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Photo courtesy of The Billings Gazette

Maria Philbrick’s Murder

On December 1, 1983, Maria Philbrick’s body was found near a dumpster in Billings, Montana. Because of the poor condition of the body at the time of the autopsy, it was impossible to determine a precise time of death. However, Medical Examiner Kenneth Muller concluded the victim died sometime between November 21-26, 1983.

The Days Before the Murder

Philbrick was a sex worker at the time of her murder, and her trafficker, John Salas, testified that he last saw her at approximately 3:00 a.m. on November 24, which was Thanksgiving. The State adopted the theory that Philbrick was killed shortly after on the morning of November 24.

Two employees of the motel where the victim was living with Salas and another sex worker named Brenda Cunningham testified that they saw Philbrick alive after Thanksgiving.

Jackie VanHazel, a maid at the Lewis and Clark Motel, testified that she saw Philbrick alive on Thanksgiving and the following day. VanHazel explained that Philbrick was in Room 68 with a man and woman fitting the descriptions of Salas and Cunningham. VanHazel did not see the victim after November 25 but spoke with a man fitting Salas’ description on November 27 about cleaning his room because he was moving into Room 69 with a woman fitting Cunningham’s description. VanHazel found it unusual that the man and woman believed to be Salas and Cunningham were moving from a three-bedroom to a one-bedroom.

Michael Stanhope, the live-in manager at the Lewis and Clark Motel, testified that he saw Philbrick in the motel’s restaurant on November 26, two days after Thanksgiving. Stanhope verified that the trio was staying in Room 68 and that on November 27 the woman fitting Cunningham’s description signed a registration card to change rooms. She signed the card using Philbrick’s name.

Philbrick’s body was discovered three days later behind Pease Stove Store. The victim suffered approximately 18 stab wounds to her chest, and her throat was cut; however, there was little blood at the scene.

Bernard Pease Jr. is Implicated in the Murder

On January 6, 1984, Bernard Pease, Sr., owner of the Pease Stove Store, consented to a search of the entire building. During the search, police found a used condom in a back storage room. Police found small blood smears and stains on boxes and specks of blood on the condom. However, the police did not find evidence of blood spatter or the quantity of blood expected if the storage room was the site of the murder.

On January 24, 1984, the police searched Bernard Pease Jr.’s bedroom, located in the basement of his parent’s home. The police collected used and unused condoms—one of which contained a public hair. Pease Jr. was charged with Deliberate Homicide following forensic testing of the pubic hair, secretion, and blood found on the condoms.

The Trial

At the trial, two experts testified to their findings. Head of the forensic serology section of the Montana Crime Laboratory, Kenneth Konzak, testified that the secretion and the blood on the condoms could belong to Philbrick and Pease Jr. Montana Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff testified that the pubic hair and a hair found at the crime scene were similar to Pease Jr.’s. The jury convicted him on these findings.

A Lack of Evidence

The hair and blood were the only pieces of physical evidence connecting Pease Jr. to the victim. No witnesses testified to: (1) seeing Pease Jr. in the area of the Pease Stove Store in the early morning of Thanksgiving 1983, (2) seeing Pease Jr. with the victim, or (3) seeing Pease Jr. commit the homicide.

MTIP Takes the Case

On April 24, 2019, the Montana Innocence Project filed a petition for DNA testing of the Condom found in the storage room, the used condom found in Bernard Jr.’s home, the hair found on the condom in Bernard Jr.’s home, and scrapings from victim’s fingernails.

On May 17, 2019, Judge Michael Moses ordered MTIP to serve the petition upon the Montana Attorney General, the Yellowstone County Attorney, the Billings Police Department, and the Montana Crime Lab, and provided that the served parties will have 60 days to respond.

Where the Case Stands Today

Upon receipt of Judge Moses’s order, MTIP provided copies of the petition to all the previously unserved parties on May 29, 2019.