Massacre in Moscow 

PART 1: Portrait of a murderer in small town-Idaho

It was another quiet Saturday night in Moscow back in May 2007 when a staccato of gunshots rang out a few blocks up the hill from the strip of familiar bars and coffee shops along Main Street.

The shots, which quickly accelerated from dozens to hundreds of rounds, were heard all over town.

"It's the worst fucking thing that's happened to our little town in 30 years," said a lanky guy named Trevor, who's known as Swamp Donkey by the bar regulars at John's Alley.

"I never knew a mass murderer before," he said, in a whiny, slightly country drawl. "I don't want to talk about that."

The shooting started at 11:22 p.m. that night. It was May 19. By the early morning hours of May 20, a police officer and a church caretaker lay dead. A likable courthouse janitor with a bubbly personality would be found later in the day, killed in her simple brown house on the outskirts of town. A deputy sheriff, another city cop and an armed University of Idaho student were bleeding in the hospital, but would recover.

And Jason Hamilton, 36, sat upright at a church altar, a single bullet hole through his head.

Hours before, Jason had been one of those friendly faces at the bar; a decent boss buying an enthusiastic employee a shot on his 21st birthday, an unremarkable pool player, trying to hang onto his youth, the clean-cut guy with a photo of an AK-47 on his cell phone.

Now he is known in these parts as the Moscow shooter. The guy no one wants to talk about.

The massacre was a fantasy Jason had rehearsed in his head. It was a plot he had hinted at to a doctor and detailed for a local tattoo artist. But no one thought he would actually do it. No one thought him capable of doing it.

At least not before he went and did it.

Outside the doors of the Latah County Courthouse, a small stone bench is inscribed to Crystal Dawn Hamilton, Jason's wife, his first victim and perhaps the only person who could say for sure why he cracked that night, or why he cut the locks off his guns, killed her and then went on his rampage.

"Your rainbow reflection will always bring brilliance, color and beauty into our lives forever," reads the bench, as dedicated by her sister.

Crystal worked in housekeeping at the courthouse for seven years and used to stand on the same little corner of Moscow to smoke.

Chuck Kovis, a well-known criminal defense attorney, often teased her as he went in and out of the modest courthouse. He called her the Kuna Kavewoman, after the sports team at her high school, a rival to his alma mater. He told her she was giving the whole county edifice emphysema and that she better lower the flag again before it rained.

She often cleaned the Sheriff's Office later in the evening when the attached courthouse was empty.

Latah County Sheriff Wayne Rausch, a stocky, old-school cop who talked about the decline of the traditional family unit in the wake of the shooting, said Crystal was a friendly girl. Not flirtatious, just friendly, and almost everyone at the courthouse got a kick out of her.

She once made Rausch a little mermaid sculpture out of eggshells, one of the crafts she practiced. There was some talk within the courthouse that Crystal was romantically involved with one of the deputies, a rumor Rausch dismissed.

Jason, who sometimes worked at night cleaning the Presbyterian church across the street from the courthouse, even used to visit her at the Sheriff's Office. A photo that Rausch thought had been destroyed showed Crystal, Jason and a group of deputies smiling, their arms around each other's shoulders.

Most of Crystal's conversations with people in the courthouse were familiar and banal: "How's it going?" kind of talk. But she was close to a few people who knew she had troubles with Jason.

These people have not been ready or willing to talk about those problems, but one thing is certain: through their numerous ups and downs, Crystal stuck by Jason and tried to get him help.

In the winter of 2005, Jason faced felony strangulation charges, spurred by one dramatic episode in his stormy relationship with another woman. When the state filed charges against him, Crystal introduced Jason to Kovis.

"When he got in trouble, she came to me and said, 'Jason's in bad trouble, can you help me?'" Kovis recalled. He represented Jason in the Latah County Courts up until the day of the shooting and said Jason did not take the charges against him very well. "He'd just hold his head and say, 'I can't take it anymore,'" Kovis said. "'This is not right, Chuck. This is bullshit, Chuck.'"

The fight that led to Jason's strangulation trial started the night of Sept. 10, 2005. Jason was living with Jaime Pritchett at the time, in a run-down, hillside trailer park a few miles south of Moscow.

