April 4, 1997 in Nation/World

Prosecutors Seek New Trial In Bomb Case Sandpoint Trio May Be Back In Court In June

Bill Morlin Kim Barker Contributed T Staff writer
 

Federal prosecutors will ask another jury to hear evidence against three North Idaho men who escaped bombing and bank robbery convictions this week because of a lone juror’s holdout vote.

The second trial in U.S. District Court in Spokane could occur as early as mid-June.

“We’re going to go ahead with another trial,” Jim Connelly, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, said Thursday.

The chief federal law enforcement official for Eastern Washington reached the decision a day after a mistrial was declared for Charles Barbee, 45; Robert Berry, 43; and Verne Jay Merrell, 51, all of Sandpoint.

Connelly said there is “unanimous agreement” among victims and federal law enforcement agencies that the government should retry the defendants.

Prosecutors consulted victims of last April’s and July’s bombings and bank robberies in the Spokane Valley before making the decision, Connelly said.

U.S. Bank, which was robbed twice, “is very supportive of the decision for a retrial,” the U.S. attorney said.

Charlie Mandigo, an FBI regional supervisor in Seattle, said his agency is “fully committed” to providing investigators needed for a second trial.

“These are very serious criminal acts,” Mandigo said, “and the public deserves resolution of this.”

While much investigative work already is done, the FBI will continue to assign agents as needed to conduct follow-up work for the second trial, Mandigo said.

No one is ready to estimate the cost of the first trial, which involved 95 witnesses and almost five weeks of testimony.

A retrial must occur within 70 days of a mistrial, unless the defendants waive their right to speedy trial.

Connelly declined to say whether he favors retrying Barbee, Berry and Merrell with a fourth defendant, Brian Ratigan, who was arrested March 13.

That decision won’t be made until Connelly consults with his three assistant prosecutors who handled the trial.

The case against Ratigan is scheduled to be presented to a federal grand jury Tuesday in Spokane. He has the legal right to a trial within 70 days after being indicted.

Barbee, Berry and Merrell were convicted of conspiracy, two counts of interstate transportation of stolen vehicles and possession of hand grenades.

But the 12-member federal jury couldn’t come to unanimous agreement on eight other counts - two for armed bank robberies, three bombings and three for use of firearms during crimes of violence.

The jury voted 11-1 to convict on those charges, which carry the heaviest sentences, but a unanimous vote is required.

Conviction on one count of using firearms during crimes of violence would carry an automatic 25-year prison term.

For a second conviction on the same charge, the judge would have no choice but to sentence the defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The holdout juror was William Tobias Loetsher, 36, who lives in a well-manicured suburban neighborhood overlooking Yakima.

On Thursday afternoon, his wife said he had no interest in talking about the case. “He’s not going to answer any of your questions,” she said.

Several neighbors said they didn’t know the Loetsher family, but Jim and Bernie Thomas said they knew Loetsher as “Toby.” They said his family moved in about five years ago and that he was “a real nice guy.”

After learning that Loetsher was the holdout juror, Bernie Thomas said, “Good for him. I’m proud of him.”

The three defendants were caught with the grenades and stolen cars on Oct. 8 in Union Gap, Wash., after a squad of FBI agents followed them to a bank in Portland.

An apparent holdup was averted when the FBI warned the bankers to lock their doors.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Bill Morlin Staff writer Staff writer Kim Barker contributed to this report.

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