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Spencer at the Reno in East Missoula in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Steve Veysey)

When Spencer Veysey was a freshman in high school, he was instantly recruited to the football team. The whole town was excited because he was a talented athlete for his age. It became evident within the first week of practice that Spencer was going to receive preferential treatment because of his skills. So, Spencer quit, asserting that everyone deserved an equal chance to play.

“The principal said he had never seen a kid that young stand up for something,” Spencer’s mom Teri Veysey said.

This story captures Spencer’s spirit; he unapologetically valued fairness and boldly stood up for the right thing. This made him the perfect fit for the Montana Innocence Project where he worked as an investigator until he died at the age of 26 in 2015. In his short lifetime, Spencer made an unforgettable mark on his family, partner, countless friends, MTIP, and the seven people he helped free from wrongful incarceration.

Spencer’s adventurous spirit led him to a career in journalism and investigation

Spencer was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Being adventurous was always his prevailing characteristic, which he made clear by graduating from high school a year early.

“He didn’t finish early because was really exceptional at school,” said Spencer’s dad Steve Veysey. “He just didn’t want to go there anymore. He wanted to go on some adventures.”

About a month after getting his diploma, Spencer packed his things—including a cellphone that he reluctantly agreed to bring with him at his parent’s request—hopped on a motorcycle that he bought when he was 16 and drove to Seattle.

Spencer on his motorcycle. (Photo courtesy of Steve Veysey)

“He got on one of the ships that does fish processing in Alaska, and when he came back, he realized he should go to college because he got a real taste for life on those boats,” Steve said.

During his travels, Spencer stopped in Missoula and could see himself living there. So when he decided to go to college, the University of Montana was a natural choice. He majored in forestry at first but moved to the school of journalism within his first semester.

“Every newspaper in the country was going under, and he decided to major in print journalism,” Steve said. “That was Spence. That’s what he wanted to do.”

Spencer instantly loved journalism. Although he maintained that he was not the best writer, he did great interviews and was talented at getting people to open up—a skill that would eventually serve him well as an investigator.

“Anybody who he was talking to, he would make them feel like they were the only people on Earth,” Teri said.

While Spencer was at UM, it was revealed that the football team, university, and local authorities mishandled hundreds of rape and sexual assault allegations. The scandal was famously documented in Jon Krakauer’s book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.” Spencer, still a student journalist, covered this national story and gained access to exclusive interviews.

“There were people who talked to him who didn’t talk to anybody else,” Teri said.

Although he was a dedicated student journalist, Spencer still had fun in college. He was the captain of the rugby team, and people always seemed to gather wherever he was living.

Spencer playing in the 2014 Rugby championship. (Photo courtesy of Steve Veysey)

“He liked to barbecue,” Steve said. “Everywhere he stayed in Missoula, when he was in college and after, he would build an outdoor barbecue pit and roast a pig. That was kind of his thing. He would feed people, feed all his friends.”

His passion for justice blossomed during his years as a journalist and investigator, but it was always present. An early Bernie Sanders supporter with a libertarian streak, Spencer spoke up in the presence of inequality.

“He valued his civil liberties and was very outspoken about not being harassed by police and the authorities being overreaching, so he was always very individualistic that way,” Steve said.

Spencer’s time with the Montana Innocence Project

It was Spencer’s strong moral compass that attracted him to MTIP. Spencer started as a journalism intern during his undergraduate studies and stayed on as a volunteer. After college, Spencer began working at MTIP, investigating claims of innocence and building cases for post-conviction relief.

“For him, it was about fairness,” Steve said. “These people shouldn’t be in prison. His whole life, he was about fairness for other people.”

His skills as a journalist naturally lent themselves to investigative work. Spencer obtained alibis, found key evidence, and, in one case, actually identified the real perpetrator.

“He was creative and committed, and both those things are really needed in innocence cases,” said private investigator and MTIP co-founder Jessie Schandelson. “We were looking at cases after somebody is already convicted and often way after the fact. A lot of people have already looked at this stuff and not really found anything. So being able to think outside the box and look at case investigations in a new way is critical, and Spencer was really great at that.”

Spencer and Natalie

Spencer and Natalie on a roadtrip. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Wicklund)

In the summer of 2012, Natalie Wicklund came to Missoula from Vermont Law School to complete a summer internship with MTIP. There, she met Spencer, and they fell in love. After the summer, Natalie went back to Vermont to finish law school, and Spencer soon joined her there. He took full advantage of his break from investigating; he built a paddleboard in Natalie’s garage, biked through the Maritimes, and backpacked through Jamaica. When they moved back to Missoula, Spencer resumed his investigative position with MTIP while Natalie studied for the bar exam.

“He was excited to go back to investigating,” Natalie said. “We lived in this tiny place with a bazillion roommates, which was fine because it was by Bernice’s Bakery. Spencer’s career at the innocence project just took off from there.”

Spencer was instrumental in investigating the innocence of all of MTIP’s freed clients and some of its current clients. Teri said he talked about the Katie Garding case the most. Katie was wrongfully convicted 10 years ago of vehicular homicide. The prosecution asserted that she killed a man in a hit-and-run accident, but an argument in support of her innocence is that the damage to her car was not consistent with the crime scene. Through his investigation, Spencer tracked down Katie’s car and took it to California to perform an accident reconstruction, which scientifically proved that if she had committed the crime, her car would be substantially more damaged.

“I know that he really wanted to get to the bottom of my case,” Katie said. “He was like, ‘What about this, and what about that?’ He questioned me more than anybody had questioned me before, which is good. He questioned me more than the prosecutors and the officers questioned me. I definitely think he was a pretty amazing investigator.”

