began to rouse and argue with her.

Skinner said Carpenter ordered Gillett down an embankment and shot him. When they returned to the scene to look for a government benefit card with her name on it that Carpenter had dropped, Skinner said she shot Gillett again at close range.

Carpenter countered with accusations that the night Skinner said they took the trip, she was in her bedroom with Gillett, and both had been abusing various substances. She claimed Skinner showed up, bound Gillett with duct tape, rope and a blanket, and kidnapped him.

Carpenter said Skinner returned hours later and took her with him as far as the Dirty Shame Saloon in the Yaak, about 20 miles from where Gillett’s body was found.

She said that accounted for how they were recorded on surveillance video at the Dirty Shame on Jan. 14 around 1:30 p.m.

Skinner said that they were recorded while returning from Carpenter having killed Gillett, and had been headed back to Ponderay when Carpenter decided she wanted a drink.

The tampering charge came from Skinner and Carpenter both being party to efforts to initially conceal and later sell the murder weapon to a relative of Carpenter while at a wedding in Texas.

Skinner reached a plea agreement with Lincoln County Attorney Marcia Boris, pleading guilty to the tampering charge.

Skinner will not be sentenced until October, as his plea agreement required him to testify honestly in court. His agreement stipulates the maximum 10-year sentence, but he could be eligible for parole within two years if he is given credit for time served in the Lincoln County Jail.

However, Judge Matthew Cuffe is not bound to the plea agreement, and could impose a harsher sentence.

Carpenter is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 2. She faces the possibility of life in prison.

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