‘Never, ever, ever give up’: Barry Beach’s resilient fight for freedom

“Never, ever, ever give up:” Barry Beach looked at these words every day in his cell at the Montana State Prison where he served more than 30 years for a crime he did not commit, maintaining hope that someday justice would prevail. 

When Beach was in high school, a classmate, Kimberly Nees, was murdered at the Poplar River on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Following a coerced confession, Beach was convicted of the crime. He was granted clemency in 2015, but the road to release resembled a rollercoaster.

The Murder of Kimberly Nees

On June 16, 1979, two weeks after graduating as valedictorian at Poplar High School, Nees went to a drive-in movie with her boyfriend Greg Norgaard. Norgaard dropped Nees off at her home right after the movie. She was home for 15 minutes before she left in her dad’s truck at 12:15 a.m. Witnesses reported seeing Nees parked at the Exxon gas station on Highway 2 around 12:30 a.m., and she was later seen following several cars towards the Poplar River at 1 a.m. 

At 4 a.m., two tribal police officers observed a truck parked in a deserted field near the Poplar River, but they saw no pressing need to check it out at the time. However, around 7 a.m., as the officers were driving back into town, they noticed that the same truck was still there and decided to investigate further. 

They found blood in the interior of the truck, a large pool of blood and a clump of hair near the passenger side, and a trail of blood leading down to the river. When they followed the trail, they found Nees’s lifeless body semi-submerged in water.  

Later that morning, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Department, the Fort Peck Tribal Police Department, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs began investigating the crime scene.

Blood spatter evidence led detectives to believe that Nees was attacked in the cab of the truck, pulled outside of the truck where the attack continued, creating the pool of blood, and then dragged to the river. 

The cause of death was a massive head injury. The autopsy report noted skull fractures and brain injuries resulting from more than 30 blows to the head. There was no evidence of sexual assault or rape. 

Some of the most significant pieces of evidence found at the crime scene were several different footprints leading down to the river, indicating that there were several perpetrators, and a bloody palm print on the passenger side of the truck above the door handle. 

Barry Beach’s Whereabouts 

On the day of Nees’s murder, Beach was with his friends Caleb Gorneau and Shannon O’Brien at a swimming hole at the Poplar River. On his way home, Beach’s truck got stuck in the sand, and he destroyed the transmission in his attempt to move it. Beach walked to Tastee Freeze and got a ride with his friends Larry Rowe and Dorrance Steele the rest of the way home; they were the last people to see Beach that night. 

When Beach got home, no one was there. He grabbed a snack and went upstairs where he fell asleep. When he woke up the next morning, Beach went to his grandparent’s about 15 miles outside of town to work on their ranch. It was there that he first learned of Nees’s murder from his sister. 

Barry Beach in 1979

In 1979, Beach was a high school student in Poplar, Montana. He used substances to cope with the challenges presented in his teenage life. He believes those challenges are also what made him susceptible to a wrongful conviction. 

“I came from a poor, mixed-race family,” Beach said. “Mom worked two jobs with three kids. When you’re not the cool kid on the playground, you try to find other ways to fit in. For me, it was drugs and alcohol. All of that combined made me a prime target for wrongful incarceration.” 

Beach grew up with his mom and his step-family. His dad lived in Louisiana with his wife and five children. Shortly after Nees’s murder⁠—before he learned he was a suspect—Beach went to Louisiana to spend the summer and fall semester with his dad.

“I was looking to get out of the reservation,” Beach said. “Like any young, teenage addict whose alcoholism and drug addiction is based on themselves, I thought, ‘If I could just get out of Montana, things would be better.’ I’m going to go live with dad, and I’m going to have this great life.”

Beach first learned he was a suspect in Nees’s murder from his mom, Bobbi Clincher. Beach was already living in Louisiana when authorities went to his house in Montana to question him about the crime. Clincher informed them that Beach was living with his dad out-of-state but that he was planning to move back soon to complete his last semester of high school in Poplar. 

