The discovery earlier this month of a homicide victim in a shallow North Idaho grave was the tragic confirmation of a burglary suspect’s unexpected confession, setting in motion Bonner County’s first murder investigation in years.
Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said once the body was found, detectives essentially worked a murder investigation backward to piece together what they think happened to 19-year-old Michael Wyatt Smith, who had been reported missing months earlier and hadn’t been seen since. Investigators now believe that Smith was shot twice because of a love triangle between a juvenile girl and the married man now being charged with killing him.
“It’s a terrible conclusion to that missing person report,” Wheeler said.
The mystery began unfolding on the first Friday in January when a burglary suspect named Christopher R. Garlin walked into the sheriff’s department with disturbing news: He’d been part of an earlier killing. The victim’s name was Mike.
“We had to determine whether there was a missing person named Mike,” Wheeler said. “We worked on it all that weekend.”
On Monday, Jan. 9, detectives found the missing person report filed Sept. 15 for Smith, who had disappeared a couple days before from Hope, Idaho, a small resort destination east of Sandpoint. With that, “We confirmed that (the killing) was a high probability,” Wheeler said.
Garlin already had been under investigation with three others for a burglary that occurred just after Christmas at a pawn shop in Ponderay, Idaho, in which more than 30 guns were stolen.
Along with local police, the burglary earned the attention of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which started gathering evidence to present to a grand jury this coming June, Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall said.
Along with Garlin, the other suspects in that burglary were 19-year-old Austin B. Thrasher, his 22-year-old wife, Jennifer S. Dunnagan-Thrasher, and another person who is not believed to be involved in the killing, Marshall said.
“Once Garlin came in and indicated there was a homicide … the sheriff’s office filed burglary charges against them so we could keep the community safe and keep them in custody,” Wheeler said.
Deputies arrested the Thrasher couple on Jan. 9 and Garlin the next day on the burglary charges. Then the questioning about Smith began.
Detectives started piecing together what they believe happened. They also started issuing search warrants for buildings, cars, computers and vehicles.
“In all, we executed 17 search warrants,” Wheeler said. Asked if detectives obtained circumstantial evidence from the crime, he replied: “Absolutely.”
They learned Smith had come to North Idaho to be part of a program to help young men with drug or alcohol addictions, Wheeler said.
On Sept. 13, the three suspects picked up Smith from transitional housing on the Hope peninsula owned by Carl Olding, who founded Elk Mountain Academy, located just over the Idaho border in Montana. It caters to young men recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, according to its website.
Olding said Smith never attended Elk Mountain Academy, but would not confirm whether Smith stayed at any other facility that he owns. He declined further comment.
Wheeler said investigators believe the suspects told Smith they were going to a party at Thrasher’s grandfather’s home in the woods east of Cocolalla Lake. Once there, it’s believed that Austin Thrasher took Smith into the woods and shot him twice sometime after midnight, Wheeler said.
“We believe it was their intention all along to take him to a location … and commit homicide,” Wheeler said. “We believe the motive was jealousy over a juvenile girl.”
Authorities believe Austin Thrasher and Smith had been having romantic relations with the same juvenile girl, Wheeler said. “From our investigation, it doesn’t appear (Dunnagan-Thrasher) was aware of this relationship” at the time of the killing.
After shooting Smith, investigators believe, the three suspects moved his body to a location that was unknown until earlier this month – when detectives got their second big break. This time it came from Dunnagan-Thrasher, who apparently learned of her husband’s involvement with the juvenile girl while she was in jail.
But Wheeler said he doesn’t know whether that was her motivation for coming forward. On the advice of her attorney, Wheeler said, Dunnagan-Thrasher agreed to show detectives where Smith was buried.
On Feb. 2, she led detectives north and east of Sandpoint, about six miles up Rapid Lightning Road near Wellington Road, “and pointed where Mr. Smith was buried,” Wheeler said.
Detectives went out the next day and exhumed the body. After the coroner confirmed the identity of the body, detectives called Smith’s family in California, who could not be reached for comment.
Austin Thrasher is being held on a $500,000 bond for the charge of first-degree murder. Dunnagan-Thrasher and Garlin are being held on $50,000 bonds and are charged as accessories. All three are due in court Friday for a preliminary hearing.
“The detectives spent time explaining the case to the family and how it developed. They were very thankful,” Wheeler said. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the family. This should never happen to anybody.”
Wheeler credited the work of the Ponderay Police Department, federal agents and especially his own detectives.
Once the report of the killing came in, “There were a lot of nights our detectives didn’t sleep knowing Michael is out there and we couldn’t find him,” Wheeler said. “Our detectives were just tenacious and weren’t going to give up until we found where Michael was laying at rest.”