"It was kind of a chaotic few years," Pritchett said in a phone interview.

Pritchett met Jason in 2002. She was between jobs and worked for a time at the Moscow janitorial company where Jason worked. But Jason was with Crystal then; they had recently married.

Two years later, Pritchett, a senior at Washington State University in neighboring Pullman, Wash., met Jason again, at Mingles, a spacious pool bar with enough big screen televisions and ubiquitous bar food that college students from Boston may momentarily forget they are on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains.

Mingles was also the last place Jason was spotted before the shooting.

By late 2004, Jason and Crystal had divorced in Bonner County, though they tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the divorce three days later. That's when Pritchett and Jason started dating casually. She wanted to move to Walla Walla, Wash., where her parents lived, but Jason, on the suggestion of his family, wanted her to move in with him.

They spent some time living in Kuna with Jason's mother, Rebecca Achord. That's the same Kuna where Crystal grew up; her parents lived a few blocks from the Hamiltons. At one time in the mid-1990s, Jason lived in the house across the street from Crystal's family.

Pritchett said she and Jason stayed with Jason's mother for only a few tense weeks, and they soon headed back to Moscow. Jason stayed with Crystal for a time and Pritchett lived in Jason's car and crashed on friends' couches. For a time, she stayed with a male friend in Pullman, but Jason did not approve of that arrangement.

Pritchett and Jason moved to Troy, Idaho, for a brief time, but he abandoned her there one night without a car, phone or money.

Pritchett's description of their life together is backed up by a string of minor police contacts during this period: a midnight fight at a Moscow motel on Dec. 10, 2004; a call to police from Pullman five days later, asking for emergency funds for a hotel room; and then, a year later, a New Year's Eve call from Pritchett's mother to Moscow police. She was worried because she had not heard from her daughter for two weeks.

And she had every reason to worry. By that time, Pritchett had reported Hamilton's abuses to police. It was the first such report for Pritchett, but not the first incident, and it was a reluctant report at that. A supervisor at work saw the marks on Pritchett's neck and called the police.

"I was very embarrassed they did it at work," Pritchett said. But she cooperated with the district attorney and went to trial in June 2006.

One theory repeated by several people who knew him is that there were at least two Jason Hamiltons. One of his John's Alley buddies suggested that maybe, on the night of the shooting, Jason was not really Jason. Perhaps he was a different person, or at least a different personality.

Pritchett said that when Jason grabbed her by the neck, he was not trying to kill her. "He was just completely not there—in a blind rage—when I looked in his eyes there was nothing there," she said.

Another person who knew Jason described his eyes as "wolf eyes." By the time of his death, Jason had been diagnosed as borderline schizophrenic, according to a relative who reviewed his medical records.

Jason had other dark sides to his outgoing and sociable persona.

Investigators found evidence that Jason had joined the Aryan Nations in 2000, but do not believe he was an active member of the racist group. Pritchett said Jason once criticized a friend of hers who had Aryan ties. But they also visited a friend of his in Boise who had a shaved head and shared some racist views with Jason.

"He was a very discriminatory person, but as far as I knew he really didn't have any association with any group," Pritchett said.

The Boise man was also "big into meth," according to Pritchett. Drugs and alcohol had been getting Jason in trouble from an early age. Jason and Pritchett did meth together at least once, and she said Jason came home sometimes smelling like he'd been smoking it.

His record, which Pritchett and autopsy results confirm, shows a long history of pot use and he was a regular at the bars in town.

Jason also had strong religious views, though he did not go to church, Pritchett said. He told her that Crystal's request for a separation was a betrayal of their marriage and was jealous of Pritchett's male friends. He once complained that the new Harry Potter movie was teaching witchcraft to kids.

Perhaps the one person with the greatest view into Jason's spiritual realm was the Moscow artist who tattooed a mushroom cloud on his back. The dark mushroom cloud, reflected in the eye of a split face, graced the canvas of Jason's back, arms and neck.

"He called me his therapist," said Jeremy Hogan, the introspective owner of Falling Moon Tattoo Studio and Body Piercing, on Main Street in Moscow. "You're taking parts of people's soul and putting it on their skin."

