PEND OREILLE COUNTY, Wash. — Two of the five men connected to the murder of a 19-year-old Newport man appeared in court on Tuesday morning. One of the men received two lesser charges in connection to the teen's death and was released from jail, while the other is faced with potentially incriminating evidence.
Kevin Belding and Claude Merritt were both facing charges in the murder of 19-year-old Jason Fox, who was found dead in early October 2020. However, a judge determined Belding was overcharged in the case and dropped the murder charge against him.
Three other people, Matthew Raddatz-Freeman, Riley Hillestad and Sean Bellah, were also arrested in connection to Fox's death.
According to a probable cause document from November 2020, Fox’s body was found buried three to four feet underground with his hands tied behind his back in an isolated area on the south side of a property on 22 Yergens Road in Newport on Oct. 4, 2020.
On Sept. 15, 2020, Fox sent a message to a person who lived with his aunt saying he would be at 22 Yergens “in case something happens to him” and he hadn’t spoken to any family members since, according to court documents. An emergency ping was conducted on his phone showing it at the Yergens address.
Two days later, documents said two law enforcement officers went to the location to see if Fox was there. They spoke with Hillestad, Raddatz-Freeman, Merritt and a woman who all lived at the location, all of which gave a different account of the last time they saw Fox.
A deputy contacted Belding on Sept. 20, 2020. Belding reportedly said it had been two to three weeks since he had seen Fox and that he believed he may have gone to Montana.
All four suspects later admitted to Fox being at the residence on Yergens on Sept. 15. None of them were able to explain why they lied.
Belding's bond was set at $750,000, as it was for Raddatz-Freeman, Merritt, and Bellah. Hillestad, who has been referred to as the mastermind behind the murder, was given a $1 million bond.
During Tuesday's hearing, Belding appeared before the judge in person while several of Fox's friends and family members watched the hearing via Zoom. Multiple spectators changed their Zoom names to #JusticeforJason, while some included the phrase written over a rainbow pattern in their profile photo.
Belding was originally charged with several felony counts related to Fox's death, including first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping. However, Belding's attorneys presented the judge with probable cause documents suggesting that, while he was at the Yergens property at the time of the murder, he did not physically commit the murder or aid in the concealment of Fox's body.
The attorneys presented the prosecution and the judge with these probable cause documents and the court went into recess just minutes after the hearing began.
When the hearing started up again, the judge determined that Belding was overcharged in the case. His attorneys requested that Belding only be charged with one count of felony rendering criminal assistance and one count of failure to notify the coroner.
Belding's attorneys admitted that he knowingly mislead law enforcement and did not inform investigators of everything he knew, including what happened to Fox and where his body was located.
The judge ultimately accepted the defense's motion to change Belding's charges and he pleaded guilty to both counts.
Belding faced a year in prison for the rendering criminal assistance charge and 90 days for the failure to notify charge. However, the judge said Belding will be given credit for time served and he has already been in custody for more than 14 months. According to VINElink, an inmate search website, Belding was released from the Pend Oreille County Jail.
Belding will be ordered to pay $500 for the crime victim assessment and $100 for DNA processing. The prosecution also asked that he be made to pay some form of restitution to Fox's family.
Belding was also given a no-contact order for all members of Fox's family and the other four men accused of Fox's murder.
Fox's father, Michael, and his mother, Pepper Fox, gave victim impact statements during the hearing. Michael Fox referred to Belding as "a morally bankrupt person" who let his son rot in the ground. He also said the justice system that was allowing Belding to walk free needs to be argued.
Pepper Fox gave her statement via Zoom and said she is hopeful her son's death can create change in the criminal justice system. After speaking, she appeared to be sobbing with her microphone turned off.
Once Belding was removed from the courtroom, Merritt appeared before the judge. The prosecution requested a continuance of his case due to the discovery of new evidence from the Yergens property.
According to prosecutors, police became aware of three to four hard drives recovered from the property. They also made an outstanding discovery of a document that may have been written by one of the other suspects and could contain incriminating evidence against Merritt.
The hard drives were initially assessed by the Pend Oreille County I.T. Department, which was unable to uncover the contents. The prosecution said the hard drives are now on the way to a crime lab for further analysis.
Merritt's attorney said he was made aware of the document but claimed the hard drives did not have any incriminating evidence against Merritt.
The judge ultimately decided Merritt's trial would still take place on Jan. 31, 2022, but said another hearing could be held sometime this week if additional evidence needed to be submitted.
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