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Criminal files sealed amidst allegations of tampering

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Nov. 5, 2007  ·   After first agreeing to release the contents of a criminal file that was the subject…

Nov. 5, 2007  ·   After first agreeing to release the contents of a criminal file that was the subject of a tampering investigation, a Wyoming judge reversed course and sealed the entire file three days later.

Billings Gazette reporter Ruffin Prevost, working out of the newspaper’s Northwest Wyoming bureau in Cody, Wyo., requested a copy of an unsealed criminal file against Alex R. Gonzalez after anonymously receiving a copy of a motion filed by the public defender to stay proceedings in the Big Horn County case.

The motion, filed Oct. 9, stated that the public defender’s investigator, Roy D. Holliday, Jr., found “numerous altered documents in the original District Court file.” It added that based on that review, “the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office is assigning an independent attorney to conduct an investigation of any possible misconduct related to the altering of the court documents” in the case.

Prevost immediately requested a copy of the file, both orally and in writing, and said he spoke directly to Judge Gary P. Hartman, the trial judge hearing the case. In the Oct. 23 meeting with the judge, Prevost said Hartman agreed to give him the file; he was later surprised that Hartman changed course without explanation.

“It’s puzzling and frustrating to have a judge agree in a face-to-face meeting to produce public documents and then decide three days later to seal it,” he said. Prevost said clerks typically provide him with court files “on the spot” when requested, or at least later the same day.

Hartman responded to Prevost’s requests Oct. 26 in a letter stating that he directed “the Clerk not to disclose any of the records from that court file,” but did not elaborate whether documents had been altered or discuss whether an investigation would ensue.

“Without more detailed information on why they sealed the case … all the public can do is speculate why,” Prevost said.

“The key issue I wanted to report on is because this is a sparsely populated, rural area, it’s not covered by an active press corps,” he said. “This leaves ample opportunity for gaps of reliable information for the people and the press.”

Public defender Brigita S. Krisjansons filed the motion on behalf of the defendant, but her office said she was declining comment on the matter at this time. Big Horn County Clerk Vickie Larchick referred calls directly to Hartman, who did not return messages.

Prevost said he has been unable to confirm “on the record” what course of action the court is taking in the matter, but said it is his “understanding that the trial is suspended pending the outcome of the investigation by the attorney general’s office.”

In his reporting, Prevost said he rarely comes across sealed cases or documents, and they primarily occur in juvenile matters. In his past dealings with Hartman, Prevost called him a “straight shooter” but said without having seen the file, there is cause for concern.

“For the judge to seal the documents after agreeing to release them only makes me wonder all the more what’s going on,” he said.

(State v. Gonzalez, Basin, Wyo.)Corinna Zarek

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