Trooper's family accuses of county commissioner of improper actions

May 24—The family of a Montana Highway Patrol trooper who was seriously injured in a high-speed chase last year is asserting that a Lincoln County commissioner attempted to use his position to seek leniency for the man convicted of attempted deliberate homicide in the incident.

Tpr. Lewis Johnson was struck by a pickup truck driven by 42-year-old Jason Allen Miller on Feb. 16, 2023, on a forest road in north Lincoln County near Koocanusa Dam. He suffered life-threatening injuries.

Miller was found guilty of the offense and other crimes in a jury trial on April 19, 2024. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 5 and remains in the Lincoln County Detention Center on a $1.5 million bond.

Johnson, who currently uses a wheelchair, continues his recovery at home in Chester, Montana.

Johanna Lesiak, Johnson's sister, recently wrote a letter to three Lincoln County newspapers, including The Western News, expressing the family's concern that District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher contacted Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen's office, allegedly in an effort to seek leniency for Miller.

"This was brought to our attention through Lewis and Kate's legal representation in the state Attorney General's Office and I'm speaking on the family's behalf," Lesiak said in a phone interview with The Western News. "It's not just that he [Letcher] made the attempt, but he has never had any contact with the family and his affiliations with Mr. Miller are concerning to me."

Letcher addressed the allegations with The Western News on May 21, saying they are all politically motivated.

"What's a letter like this going to do except divide the community?" Letcher asked. "I did contact the AG's office because I thought it was the perfect opportunity for is and Austin Knudsen to show what happens with fentanyl in our communities. Both Miller and the woman in the truck were on fentanyl at the time.

"There's no question Jason made bad decisions and I'm not opposed to punishment for Jason, but at some point we have to do more to convince people that they don't have to do these things."

Letcher acknowledged he knows the Miller family well.

"I grew up across the street from them," Letcher said. "It's a sad situation for a nice family. Three of the kids went down a bad road, Jason's was the worst, but the question is what can we do to change the culture?

"Jason was 19 when he first went to prison and he was raped three times and came out a heroin and meth addict," Letcher said. "I do jail ministry in Flathead County and I went to see Jason when he was jailed here. So many times, the inmates are in their teens.

"I feel sad for the trooper's family and his situation won't get any better, and he's still looking for healing. It's just a sad, all around situation," Letcher said.

Officials in the state Attorney General's Office provided The Western News with a statement from its communications director.

"It has always been the mission of the Attorney General's Office to hold this defendant accountable and ensure he stays behind bars where he belongs," the statement read. "Attorney General Knudsen will not tolerate violence against law enforcement officers in Montana. As a persistent felony offender, the defendant faces the possibility of 510 years in prison."

Lesiak disputes Letcher's notion that the letter is politically motivated.

"He [Letcher] has put himself in this position to be questioned and he should have to answer those questions," Lesiak said.

Noel Durham, Letcher's Republican opponent in the June 4 primary, said he knows the Johnson family because he used to work as a trooper with Montana Highway Patrol. But he also says his decision to run was not motivated by Letcher's contact with the Attorney General's Office.

"I've known Kate [Johnson], but I was retired from MHP before Lewis came here," Durham said in a May 22 phone interview with The Western News. "I drove Kate to the hospital the day it happened, but I've been retired for 13 years. The law enforcement community is tight-knit though and whether you are retired or not, most of us know each other, particularly in a small community.

"My decision to run was because people were asking me to because they didn't feel they were being heard and some other issues," Durham said.

In terms of Letcher's contact with the Attorney General's Office, Durham said he supports the commissioner working on behalf of his constituents, but not prematurely getting involved.

"One of the jobs of an elected official is to work on behalf of your constituents, to offer help if possible," Durham said. "What I'm not OK with is people interfering with a matter before it's resolved. Let the process play out."

Information in Lincoln County court documents indicates Miller has stolen from his parents, neighbors and two local fire departments. Miller has served time in the Montana State Prison as well as various Department of Corrections facilities in the last two decades.

The first case against Miller began in 2000 when a man with a summer home in the West Kootenai area said seven firearms and a pair of night vision goggles were stolen from his residence.

Miller later told authorities he stole the guns, worth about $2,600, with the plan to sell them.

Miller later decided not to sell the firearms when he saw the victim in town and became afraid. Miller said he took the guns and threw them off the Lake Koocanusa Bridge into the lake.

In Oct. 2001, Miller pleaded guilty to theft. He received a two-year deferred sentence.

Not long after being sentenced, Lincoln County authorities filed a petition to revoke his sentence on Feb. 14, 2002, after state Probation and Parole officers said Miller traveled out of Montana to Sandpoint, Idaho, Spokane, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, without permission. He also tested positive for using meth in January 2002 and was accused of committing another burglary.

The 2002 burglary charge originated when Miller was accused of throwing a log through the window of a residence on West Kootenai Road. He entered the home through the window and stole 12 pistols and four rifles. Miller's parents also suspected him of stealing several silver coins and a compound bow from their home.

After being arrested, Miller admitted taking 14 guns to Spokane to pay off a bad drug debt. Miller also said he stole the items from his parent's home and sold them at pawn shops in Northwest Montana. Miller was sentenced to 10 years with six suspended. On Jan. 10, 2005, he was released from Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.

In April 2011, Forest Service law officers reported finding Miller having sex with a woman in a parked car. She allegedly had pipes for smoking marijuana and prescription medication in her possession. In February 2012, another alleged probation violation was reported. It said Miller used meth and still hadn't paid more than $1,500 in restitution to his crime victims. Miller did pay the restitution, but he ended up receiving five years in custody.

A 2012 traffic stop with his wife and a 6-year-old child in a truck Miller was driving resulted in a meth possession charge. He received a five-year suspended sentence.

Another case in 2012 saw Miller accused of stealing gear and equipment from the West Kootenai Fire Department and Fisher River Valley Fire and Rescue. Miller was a member of the West Kootenai department at the time and he was also loaned gear while helping fight wildfires with Fisher River.

The case was pleaded to a misdemeanor and Miller was sentenced to six months in the Lincoln County jail. He also had to pay more than $2,600 in restitution. Court records indicate Miller did complete various treatment programs while in custody.

In April 2018, authorities filed another petition to revoke the five-year suspended sentence after Miller was arrested in Missoula while allegedly driving a stolen vehicle. Between Aug. 31, 2017, and April 2, 2018, Miller had seven positive tests for using meth, according to court documents. He was then sentenced to five years in state prison.