Judge rejects defense motion | SteamboatToday.com

Judge rejects defense motion

Gary E. Salazar

— District Attorney Paul McLimans and attorneys from his office will continue to prosecute accused murderer Thomas Lee Johnson, a judge ruled Friday.

Justice Joseph R. Quinn denied a motion by Johnson’s defense attorneys to remove McLimans and Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James from Routt County’s only murder case.

Johnson’s court-appointed attorneys, Norm Townsend and William Schurman, blamed McLimans’ office for events that led to the disqualification of 14th Judicial District Judge Joel S. Thompson, the judge who was presiding over the case.

Quinn, who was assigned to the case when Thompson recused himself Aug. 21, took about an hour Friday afternoon to render his ruling.

Quinn, a former state Supreme Court justice, concluded McLimans’ office was not responsible for the actions of a federal drug agent connected to the murder case who obtained an arrest warrant for Thompson’s live-in girlfriend.

Quinn also concluded McLimans’ office did not orchestrate the arrest of 36-year-old Billie Jo Vreeman in an attempt to intimidate Thompson.

The veteran judge noted neither McLimans nor St. James had knowledge of the Vreeman investigation until 24 hours before she was arrested Aug. 10.

“There is not sufficient basis to disqualify the district attorney’s office from this case,” Quinn said.

Because of Quinn’s ruling, Johnson’s case will proceed as scheduled. A jury trial is scheduled to start Oct. 29.

Johnson, 31, has been charged with first-degree murder and criminal trespass and mischief. The charges stem from the death of 31-year-old Lori Bases, who was found dead in her Steamboat apartment in May 2000.

Prosecutors contend Johnson stabbed Bases to death.

McLimans was satisfied with Quinn’s ruling.

“Obviously, (the defense) made a lot of accusations against the district attorney’s office,” McLimans said.

“You heard the court. They were wrong on every one of their accusations. I do feel vindicated.”

Townsend would not comment on the ruling other than to say petitioning Quinn’s decision to the state Supreme Court is a possibility.

“We will talk to the state (Public Defenders) office,” Townsend said. “We can’t make that decision here at a regional office. We need to talk to the state to get input.”

Quinn delivered his ruling after hearing two-and-a-half days of testimony.

Townsend argued Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Donald Sperry obtained an arrest warrant for Vreeman because he wanted to stop Thompson from questioning him about a federal subpoena he had secured for the Johnson case.

Sperry has admitted he lied to a phone company when he used a federal subpoena to obtain phone records in June 2000.

But Quinn concluded Sperry acted on his own when he told the phone company the records were for a nonexistent drug investigation.

Sperry intended to get the records for Steamboat police, who were building a case against Johnson at the time.

The phone records, which may be suppressed because of Sperry’s admission, back up authorities’ claim that Johnson made a telephone call to his ex-wife, Michelle Linnebur.

During the call, Johnson allegedly told Linnebur he killed Bases.

A Steamboat police officer at Linnebur’s residence has said he overheard the admission.

Sperry was subpoenaed to testify about the phone records Aug. 8 in front of Thompson. Sperry did not attend because he is not required to appear in court under a state subpoena. Thompson ordered Townsend to file documents with the U.S. Justice Department to force Sperry to testify.

Thompson never heard the testimony because two days later Vreeman, who lives with Thompson, was arrested in connection with a federal drug case.

Thompson disqualified himself from the case because it was Sperry who obtained the arrest warrant for Vreeman, and the agent was expected to testify in the Johnson case.

Townsend blamed McLimans’ office for Sperry’s conduct because the agent was working closely with agents from the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team.

McLimans’ office overseas the operations of GRAMNET.

From the testimony, Quinn concluded Sperry is not an employee of McLimans and even though GRAMNET agents were investigating Vreeman and Thompson, the DA’s office was not responsible because it was a federal investigation.

Quinn also shunned Townsend’s argument that a former prosecutor, Charles Feldmann, knew of the investigation regarding Vreeman and Thompson.

Feldmann, who resigned from McLimans’ office in May, testified he knew of the investigation but did not relay the information to McLimans or St. James.

“Feldmann’s knowledge of Sperry’s investigation does not warrant disqualification of the District Attorney’s Office,” Quinn said.

Because of the ruling, Quinn will now focus on motions Townsend has filed in an attempt to suppress evidence.

To rule on the 25 motions Townsend has filed, he will read transcripts from the hearings Thompson presided over Aug. 8, 9 and 10.

Quinn will also listen to some testimony regarding the motions starting at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 24.

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