May 27—Seven months after shooting and killing her abusive ex-husband near a fishing hole in Paradise, Rachel Bellesen is a free woman.
A judge on Tuesday permanently dismissed a charge of deliberate homicide against Bellesen, who maintains she was acting in self-defense when she killed Jacob Glace on Oct. 8. She says Glace, who had a documented history of violence against several women, attacked and tried to rape her that night, ripping at her clothes and leaving her with bruises. Shortly after shooting him, she drove to a gas station in Hot Springs and called 911 to report what had happened.
During a small gathering Wednesday evening in Kalispell's Depot Park, Bellesen, 38, said she had spent most of her life in fear that she might be killed, "being on guard and living in trepidation, waiting for that other shoe to drop." And now — with the threat of her abuser and the threat of prosecution no longer looming over her — she's grappling with a complicated mix of emotions.
"I was so used to it that I didn't even recognize the course of control that continued over all of the years since my divorce," she said. "The happiness, disbelief and gratitude that I felt immediately after the judge's ruling yesterday quickly subsided, and I felt lost. How am I supposed to live now? How do I wake up in the morning and not mentally prepare for dealing with my abuser? How do I go about my day without planning for every 'what if,' and how do I begin to actually heal versus just living?"
TUESDAY'S DECISION by Flathead County District Court Judge Amy Eddy was unusual. Many women convicted of killing men report they were acting in self-defense against their abusers.
But Bellesen, who works as a coordinator at Kalispell's Abbie Shelter for domestic violence victims, had a small army of supporters who are deeply familiar with the legal system and all the ways it can fail to do justice in cases of abuse.
Missoula attorney Lance Jasper led a team of experts who volunteered to defend Bellesen, saying Sanders County sheriff's deputies and prosecutors jumped to conclusions when they arrested and charged her the day after the shooting, failing to consider clear evidence that she had been assaulted.
The county handed the case over to Chris McConnell, a special prosecutor from the Montana Attorney General's Office, who moved to dismiss the case "without prejudice" — which would have left open the possibility of refiling the charge at a later date.
McConnell acknowledged prosecutors don't have, and likely would never find, sufficient evidence to convict Bellesen, but he argued the option to refile the charge should remain on the table as the state was still awaiting lab results from the scene of the shooting.
Bellesen's supporters said that resolution would not suffice, and the Abbie Shelter mounted a campaign to put public pressure on the attorney general's office. As there is no statute of limitations for deliberate homicide, the threat of prosecution, no matter how unlikely, would hang over Bellesen for the rest of her life.
Prosecutors would not budge. They rejected an extraordinary offer from Jasper to view the defense's entire case file in exchange for a promise that the case would be dismissed "with prejudice" if no charges were refiled within one year.
Judge Eddy, who heard the case at the Sanders County Courthouse in Thompson Falls, delivered the resolution that Bellesen and her supporters had been hoping for Tuesday when she uttered the words "with prejudice" from the bench. Prosecutors haven't said whether they will appeal the decision.
During Wednesday's gathering in Depot Park, Jen Parsons, the associate director of the Abbie Shelter, said the shelter's staff is relieved by the outcome.
"But we are also aggrieved that a case so obviously entrenched with sexual assault, attempted rape and the long-term patterns of domestic violence made it this far down the halls of the legal system," Parsons said. "It speaks volumes to the barriers that victims of domestic and sexual violence routinely face with the legal system tasked to protect them. In Rachel's case, the mistakes that the system made almost fell entirely on the shoulders of a person who was the least responsible for them — on Rachel."
GLACE AND Bellesen began dating in Washington state when he was 23 and she was 15, shortly before she became pregnant with their first child and her mother kicked her out of the house, according to a story from the Daily Beast.
Glace was convicted of assaulting Bellesen in 2004 and of assaulting his new wife in 2010. He was charged twice more last year in Sanders and Mineral counties for attacking two other women. Police reports describe him slamming one woman into a wall and hitting her face, pushing another to the ground and choking her, and smashing a chair, among other transgressions.
Prosecutors never offered an alternative explanation for why Bellesen might have shot Glace, though questions were raised about why the two met near the fishing hole that night in October. Bellesen lives in Lakeside with her new husband, Corey. Jasper, her attorney, has said she went to meet Glace to discuss threats Glace had made against one of their sons.
Bellesen spent three weeks in jail before her bond was reduced to $20,000 and she could afford to get out. And while she continues to work through sadness and trauma, she still counts herself fortunate, as a white woman who found expert help through her connections at the Abbie Shelter.
"The truth is that, had my skin been a different color — even if the details of the events were otherwise exactly the same — I would probably still be sitting in the jail with an astronomically high bond, hoping for a case update from a public defender who was overworked and underpaid, barely knowing my name, knowing that the only options available are plea deals or trial, and that my life would effectively be over."
Bellesen pledged to use "the privilege of my voice to bring domestic violence out from behind closed doors. Solutions cannot be found if people are not aware of the problem. Let's fight to change that."
Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.