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No charges for shooter in local man’s death

POLSON — Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher has decided not to charge Ryan Black for the shooting death of Johnny Thomas McKeever. 

Black, 28, was initially arrested on suspicion of deliberate homicide and served two days in jail before being released with a GPS-monitoring device following the shooting of McKeever, 34, shortly after 4 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16. 

McKeever died at the scene, which Sheriff Don Bell said took place at a trailer park about one-quarter mile south of Pablo on old U.S. Highway 93. Eschenbacher concluded that Black, who did not allege self defense and instead called the shooting an accident, would assert self defense if the case proceeded to trial. 

“There’s a 100-percent chance he’ll claim self defense at some point,” Eschenbacher said last week. He called self defense the “easiest defense available” legally. “It’s clear, concise and justified,” said Eschenbacher, a former public defender in Lake County. 

Eschenbacher released a report regarding his decision last week. In the report, he states that McKeever was shot with a .44 Magnum pistol from 2-3 feet away outside the residence where Black was staying. McKeever’s wife, Amy, was at the residence with Black that night along with Brett Stevenson, a friend of Black’s who was visiting. 

Eschenbacher said McKeever came to the home to confront his estranged wife, who he knew was involved in an affair with Black. McKeever banged on the door hard enough to crack the door frame and dislodge the striker plate, the report said. Black came to the door with the .44 Magnum and closed the door behind him. McKeever struck Black in the right eye with his fist, which caused severe bruising, the report said. McKeever did not have a weapon. Black told law enforcement that as he fell backwards the gun went off and struck McKeever. The report states that the bullet entered the left side of McKeever’s head above the jaw bone and exited below and slightly behind his right ear. The bullet did not penetrate to a depth to get an accurate line back to where the shot was fired, the report said. 

Black is a recovering paraplegic and wears leg braces but was not wearing them at the time of the shooting, the report states. 

Black, Stevenson and Amy McKeever had been to bars in Missoula on the night of the shooting, the report states. Eschenbacher later said that Johnny McKeever had a blood alcohol content of .156 while Black had a BAC of .025, although a Lake County Sheriff’s Office employee estimated that Black’s BAC was taken five hours after the shooting and would’ve been higher at the time of the shooting. DUI in Montana consists of driving with a BAC of .08 or higher. 

Inconsistencies

In his report, Eschenbacher noted that Black’s statements contained some things inconsistent with observed facts. 

For example, Black said he didn’t think McKeever was hitting the door hard enough to do damage. Black claimed that he fired the gun while falling back and said that the gun was at waist level. But for that to have occurred, McKeever would have had to duck and turn when the gun went off, Eschenbacher said. There was also an inconsistency about whether Black entered the residence through the back door after the shooting or the front door.  

Black’s statements are not proof he was lying, but could explained by the emotional state he was in, Eschenbacher said. 

In his report, he noted that state law does not require a person who is lawfully in a location and threatened with bodily injury or loss of life to retreat from a threat or summon law enforcement assistance prior to using force. In addition, a person is justified in the use of force against another when the person reasonably believes that the use of force is necessary to prevent or terminate the other person’s unlawful entry into or attack upon an occupied structure.

“This incident is a tragedy, and we regret the loss of life and sympathize with the family of the deceased,” he said, noting the case could be revisited if new evidence is revealed. 

LCSO disagrees

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office released a statement on Nov. 15 wherein Bell recommended that Black be charged with negligent homicide. Bell said LCSO was assisted in its investigation by the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation. Investigator observations and evidence do not match Black’s initial statement about how the incident occurred, Bell said. 

“The county attorney has the last word on this. We just want the public to have our side of it,” Bell said, and declined further comment. 

“I would not want to prosecute someone for defending himself,” Eschenbacher said. He noted the sheriff’s job is to make arrests, and his job is to get convictions. 

“I have a different burden of proof. I have to prove beyond reasonable doubt. (Bell) only has to prove probable cause, which he has done,” Eschenbacher said. 

A call to Black’s attorney, Shandor Badaruddin of Missoula, was not returned. Amy McKeever also did not return a phone call. 

Mother disagrees

However, Johnny McKeever’s mother, Gail (Ashley) Robertson, said she also disagrees with Eschenbacher’s decision not to prosecute. 

The Eloy, Wisconsin resident, who was raised in Pablo and graduated from Ronan High School, said Johnny left behind a 7-year-old daughter and four stepchildren ages, 18, 15, 13 and 13, the latter whom he had raised “since they were babies.” 

She doesn’t believe Eschenbacher’s report, called it “bull” and said there are too many holes in it. “I don’t believe his story of the statements of the three people who were there,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem like how it would’ve come down.”

McKeever had recently been working as a farmer, but also worked seven years in the oil fields in North Dakota, she said. Previously he had worked as a carpenter, irrigation ditch rider and for Job Corps. 

“He was a loving, caring, funny person, and he was very family oriented,” she said. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. Anyone who came in contact with Johnny loved him.”

Robertson, who hasn’t lived in Lake County since 2009, said she last saw her son one year ago. 

Johnny enjoyed life and did what he had to do to take care of his family, she said. 

In addition to his mother and children, McKeever left behind his father, Casey McKeever of Salem, Oregon, two brothers, Tyler of Bloomington, Illinois, and Brandon of Lincoln, Nebraska, six stepbrothers and three stepsisters. 

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