MTIP is still fighting for Katie’s innocence and the accident reconstruction evidence remains central to the argument that she received ineffective assistance of counsel when her trial team failed to investigate that angle.

Spencer with MTIP attorney Brendan McQuillan (Photo courtesy of Natalie Wicklund)

Another case he had a big impact on was Richard Raugust’s. Richard was wrongfully convicted in 1998 of murdering his friend and roommate when the person who was last seen with the victim falsely implicated him, and the person who could have corroborated his alibi lied.

“Spencer was often the smartest, most intuitive person in every room, but he didn’t make it known, and he didn’t make it obvious,” Natalie said. “… I think that made him a really incredible investigator because Spencer was somebody who could be sweet as pie, mind all of his Ps and Qs, and ask someone who sat on a jury 20 years ago, ‘Well, do you think Richard was innocent?’ He could just connect with all sorts of people.”

Richard became MTIP’s first exoneree when Spencer interviewed a police officer who confirmed his alibi. At trial, the state claimed that Richard went to a bar with his friends and killed one of them when they returned to their house. In reality, Richard was dropped off at another house down the road from the bar before. The officer told Spencer that he saw their car pull up to the house Richard said he spent the night at and, notably, that the dome light went on, proving that someone got out of the car. Although this officer had been interviewed before, no one had asked the right questions—until Spencer.

“He just always had a million ideas and a million dreams, and that fueled his investigations,” Natalie said. “What other job are you tasked with going anywhere and everywhere and trying to turn over stones for the smallest facts, for the smallest details because somebody else didn’t do their job very well and thought that it didn’t matter?”

Natalie eventually moved on from MTIP to work as a public defender. They always had plans of getting married and settling down. Around 2015, Natalie was trying to get transferred from her public defender position in Helena to Missoula so they could move in together. Spencer was always on board with this plan, but he simultaneously wanted to go on more adventures. The last idea Natalie remembers him having was wanting to buy a barge and sail it down the Mississippi River.

Spencer rowing his friends on a boat in Montana. (Photo courtesy of Steve Veysey)

“That was the thing about Spencer,” Natalie said. “He never saw our relationship as somehow preventing him from disappearing for whatever amount of time to float a barge to New Orleans. He was like, ‘It’s fine. You have to work. What’s the problem?’ … And he would always be like, ‘Yeah, I just keep thinking that I have to go out and pan for gold so I can get you that wedding ring.’ I didn’t have a ring because Spencer wanted to go pan for gold. He just had this wild, adventurous spirit about him.”

Spencer’s Death

Tragically, Natalie said it was that same adventurous spirit that inspired him to climb Longs Peak—the biggest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park—on October 2, 2015. Spencer and Natalie were in Colorado for a friend’s wedding. While Natalie was performing bridesmaid duties, Spencer embarked on the Longs Peak trail during a time of year when the route is particularly treacherous. Lambs Slide is an ice-climbing shoot. Spencer fell while free climbing it and died.

The qualities that made him a renowned investigator—curiosity, adventurousness, and stubbornness—were often present when he was mountaineering, Natalie said.

“I love him desperately, but Spencer is one of the biggest assholes in the universe,” Natalie said. “And I say this because he’s stubborn. I mean, the man fell off a mountain trying to free climb an ice-climbing route. I don’t know of any bigger asshole way to go. But there was a true goodness to him. He wasn’t an asshole because he was mean. He was an asshole because he wanted to do what he wanted to do—much to breaking my heart. And I say that very lovingly.”

Spencer had a tattoo of an hourglass on his leg. It reminded him to “get busy living or get busy dying”—a mantra he followed.

“He didn’t waste any time,” Teri said. “And maybe he had a sense that he wasn’t going to be around forever. Even though we know that when he died, it was an accident. And his time in the outdoors…that’s actually where he was the most comfortable. I didn’t worry about him then. I worried about him doing the Innocence Project stuff more.”

Spencer’s lasting impact

While wrongfully incarcerated, Richard wrote a book of poems called “Fishers of Trout and Men: Protectors of the Realm.” It features a poem about Spencer called “The Natural.” In part, it reads, “We should all be thankful for the presence he bestowed. Who would have thought he was not immortal?”

“I met Spencer in the prison library, and saw that for a young man, he was quite mature and energetic with potential,” Richard said. “I don’t recall exactly how many times we met at the prison, but it was enough to get to know that when I got out, he’d be on my cool dude list and help me get back to life. … I wrote the poem about him to commemorate his life and work so others that knew him could have a memento to go with their memories of him.”

Natalie has Spencer’s ashes in her living room. She now lives in Alaska with her partner, has two dogs—one from her time with Spencer—and works for a Federal District Court. On Spencer’s birthday every year, she buys him a new record for his collection.

“I think he’d be happy for me,” Natalie said. “I don’t live the life we always said we wanted, which I think sometimes is kind of a disappointment for me, but you can’t live that life without the other person. You’ve got to make a new one, and this one’s pretty good too.”

“Spencer loved to operate in the gray. But it always came down to one singular truth.”

-NATALIE WICKLUND

Natalie said 2020 was a hard time for her because she saw a lot of places where Spencer would want to be, challenging injustice. She is confident that he would say 2020 was the most important year for civil rights since 1968 and that if he were still alive, he would be fighting one of the many fights that are on the ground right now.

“Truth wasn’t something that was negotiable for Spencer,” Natalie said. “Truth wasn’t something to be spun, and it wasn’t really up for a lot of debate. It’s something that we would spend years of his life chasing for different people and for himself. I think that many paint Spencer as more of a black and white thinker than he is because Spencer operated in a lot of gray. Spencer loved to operate in the gray. But it always came down to one singular truth.”