“I told my mom, ‘when I get back, we’ll go see them,’” Beach said. “I didn’t have anything to hide. It wasn’t like I was running from them or anything like that.” 

When Beach moved back in December of 1979, he contacted Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Department to set up a meeting. He provided fingerprints, blood samples, hair samples, and footprints. He also completed an interview with law enforcement. Beach was told that he was free to go at that time. A couple weeks later, Beach was notified that none of the physical evidence was consistent with him. 

In February of 1980, Roosevelt County contacted Beach again and asked if he would take a polygraph test in Glasgow, Montana, with the FBI. He complied. The test showed that he had some general knowledge of the crime but did not commit the crime. 

“Once again, law enforcement told me that I did not commit the crime, and I was free to go,” Beach said. “That was the second time I was told that and the second time I was cleared by law enforcement.” 

Portrait of Barry Beach in high school
(Photo courtesy of Montanans for Justice)

After graduating high school, Beach went back to Louisiana and worked in construction, building Holiday Inns throughout the south. In August of 1981, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Beach completed enrollment in Shreveport, Louisiana, and boot camp in Orlando, Florida. In April 1982, he was preparing to be deployed to the Mediterranean Sea in relation to the Lebanese conflict. 

Beach never made it to his first deployment. He was discharged right before he was set to leave because the FBI informed the Navy that two witnesses put Beach at the scene of Nees’ murder and that he was the prime suspect. The FBI claimed to receive this information from Roosevelt County. 

“When I got back, I went and saw the sheriff like I was supposed to,” Beach said. “The sheriff told me that he didn’t know about the letter. He didn’t know where it came from, and there were no witnesses to the crime.”

Beach suspects that the FBI may have been motivated to send the letter to the Navy. Beach was not an enrolled member of a Federally recognized tribe, so if⁠ he became the prime suspect, the FBI would no longer have jurisdiction over the case. 

After being cleared by Roosevelt County for the third time, Beach moved back to Louisiana to live with his dad. Beach said it was instantly apparent that his step-mom had animosity towards him. 

“All of a sudden, here I was—the sixth kid,” Beach said. “She kept trying to convince my dad that I was not his son, and that’s kind of what led to the entire situation in Louisiana of me getting arrested.” 

The Arrest

On January 4, 1983, Beach was arrested in Monroe, Louisiana, and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. His 14-year-old step-sister ran away from home, and Beach allowed her to stay with him. When Beach’s step-mom learned that her daughter was with Beach, she reported him to the police and told them that Beach had been questioned about a murder in Montana. 

At the time of Beach’s arrest, detectives in Monroe were working to solve the recent murders of three young women. When detectives Jay Via and Alfred Calhoun learned that Beach was questioned in connection to the murder of a young woman in Montana, they began implicating him in the three Louisiana murders. 

The Coerced Confession 

After being held for two days, Via began questioning Beach about the Monroe murders on the morning of January 6, 1983. Beach insisted that he had no knowledge about those crimes, but Via interrogated him without taking a break until 2 p.m. At that time, Calhoun took over the interrogation; this is when the topic of the questions shifted from the Monroe murders to the murder of Nees. 

Beach said coercive practices were present in the entire investigation. For example, Via and Calhoun used the Mutt and Jeff technique also known as “good cop bad cop,” which is coercive in nature because it leads the suspect to be particularly vulnerable to the “good cop.”

Via and Calhoun also threatened the death penalty, which Beach describes as coercive because it scares people into admitting to crimes they did not commit in an attempt to save their own lives. 

Beach eventually falsely confessed to the murder of Nees but not the Monroe murders. He believes four critical factors led to his admission of guilt for a crime he did not commit. 

The first factor is that he trusted the police. 

“What people need to understand is that I was a 20-year-old kid who felt that he didn’t have anything to hide,” Beach said. “Our parents used to tell us all the time, ‘If you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. Talk to the cops. They’re there to help you.’ We grew up with that mentality. I went into it thinking I had no reason not to talk to them.”

