Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Richard Raugust

Other Montana Cases
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Richard_Raugust.jpg
In the early morning hours of July 24, 1997, Rory Ross called 911 to report that 32-year-old Joe Tash had been shot to death in his trailer near Trout Creek, Montana. Ross said the gunman was 31-year-old Richard Raugust, who killed Tash with a shotgun blast at point-blank range as he slept.

Ross said he fled and that Raugust then attempted to set the trailer on fire and threw the gun into the bonfire.

A few hours later, Raugust was arrested while at work on a painting job in White Pine, Montana, about eight miles south of Trout Creek. Raugust was visibly shocked and dumbfounded when he was told he was being arrested for murdering Tash—they had been friends for more than a decade and lived together in the trailer where Tash had been murdered.

Raugust told Sanders County Sheriff’s deputies that he never went back to the trailer that night. Instead, he said that he and Tash and Ross and a friend, Randy Fisher, had been drinking at the Naughty Pine Saloon in Trout Creek. Raugust told the deputies that after they left the bar, Ross stopped the car on Highway 200 at Fir Street so Raugust could get out. Raugust said he spent the night in Trout Creek because he had to be up early for a painting job.

Raugust said that because he had to get up early the following morning for a painting job, he spent the night in Trout Creek at the home of a friend named Rick Scarborough, who lived on Fir Street. Scarborough, however, denied that Raugust spent the night there and Ross denied dropping off Raugust in town.

Raugust was charged with murder, attempted arson and attempted tampering with physical evidence. He went to trial in Sanders County District Court in March 1998. The prosecution’s key witness was Ross, who testified that on July 23, he, Tash, Raugust and Fisher were drinking in the Naughty Pine Saloon in Trout Creek and stayed until the bar closed. They decided to go to the trailer where Tash and Raugust lived to continue the party, Ross testified. Fisher agreed to join them.

Ross testified that he drove Tash and Raugust to the trailer in his car. Fisher’s car broke down, so he did not join them after all.

Ross told the jury that they built a bonfire and were drinking and smoking marijuana. Tash and Raugust got into an argument when Raugust wanted to smoke another joint and Tash refused to give him one because he said his stash was running low. Ross said he went to sleep on the couch, but awoke later when Raugust came into the trailer and shot Tash in the head in his bed. Ross denied that he dropped Raugust off in Trout Creek after leaving the bar.

Fisher testified that he was following Ross in his car (before it broke down) and that he did not see Ross did not stop at Fir Street.

Two neighbors who lived near the trailer testified that they heard the men partying that night and recognized Raugust’s voice.

A medical examiner testified that Tash was shot around 5 a.m.

Scarborough testified that at about 5:30 a.m., he saw Raugust, whom he knew, walking along the highway toward his home on Fir Street and gave Raugust a ride to his painting job in White Pine. Scarborough denied that Raugust spent the night at his home.

Sanders County sheriff’s deputy Wayne Abbey testified that he stopped by the Naughty Pine around closing time and saw Ross, Tash, Raugust and Fisher in a parking lot across the street from the bar.

Raugust testified and denied killing Tash. He told the jury that Ross stopped his car and let him out about 200 yards from the Naughty Pine and he walked to Scarborough’s house where he had spent the night on previous occasions. He said Scarborough was still awake. Raugust said Scarborough gave him a ride to White Pine and that he arrived around 6:17 a.m.—51 minutes after Ross called 911 to report Tash’s murder.

On March 26, 1998, the jury convicted Raugust of murder, attempted arson and attempted tampering with physical evidence. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2001, Raugust, acting without a lawyer, filed a petition for a new trial alleging that Ross had confessed after the trial during a conversation with Fisher that in fact he—not Raugust—had killed Tash.

The petition, however, was dismissed for being too late and the dismissal was upheld on appeal.

In 2009, the Montana Innocence Project began re-investigating the case. In 2011, Fisher revealed that Ross had confessed more than once—most recently in 2011 - and had threatened Fisher with a knife for revealing Ross’s admission years earlier.

Innocence Project lawyers obtained a statement from Scarborough’s brother, Tom Scarborough, saying that Rick Scarborough had lied about whether Raugust stayed at his home the night Tash was killed. Tom Scarborough said in the statement that Ross had confessed numerous times and that Ross had persuaded Rick to lie about Raugust’s alibi. Tom Scarborough said that his brother, Rick, admitted to him that he lied at the behest of Ross and that Ross killed Tash because he owed Tash money for marijuana and that after the murder, he stole Tash’s marijuana stash.

In August 2012, the Montana Innocence Project filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial. The petition cited Ross’s confessions as well as evidence from an expert about the unreliability of the witnesses who claimed they heard Raugust’s voice during the early morning hours of partying at the trailer.

The petition also reported that Doug and Lori Cooper, who lived close to Rick Scarborough’s home, were awake at 5 a.m. on the morning of Tash’s murder and saw Ross drive up to Scarborough’s home with his lights off.

In 2013, Raugust’s lawyers discovered additional new evidence. Sheriff’s deputy Wayne Abbey told them that that not only did he see Ross, Tash, Fisher and Raugust in the parking lot across the street from the Naughty Pine, but he saw Ross’s car drive off—and then stop about 200 yards down the street. Abbey said he saw the car’s brake lights go on, then the dome light in the car lit up. He said that he couldn’t tell if anyone got out of the car, but that’s what he believed happened. Abbey admitted that he never reported that detail to Raugust’s defense lawyer before Raugust’s trial.

The Montana Innocence Project filed an amended petition for a new trial including information on Abbey’s statement. In December 2014, Sanders County District Court Judge James Wheelis held a hearing on the petition for a new trial. In November 2015, Judge Wheelis granted the petition, vacated Raugust’s convictions, and ordered a new trial.

The judge ruled that Abbey’s long-concealed testimony about seeing Ross’s car stop supported Raugust’s alibi and contradicted the testimony of Ross and Fisher.

The judge found that the testimony of Doug and Lori Cooper provided evidence of a link between Ross and Scarborough the morning of the murder “at a key moment in time.”

Judge Wheelis said Raugust’s “ear-witness expert” would have provided testimony that would have been “significant and clearly relevant” to Raugust’s defense.

And the judge found the evidence of Ross’s confessions to be credible.

On December 4, 2015, Raugust was released on bond pending a retrial. The prosecution initially announced its intention to appeal the ruling granting a new trial. In August 2016, however, the prosecution withdrew its notice of appeal.

On September 7, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Raugust.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 9/12/2016
State:Montana
County:Sanders
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Nonviolent
Reported Crime Date:1997
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:31
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No