Yaak murder trial begins

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Opening arguments began Monday in Montana 19th Judicial District Court in the trial of Sarah Louise Carpenter Skinner for the January 2017 homicide of Travis Gillett.

In connection with Gillett’s death, Ezra Skinner, Carpenter’s husband, pleaded guilty on March 12 to tampering with or fabricating evidence. He could face up to ten years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Skinner and Carpenter were first arraigned Sept. 18 on charges of deliberate homicide, a felony, or in the alternative deliberate homicide by accountability. They faced a maximum of life in prison.

Carpenter was arraigned again on March 26, with the additional charge of tampering with or fabricating evidence. She pleaded not guilty on both counts.

In the prosecution’s opening statement Monday, Deputy County Attorney Jeffrey Zwang told the jury that he anticipates the evidence will show Skinner was with Carpenter when she ordered Gillett down an embankment at the side of a road at gunpoint, and then shot him three times.

Zwang said Skinner is also expected to testify that he and Carpenter returned to the scene looking for Carpenter’s government assistance card, and that she walked down the embankment and shot Gillett once more in the back of the head.

Zwang told the jury that, “This case involves a very strange and very long sequence of events.”

Shortly before Gillett’s death, he said, Carpenter had removed a no-contact order related to past violence in her relationship with Gillett.

Leading up to Carpenter shooting Gillett, Zwang said that Skinner claims he and Carpenter took more than one drive with Gillett with plans to throw him off a bridge. The trip described on the final night leading up to Gillett’s death had the trio, along with a child belonging to Carpenter and Gillett, spending eight to 10 hours driving as far as the bridge at Libby dam and back through Libby and Troy to the Yaak.

On the defense side, Carpenter’s attorney, Greg Rapkotch from Kalispell, said in his opening statement that Carpenter will testify Skinner acted alone in Gillett’s death.

Rapkotch said Carpenter is expected to testify that Skinner was angry over a miscarriage of what he thought would be his child, and blamed Gillett for upsetting Carpenter. Yet, Rapkotch said, the child would have been Gillett’s.

Rapkotch said that Carpenter’s testimony will describe Skinner abducting Gillett, then later taking Carpenter to the Yaak — where the couple were recorded on video surveillance at the Dirty Shame Saloon — but did not take her to Gillett’s body.

Testimony is scheduled to begin again at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

In a March 9 interview with County Sheriff’s Detective Duane Rhodes, Skinner told Rhodes that Carpenter had “expressed her intent and plan to kill” Gillett on Jan. 12, 2017, according to an affidavit from Rhodes.

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