The second factor is that detectives are, as Beach describes them, “skilled manipulators.”

“The other thing I want people to realize is that when you are placed in an interrogation room, you are in that room with people who are trained in the psychology of how to trick the mind,” Beach said. “That’s why interrogation is a specialized field. So there is such a disadvantage to the person sitting in the interrogation room being questioned.”

The third factor is that it is legal for police to lie about evidence during an interrogation.

“Once they have you in the interrogation room, they can tell you whatever they want to tell you,” Beach said. “They can lie to you. They can tell you they have evidence that doesn’t exist. They can tell you whatever they want to tell you, and it’s completely legal for them to do so.” 

The fourth factor is that he had already been cleared for Nees’ murder three times. Via and Calhoun encouraged Beach to confess to Nees’ murder so they could extradite him to Montana. Once he got back to Montana, they assured Beach that they would help clear his name. Beach knew that Montana did not suspect him for Nees’ murder, so he believed them. 

“I knew if I could get back to Montana, I could straighten this out,” Beach said. “They already know I didn’t commit the crime up there. Via actually said that this is the fastest way to get you back to Montana, and we’ll help you prove you didn’t commit the crime when you get there.” 

Beach does not remember consciously deciding to falsely confess, but he knows that he was pushed to the limit when Calhoon brought up the death penalty. 

“It’s well known in Louisiana and especially in the ‘70s that they will execute you, and they will do so quickly,” Beach said.

Calhoon told Beach that if he did not confess to Nees’s murder they would have him convicted for the Monroe murders and sentenced to the electric chair.

“He explained the specific details of the electric chair—like how when the electricity goes through your body, it fries your brain and catches your hair on fire, and that’s why they have to put the cap on your head, and how your eyes pop out of your head, so they blindfold you,” Beach said. “I was a 20-year-old kid being given these very graphic details in a threatening manner. It doesn’t take much of that to scare you to death and make you want out of that room.”

Beach said he would never imagine falsely confessing to something he did not do but that he was truly coerced by the tactics used in the interrogation. 

“I can appreciate the fact that someone thinks they’re strong enough to go through that and would never, ever confess to something they didn’t do, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re sitting in that room all by yourself and they’re using their interrogative techniques to break down your mental state,” Beach said. 

Found Guilty and Sentenced to 100 Years Without Possibility of Parole 

On May 3, 1983, Beach was charged with deliberate homicide in the District Court of the 15th Judicial District of Montana. He pled not guilty, and the case was tried in front of a jury from April 9 to April 13, 1984.

Beach said his relationship with God helped him survive the trial and hear testimony implicating him for a gruesome crime he had nothing to do with. 

“For me, especially with my faith and my spirituality, you sit there, and you pray, and you count on God to protect you,” Beach said. 

Barry Beach was found guilty and sentenced to 100 years without the possibility of parole. His conviction was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court on July 25, 1985. 

Alternative Suspects 

Discussions around the small town of Poplar as well as evidence that was undisclosed to the defense support the theory that several young women lured Nees to the river and murdered her because she was romantically involved with the same man as someone in the group. 

Three months after Nees’s murder, Orrie Burshia told Roosevelt County Sheriff Don Carpenter that several local high school students, including Sissy Atkinson and one of the sisters in the Reddog family, murdered Neese.

Burshia learned this information from Mike Longtree who said he was present when the murder took place. According to Burshia, Longtree did not see Beach at the crime. In violation of Brady v. Maryland, Burshia’s statement was never turned over to the defense; therefore, Beach was unable to use this information to prove his innocence at trial.

In 2004, Longtree told the same information to Lisa Perry and included more names. According to Perry, Longtree witnessed Maude Kirn, Sissy Atkinson, Joanne Jackson, and Jordis Ferguson murder Nees. Longtree also shared this information with his common-law wife, Sherrie DeMarias. But when contacted by police, he denied witnessing the murder. 

