by Gary Noland
(From Pathfinder Issue 10-24-96)
An apparent discrepancy in statements by two young men and witnesses and similarities in pieces of shotgun shells and steel shot recovered at the scene led police to arrest two young Seeley Lake men early last Friday (Oct. 18) morning on charges of murdering Cliff Nelson almost three weeks earlier.
Jailed now at the Missoula County jail, facing a deliberate homicide, or "...in the alternative," accountability for deliberate homicide charge in Nelson's shooting are Matt Livingston, 21, and Rambo Hooser, 19, both of Seeley Lake. Bail for each has been set at $500,000.
Both were arrested early last Friday morning, starting with Hooser at his family home five miles north of Seeley Lake at 6:30 a.m. and Livingston at 7:45 a.m. at his residence just across a drive from Nelson's mobile home.
Neither man offered resistance or made a statement, according to Missoula County Sheriff Doug Chase. The two were brought before Justice of the Peace Patrick Holt who read the charges to them. Hooser appeared with his own attorney, Craig Shannon, who stated his client did not commit the murder. Livingston asked for a public defender.
Both have denied any knowledge of the murder of Nelson.
The two men had become prime suspects early on in an ever-widening investigation in which detectives questioned anyone known to be out in the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 30, when Nelson, a seventh and eighth grade teacher here, was killed with a single shotgun blast to his head in his trailer home on Redwood Lane around 1:30 a.m.
In addition to the homicide charge, County Attorney Robert L. Deschamps, III, filed a second count against both men, charging them with felony criminal mischief, and or accountability for criminal mischief in the shooting out of office windows at the Seeley Swan High School minutes before the fatal shooting of Nelson. Both Livingston and Hooser have denied any knowledge of the high school shooting.
Deschamps said Tuesday that it would more than likely be next spring before the case reaches trial. A preliminary hearing is scheduled in Justice Court for November 1, Deschamps said, but added that this hearing is usually bypassed with the filing of affidavits and informations in District Court.
Deschamps said other pre-trial hearings, pleas and filings will be scheduled after the case is assigned a judge in District Court, where felonies are heard. Some of these hearings may be held in November, but he added, you're "...probably looking at spring before trial."
In an 11-page "affidavit of probable cause," Deschamps outlines details of the police investigation of the murder, which was discovered by Resident Deputy Sheriff Scott Newell around 2 a.m. the night of Monday, Sept. 30, when he responded to a 911 call of "shots fired," and eventually discovered Nelson's body when he noticed the door of his trailer home ajar. The inside door lock was in the unlocked position, the affidavit says, and "...Nelson had been shot once on the left side of his face with a 12 Ga. shotgun while he was standing just inside his living room from the hallway that lead to his bedroom."
The affidavit says police "...found a plastic shotgun shell shot cup on the floor between a chair and a couch in the living room of Nelson's trailer. Capt. Crego collected numerous shotgun shell pellets from othe floor around the body of Cliff Nelson. No spent shotgun shell casing were found in or around the trailer."
The shotgun shell shot cups and pellets are similar in appearance and size to cups and pellets found at the high school, and though police admit it may be difficult to trace these back to a particular weapon, the State Crime Lab has indicated the evidence came from a 2 3/4-inch Federal shell, and match to shells police took from Hooser's 1986 white Cadillac car when Hooser was interviewed on Sept. 30, according to the affidavit. "This is a comparison based on class characteristics," the affidavit reads.
At that first interview, according to the affidavit, Hooser produced a 12 Ga. 2 3/4" pump shotgun he said he had in his car all the previous day until he returned home between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on Sept. 30. The affidavit says he purchased the shells locally and had used them while duck hunting with a companion Sunday.
According to the affidavit, Hooser and Livingston were at a party in the woods with "...numerous local young adults," Sunday evening. The party broke up around midnight and Hooser and Livingston went to the Saloon Bar and played pool, where Livingston had a couple drinks. Hooser, being under-age, did not drink.
According to the bartender that night, Livingston argued over the price of drinks, became angry and he and Hooser left the bar around 1 a.m., the affidavit says.
Hooser and Livingston both told police that Hooser left and drove home in his car while Livingston walked the two blocks to his trailer, which takes about three minutes, according to the affidavit. Other witnesses in the Saloon that night say the two left together in Hooser's car, according to the affidavit.
Livingston said he made a phone call to a girl in Potomac as soon as he got home. Telephone records indicate this call was placed at 1:37 a.m. on Sept. 30, according to the affidavit. The girl told police Livingston was "giggly and intoxicated" over the telephone.
Both men have admitted having Nelson as a teacher in Seeley Lake Elementary School. Livingston said he had no problems with Nelson and Hooser, who was expelled from the school, said he "...did not hold a grudge against Cliff Nelson for that fact," the affidavit reads. Livingston graduated from high school, but Hooser did not.
An unidentified informant, according to the affidavit, claims Hooser "...had an intense dislike for Clifford Nelson due to Nelson's role in causing Hooser to be expelled from the Seeley Lake Grade School. The infomant said that at various times Hooser made comments about getting even with Nelson and even killing him," the affidavit reads.
Police have established it takes two minutes to drive from the high school, where the windows were shot out, to the street between the Nelson and Livingston homes.
The affidavit alleges there are "...35 minutes unaccounted for," after Livingston and Hooser left the Saloon Bar, and that "...Livingston's account would place him in locations where he would have had to have heard the gun fire that woke up numerous people, and he claims to have heard nothing."
The arrest of Hooser and Livingston followed several days in which police interviewed several young local people who attended the Sunday night party and were out around this time. Shotgun shells were confiscated from one other person's car and examined by the State Crime Lab, according to the affidavit, with no apparent match.
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