Flathead County commissioners accused of inciting rhetoric that contributed to the death of Scott Bryan.
By Justin Franz MONTANA FREE PRESS
Advocates for the homeless are calling for compassion in Flathead County after a homeless man was murdered in Kalispell early Sunday morning.
The killing comes as the community struggles to deal with a growing homeless population that has become the subject of strong rhetoric from local officials — rhetoric that some say may have led to the deadly assault.
According to court records, officers with the Kalispell Police Department responded to an assault outside a gas station at 2:20 a.m. Sunday. When they arrived, they found a man face down, covered in blood, with significant injuries to his head. The man, later identified as Scott Bryan, 60, was transported to Logan Health where he was pronounced dead.
During the investigation, a witness came forward with a short cell phone video that allegedly showed Kaleb Elijah Fleck, 19, of Kalispell, and Wiley Meeker, 18, of Somers, next to Bryan’s body. In the video, Meeker can be heard saying, “You [expletive] that guy up, dude.”
Police found Fleck and Meeker at two separate locations and interviewed them. Fleck said they had been sitting in Meeker’s truck at the gas station when an individual approached. According to court documents, Fleck told police that he got out of the vehicle and assaulted the man, later identified as Bryan. Officers also searched the residence where Fleck was located and found a pair of bloody boots. Both Fleck and Meeker were arrested and brought to the Flathead County jail. Fleck was charged with deliberate homicide on Tuesday afternoon. Meeker has not been charged and had been released as of Wednesday morning.
On Monday, Chris Krager, executive director of Samaritan House, Kalispell’s only year-round homeless shelter, released a lengthy statement confirming that Bryan had been homeless. Krager also said the assault was filmed and posted online, which was not mentioned in initial court documents.
In his statement, Krager said he believes that recent rhetoric from community leaders about homeless people led to the assault.
“We’ve never had violent acts like this toward our homeless community until recently,” Krager wrote. “The increased rhetoric by some community leaders and the barrage of aggressive social media comments dehumanize people who live here. It doesn’t take long for verbal assaults to turn physical.”
In January, the three members of the Flathead County Board of Commissioners wrote an open letter in which they called on community members to stop enabling the “homeless lifestyle.” The commissioners also blamed the community’s growing homeless population on the opening of a low-barrier shelter in Kalispell.
“When a low-barrier shelter opened in our community, we saw a dramatic increase in homeless individuals,” the letter read. “Using social media and smartphones, these wanderers are well-networked and eager to share that Kalispell has ‘services’ to serve their lifestyle. Make no mistake, it is a lifestyle choice for some. In fact, many of the homeless encountered in our parks, streets, and alleys consist of a progressive networked community who have made the decision to reject help and live unmoored.”
The letter did not provide evidence that people from out of the area are actually coming to Kalispell.
When the letter came out, advocates for the homeless criticized the commission and rejected the idea that Kalispell’s homeless residents were all from out of the area. Nathan Dugan, co-founder and president of Shelter WF, a housing advocacy group based in Whitefish, said at the time that he was worried the letter would result in violence against homeless people. This week, he said he was sad to learn that his worry had come true.
“I hope that the commissioners are able to understand that the way they have handled this homeless situation and the rhetoric that they have used caused this to happen,” Dugan said.
This weekend’s incident was not the first act of violence against homeless people in Kalispell in recent months. Last month, the Daily Inter Lake reported that the homeless community was seeing an increase in harassment, especially from local teens, who were attacking them, throwing rocks at them and stealing their possessions. In one instance, a homeless man was hospitalized with a broken collarbone after an attack. The Kalispell Police Department said at the time it was investigating those incidents.
Montana Free Press reached out to all three Flathead County commissioners seeking a response to the criticism from homeless advocates. Randy Brodehl declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. Board Chair Brad Abell also said it would be inappropriate to comment but added “that violence by anyone should not be condoned.” Pam Holmquist did not respond before this story was published.
Krager, at Samaritan House, said it is incumbent on the entire community to find solutions to Kalispell’s ongoing housing crisis — and to make it a safer place.
“No one type of person is homeless. Kids age out of foster care. People flee from domestic violence. People are priced out of their homes. Mental Health services in this area are at an all-time low in the valley. Hotels and other long-term affordable housing scenarios have closed, and people have nowhere to go,” Krager wrote. “We urge everyone to do some soul-searching and find care and compassion for our neighbors. We must come together to give people the support they need and help Kalispell be a safer community — for everyone.”