Maude Kirn (formerly Maude Grayhawk) confessed to her sister-in-law, Judy Grayhawk, that she lured Nees to the river on the night of the murder but that she only kicked her in the head a few times.

In 2003, Maude Kirn was separating from her husband Dana Kirn. Two days before the final hearing regarding child custody, Maude Kirn’s boyfriend, Tracy McGowan, stabbed Dana Kirn to death. It is speculated that Dana Kirn was going to reveal at the hearing that Maude Kirn had confessed to him that she killed Nees. Following Dana Kirn’s murder, several people came forward to reveal that Dana Kirn had told them that Maude Kirn confessed to him, including Dana Kirn’s father and sister. 

Sissy Atkinson’s name was present in the investigation from the beginning. Calvin First, a tribal patrolman, saw Sissy Atkinson driving Maude Kirn’s car away from the river on the night of Nees’s murder, and he believes Maude Kirn was in the passenger seat. In 1984, several of Sissy Atkinsons’ co-workers at the Tribal Industries plant, including Carl Fourstar, heard her bragging about committing the “perfect crime.” In the ‘90s, she told her boyfriend, William Stubby Balbinot, that she bludgeoned Nees to death with a tire iron and that Maude Grayhawk, Jackson, and Ferguson participated. She also confessed to her brother, J.D. Atkinson, on several occasions in 2003 and 2004 and to a friend, Vonnie Brown, in 2004. 

“Witnesses have heard the girls confess all over Montana,” Beach said. “This isn’t some local, ‘Oh, I heard this at a bar one night’ kind of story. But the state of Montana adamantly and consistently refuses to investigate anyone else because they do not want to unravel this conviction.” 

Evidence of Beach’s Innocence 

Certain details in the coerced confession do not match physical evidence from the crime scene. For example, in the confession, Beach said Nees exited the driver’s side. According to the crime scene, she was dragged out of the passenger side. Another example is that Beach said he choked Nees, but no physical evidence indicates she was choked. Similarly, Beach said he wiped his fingerprints from the crime scene, but no physical evidence shows wipe marks. 

The physical evidence that does exist should have never been used to convict Beach. On the night after the evidence was collected, Poplar police officer, Steve Grayhawk, broke into the judge’s chamber where the evidence was being temporarily held, ignoring posted signs that forbade entry. He claimed he broke the padlock to the door because he needed to use the restroom. 

The break-in supports Beach’s innocence because the chain of custody in regards to the handling of the evidence was broken, but, more importantly, because Greyhawk was the father of Maude Greyhawk—one of the teenage girls rumored to have actually been responsible for Nees’s murder. 

The only piece of physical evidence that implicates Beach is a single pubic hair found on Nees’s sweater. Arnold Melnikoff, former director of the Montana State Crime Lab, testified that the hair had characteristics consistent with Beach’s, meaning that he could not exclude or include Beach as the contributor of the hair. Melnikoff’s findings should have raised reasonable doubt, but, instead, it was the sole piece of physical evidence used to convict him. Melnikoff was later deemed incompetent in the area of forensic hair analysis. 

Beach’s trial attorney attempted to throw out the physical evidence for the chain of custody breach as well as the confession on the grounds that it was coerced and did not match the crime but was unsuccessful. 

“Technically, legally, according to every ruling in the court system in the United States of America, those two factors should have automatically dismissed my entire case and set me free long before I ever did a single day in prison,” Beach said. 

“Free Barry Beach”

Numerous attorneys worked on Beach’s case post-conviction, but many of them were unable to commit to the time required to free him due to the complexity of the case until 2000 when an innocence organization called Centurion Ministries began working towards Beach’s release. 

Founder and former executive director, Jim McCloskey, began working to free the wrongfully convicted in 1980 and officially started Centurion Ministries in 1983. To date, the organization has freed 63 people across the country who have collectively served 1,330 years in prison. 

Beach began contacting Centurion Ministries in the 1990s. After reviewing the merits of his innocence, McCloskey and Paul Henderson, an investigator, interviewed Beach in prison in 2000. 