Jason spent 30 to 40 hours on Hogan's table.

"His theme was pretty dark," Hogan said. The theme of his body art, that is. All most people saw were the flames tattooed on Jason's neck.

Hogan said that about six days before the shooting, Jason came in for some touch-up background work, and he spoke of a massacre.

Jason told Hogan, "I got it all planned out, you know that bell tower up there."

"I thought nothing of it because he jokes about crazy-ass shit," said Hogan, who has close friends in the Sheriff's Office.

The buzz of the tattoo gun, the smell, the camaraderie of the studio, all relaxed Jason, Hogan said.

"Tattooing releases endorphins, the pain is tangible and comforting, unlike emotional pain—pain that you can't really put a cap on," he said.

Hogan joked with Jason, suggesting they take some roller blades and some Samurai swords and head over to the mall. But Jason went home like normal. He carried on for the rest of the week. As his boss at American Building Maintenance put it, Jason, "showed up to work every day and left his bags at the door."

And then the cap came off.

From Cub Scouts to Cocked Glocks

Jason Hamilton was born in 1970 in Northern California.

A woman close to the Hamilton family wrote of Jason's normal family life in an e-mail. "The family had set dinner times and ate around the table. They all were involved in sports or music. They went to church on Sundays. Jason enjoyed participating as a Cub Scout and as a Royal Ranger. He did chores. He rode his bike. He loved to fish. He fought with his brothers and sisters like normal families and bickered about chores."

His mother—who called him Jake—called him her I Love Lucy, Fear Factor child on Jason's still-maintained MySpace page, perhaps referring to his split personality. "That has been his life since day one," she wrote.

After his death, Jason's family scattered his ashes in an Irish ceremony. Achord wrote on MySpace about mental illness and how it had affected her family, until making the pages private earlier this year.

Achord, in a single, brief phone conversation, said that Jason was a wonderful person and that his death was still too raw to talk about. She declined to say anything more about his childhood or his mental illness.

As national coverage of the shooting flared for a few days in May 2007, theories on the crime abounded. Jason was portrayed as a convicted batterer, whose domestic violence got out of hand. He was painted as the jealous husband and a gun nut in a state with scant firearms regulation. He was made out to be a drunk, a racist, mad at the system.

Since the shooting, Jason's family and some close friends have maintained that he was a sick person who needed treatment and medication, that he was a man with a mental illness who did not get the help he sought.

His stepmother and stepsister defended him in a forum on the NewWest.net Web site asking, "Why didn't the mental health people (the 'doctors') listen when Jason pleaded for help, not once, but many times?" Other members of the family attacked a blogger in North Idaho who took an obsessive interest in Jason's family genealogy.

A year after the shooting, with bullet holes in the walls of the Latah County Courthouse only now being filled, people in Moscow shudder at the memory of what happened that night. Attorneys, judges, jurors, doctors, ex-girlfriends, all of whom knew Jason, ask themselves why they didn't see the shooting coming.

Sometime between his Cub Scout days and the end of high school, Jason started on a life of petty, but disturbingly violent crime.

In a 1991 case in San Bernardino County, Calif., a 21-year-old Jason was charged with inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant. The woman declined to testify and the court records are no longer available.

It was just the first in a continuous string of arrests for drugs and violent displays in Jason's adult life.

His mother lived for a time in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in San Bernardino County. Jason's stepmother, Randea DeVares, once lived about three hours away in Bouse, Ariz., where Jason apparently spent time as well.

On Dec. 20, 1992, police in nearby Lake Havasu City arrested Jason for aggravated assault and he was put on probation. In March 1993, he was stopped by a Kingman County Arizona Sheriff's deputy driving a friend's early '70s two-tone Chevy Nova and charged with marijuana possession—several baggies worth—and driving on a suspended license.

By the end of 1993, Jason was living in Tulsa, Okla. and delivering pizzas for Domino's, probably in his 1978 Ford Fairmont station wagon—white, with windows painted black. He would be a pizza guy on and off for the next seven years.

On Nov. 24, 1993, his Tulsa landlord accused him of pulling a gun on him.