“We were impressed by him as an individual as well as the record of his case,” McCloskey said. “It convinced us that he was an innocent man. Then and there, Paul and I started the investigation of his case.”

Centurion Ministries also secured the help of attorney Peter Camiel and investigator Richard Hepburn. The four men worked extensively on Beach’s case for more than a decade. 

In June 2007, the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole conducted three days of hearings to determine Beach’s innocence. Centurion Ministries went into the hearings knowing they would likely not convince the Board to grant parole, but they hoped their evidence would lay groundwork for Beach’s case in the future. Their suspicions were correct; the Board did not grant Beach parole, but the hearing increased widespread support for his case. “Free Barry Beach” rallies became commonplace in Montana following the Board’s decision. 

Photo of people holding signs in support of Barry Beach's release
(Photo courtesy of Montanans for Justice)

The hearings also inspired Dan Weinberg, a Montana State Senator (D) at the time, to create the Montana Innocence Project.

“Jessie McQuillan, our first director, wrote a long article about Barry Beach and his case and how he’s probably wrongfully convicted,” Weinberg said. “That’s what got me interested, and that’s why I went to Deer Lodge to those hearings. It was there that I decided to start the Montana Innocence Project because I thought he was being dealt with so unfairly.”

In January 2008, the same year MTIP was born, Centurion Ministries filed a petition for post-conviction relief; this is when you ask a judge to consider newly discovered evidence that proves innocence. In Beach’s case, the newly discovered evidence was the testimony of nine people who had knowledge about the murder.

Most were people who had knowledge of the group of women committing the crime, but one of the witnesses, Steffie Eagleboy, actually heard the murder take place. She was only 10-years-old at the time and remembers hearing female voices yelling, “Get the bitch.” 

A Roosevelt County judge denied the petition.

“The prosecutor’s brief shows the prosecution has thoroughly reviewed the evidence…had this shown that Beach was truly innocent, the prosecutor would be morally and ethically bound to see that justice was done,” the opinion states.

The judge exclusively relied on his belief that if Beach were innocent, the State of Montana, who wrongfully convicted him, would have already righted the wrong. 

The life of Beach’s case was marked by devastating blow after devastating blow. It seemed like every time he was close to justice, his dreams of being released would be ripped away. In those times, Beach thought back to a recurring dream that drew on his spirituality and instilled him with hope. 

“To this day, the dream is very real to me,” Beach said. “I saw myself walking across this desert, and I kept stumbling as if dead. I was falling and passing out. And every time I’d fall and pass out, there would be somebody there to give me a little bit of water and wake me up. But I was trying to get over to this mountain and get up to the top. I knew I had to get up to the top. I understood it completely.”

Beach began to climb the mountain of legal barriers when Centurion Ministries appealed to the Montana Supreme Court. The court remanded the case back to Roosevelt County and instructed the judge to conduct a hearing to properly evaluate the evidence. Before the hearing, on Beach’s request, Centurion Ministries asked the court to appoint a new judge. The request was granted, and in August 2011, Judge E. Wayne Phillips conducted an evidentiary hearing where the nine people testified to their knowledge of Nees’s murder. 

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Phillips announced that he would issue his decision sometime before Thanksgiving. The night before, Judge Phillips granted Beach a new trial, reasoning that there was “clear and convincing evidence a jury could find that Barry Beach is actually innocent of his crime.”

In his opinion, Judge Phillips noted Eagleboy’s testimony, stating that it “is seared on the Court’s conscience” and “never has this Court experienced a witness who became even more emotional, even more believable during such Court questioning.” 

Beach was released on his own recognizance on December 7, 2011, pending his new trial, and for the first time in 29 years, Beach was home with his family for the holidays. 

For 18 months, Beach led a successful life on parole. He had a home and a job in Billings, Montana, and he was taking full advantage of his new life. In May 2013, the unimaginable happened. The Montana Supreme Court overturned Judge Phillps decision to grant Beach a new trial. Despite the Montana Supreme Court not observing the testimony, their decision relied on the credibility of the witnesses. Beach had to surrender to the police and serve the remainder of his sentence. 

“Being sent back sent me into such a depression that for two years I couldn’t even pick my head up and look up into the sky,” Beach said. “It was horrible. It was devastating. And those words don’t even describe the emotionally crushing and defeating state of having experienced that moment and then having to be sent back.”

Photo of Barry Beach returning to prison
(Photo courtesy of Montanans for Justice)

Following the reversal, Beach filed for executive clemency, and the Board conducted another hearing to determine if he should be released on April 29, 2014. More than 20 people spoke on Beach’s behalf, detailing the positive ways in which he affected their lives. The Board still denied Beach.

According to the law at the time, the governor was unable to grant executive clemency without recommendation from the Board unless it was a death penalty case, which Beach’s was not. Therefore, Governor Steve Bullock was unable to take action to free him. 

House Bill 43

Montanans for Justice, a grassroots effort to exonerate Beach, made a two-part strategy at a meeting that Weinberg attended as a member of the group.

“So what we talked about at this meeting in Helena was changing the law so that Governor Bullock could give him clemency and then we would put pressure on him to do that,” Weinberg said.

Following this meeting, House Bill 43 was born, which aimed to allow the governor to consider any clemency requests regardless of the Board’s actions. It passed in June 2015. Then, Weinberg contacted supporters of Beach’s freedom to write letters on Beach’s behalf. MTIP board members and others wrote letters to Governor Bullock.

“Seeing all of the support from powerful people around the state, he gave Barry clemency,” Weinberg said.

Photo of Barry Beach leaving prison
(Photo courtesy of Montanans for Justice)

Governor Bullock Grants Barry Beach Clemency 

On November 20, 2015, at noon, Governor Bullock signed the order granting Beach executive clemency. The order commuted Beach’s sentence to time served plus an additional suspended 10 years. A few hours later, Beach walked out of Montana State Prison, accompanied by McCloskey and Camiel. On that day, Beach’s dream about the mountain became reality. 

“I stood at the top of the mountain with my hands raised,” Beach said. 

Beach is Centurion Ministries 57th freed client. 

“He is free,” McCloskey said. “He isn’t exonerated officially, but he is free. So he doesn’t have to worry about the wolf coming back to his door.”

Justice for Kimberly Nees and Barry Beach 

Beach is currently and successfully serving the 10 years suspended on probation and working towards his full exoneration. 

“I own my own home, and I own my own business,” Beach said. “And whenever I can, I enjoy going fishing and going out into the mountains. I love the beauty of Montana.”

Because Beach is still technically convicted of Nees’s murder, the state of Montana has not revisted her murder investigation. Beach hopes to officially clear his name, and he supports the efforts of getting justice for Nees as well. 

Bloody palm print on truck
(Photo courtesy of Montanans for Justice)

“I know that’s a long, uphill battle, but I also know it’s doable because somewhere somebody other than me wants to know who that palm print belongs to,” Beach said. 

Beach is referring to the bloody palm print found at the crime scene that does not match neither him nor Nees. He believes that finding who the palm print belongs to is the key to finding who took Nees’s life and more than 30 years of his.

In Beach’s case, not only was there evidence that he did not commit the crime but there was ample evidence implicating other people. Nevertheless, he received the punishment. Following an experience that would make most people question the existence of a higher power, Beach’s relationship with God remains the driving force behind his continued positivity and hopefulness. 

“People put their faith in God and expect instant results, and that’s not the way God works most of the time,” Beach said. “It’s only after we have endured and suffered. … Unfortunately, in my case, that’s the way it was. God did perform miracles. He did set me free. He did amazing and miraculous things in my life, but it also took 33 years of sitting in prison.”

To learn more about Beach’s case and support his exoneration efforts, go to montanansforjustice.com.

Photos and details of the case are courtesy of montanansforjustice.com.