The landlord, William Dell Foltz Jr., kicked Jason out of the room he was renting after discovering what he said was pot, crystal meth, speed and other pills in the room. He told a judge that Jason called several times and threatened to "blow my 'f-in' head off,'" according to a petition for a protective order filed that month.

The order was dismissed on Dec. 22, 1993, for insufficient evidence. Jason's wife at the time, Jennifer Hamilton, also filed a protective order against Foltz, who had apparently threatened her in retaliation.

In January 1995, Jason was still living in Tulsa, but he was not on good terms with Jennifer. Just before midnight on Jan. 28, police arrested Jason for killing Jennifer's pit bull puppy at Pizzetti's, another pizza place where he was working.

A witness told police Jason picked up the 5- to 6-month-old pit bull by its leash, choked it and then put it down and kicked it, breaking the puppy's back.

Jason and Jennifer gave police different addresses. Jason was apparently living at Foltz's place again on 28th Street, while Jennifer was on 101st Street.

He qualified for a public defender, pleaded guilty to malicious injury to property and was sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence. When Jason died, he still owed Tulsa County $480 in fines for his conviction.

By the time the Tulsa court issued a bench warrant for his failure to pay the fines, Jason was partying in Boise, working at a Meridian Pizza Hut, making $800 a month and living either with his mother in Kuna or, for a time, a few blocks away, across the street from Crystal's family home.

The run-ins with the law continued.

On June 28, 1996, Boise police stopped his 1979 green four-door Chevy on 11th and Grove streets downtown. They found .8 grams of marijuana on him and he had no proof of insurance.

Again, he pleaded guilty.

A decade later, Jason was in Moscow, insisting he had not tried to strangle Pritchett.

Kovis, his attorney, talked to him about pleading to the charges, but Jason refused right up to the trial. At the last minute, he tried to make a plea, but the prosecutor refused his offer.

The attempted strangulation charge is a felony in Idaho, but it's a new felony that prosecutors have found difficult to prove.

"It's a fucked-up law," said Kovis, who successfully defended Jason against the charges.

In an attempted strangulation charge, prosecutors do not have to prove that there was intent to kill or injure, merely that there was an attempt to strangle or choke. But as Kovis points out, strangling and choking are actions that would imply intent to injure or kill.

If they could prove the attempt to kill, prosecutors would go for attempted murder charges, said Nampa attorney Melissa Moody, one of the authors of Idaho's strangulation law. The reason for the law is that strangulation is a well-documented sign of escalating domestic violence, said Moody.

"It's just a huge risk factor for lethality," Moody said. "The message is, 'I can kill you, I have your very life in my hands.'"

The jury in Jason's case cleared him of the strangulation charge, but found him guilty on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge. And in a rare move, the jurors wrote to the judge requesting the most serious punishment possible.

"I think that Jason Hamilton was a power and control guy," said Elizabeth Brandt, a law professor at the University of Idaho, who sat on the jury in Jason's strangulation trial.

Brandt, who teaches family law and domestic violence courses at the University of Idaho in Moscow, was an unlikely choice for a jury. All of the lawyers on both sides were once her students.

"I would have loved to sit in the jury box and give them all a lecture on domestic violence," she said.

But Brandt didn't. She sat in the box and listened to the testimony and deliberated like any citizen would. The judge sentenced Jason to 180 days in jail, with a 90-day suspended sentence. He received two years probation, and was ordered not to have contact with Pritchett. He was also ordered to undergo a domestic violence evaluation and to give up his guns.

"I thought that that was a serious sentence," Brandt said. "It's a lot to live with."

Almost one year later, he went on his rampage.

Brandt said that domestic violence and the way it often explodes into the public sphere is not taken seriously in Idaho or in the nation, and that the discussions on mental illness and gun control that followed the shooting have once again overshadowed the seriousness of family violence.

"I just want people to say out loud that that whole incident was a domestic violence case blown up," she said.

Pritchett also feels she should have done more. She wishes she had asked the jury to put him away for a long time. "I do regret not recommending sentencing," she said. "I should have done more, I should have pushed harder."

It could have been her on May 19 at the end of the gun, she said.

This story continues in the July 16 issue of Boise Weekly or on boiseweekly.com.

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