When a finger squeezes the trigger of a gun, the firing pin drives into the primer at the center of a bullet casing, crushing the explosive powder and igniting it.
The reaction propels the bullet down the gun barrel at more than 2,000 feet per second – piercing metal, ripping through tissue, shattering bones.
But a bullet also can ravage an entire community.
In the span of eight months of 2017, two people were shot and killed in rural Bonner County, Idaho, where fewer than 1,000 people live on a stretch of about 20 miles of Highway 200, and investigators had no suspects in the seemingly random killings for close to two years.
The Sheriff’s Office couldn’t ignore the similarities between the two cases and worried a killer was targeting the elderly.
The surrounding communities, at least half of which are made up of retirees, were shocked by the violence. The people who died months apart, Shirley Ramey and George Andres, were well-liked and without enemies. Locals who had never locked their doors began buying security cameras and guns.
The Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, with its 32 patrol deputies and seven detectives, had little to go on. The cases drained the department’s waning resources during a year with three murder cases in a county that usually sees one. DNA and fingerprint evidence was scant, and leads from the tip line never amounted to much.
But before the rounds made it out of the barrel, pieces of the handgun made thousands of microscopic impressions on the round’s cartridge as the bullets fired.
The random nature of the imperfections on each tool, in theory, transfers in unique patterns that can be identified to a singular gun – like the fingerprint of a firearm.
The firing pin makes an impression on the casing. The expansion of the casing during firing presses it against imperfections in the chamber. Then the pressure of the explosion forces the cartridge back into contact with the extractor, and the ejector scars the cartridge as it’s sent out of the chamber.
Millions of high-definition images of bullet casings collected from crime scenes or test fired from guns used in crimes have been scanned and entered into a federal database. That database, called NIBIN, linked a Coeur d’Alene woman with a history of mental illness to the killing of Ramey.
Unlike collecting fingerprints or DNA, it hasn’t become protocol in many smaller law enforcement agencies, like Bonner County, to have images of bullet casings entered into this database.
Investigators say the Ramey case wouldn’t have been solved for many more years, if ever, without that match, and law enforcement agencies hope success stories like this will cement it among routine investigative techniques.
But even with one killing solved, people are still puzzled about what led up to it. They’re holding out hope that NIBIN and other forensic evidence, like DNA and fingerprints, will lead to a resolution in the case of Andres, the small community’s second shooting death that year.
Daryl Ramey said he can picture how his wife died on April 5, 2017.
He imagines her sitting in her living room chair, watching television and working on crossword puzzles, after he left the house around 11 a.m.
That’s how the 79-year-old grandmother enjoyed spending her days after she retired as the clerk for the city of Hope around 2013.
Ramey assumes there was a knock at the door.
Most of the traffic passing their house, which is off Highway 200 and up 2 miles of gravel on Trestle Creek Road, heads into the Kanisku National Forest. In the summer, it’s huckleberry pickers and ATVs. In the winter, it’s snowmobilers.
But every once in a while a stranded driver would stop at the house asking to use the phone because they couldn’t get cell service from the highway.
He imagines Shirley thinking this and getting up to help.
Then “she laid her glasses on that counter up there and opened up the door,” Ramey figures.
And he pictures Shirley sliding it right open, because the Rameys never locked it.
Then someone on the porch fired two shots from a Glock handgun at Shirley’s head.
That’s when Ramey no longer has to imagine the worst day of his life, because just before 5 p.m. he returned home from a day of playing cards at the Clark Fork senior center, parked in his carport and noticed the sliding door was wide open.
“And I stepped on the deck there, and I saw Shirley,” he said.
She was on her back on the kitchen floor just inside the doorway, with a pool of blood around her head.
“I called 911 and I said, ‘My wife is down,’ ” Ramey remembered.
The dispatcher asked if he knew CPR.
“And I said, ‘It’s too late,’ ” he recalled.
He held his wife’s hand while he waited for first responders to arrive.
Bonner County sheriff’s deputies looked for signs of burglary, but the house appeared untouched and Shirley’s body showed no signs of a struggle.
Investigators determined one bullet grazed her and lodged into the wall above the living room bay window. The other struck her in the head, killing her.
Days later, investigators learned Ramey’s Savage Model 99 rifle was missing from the daybed in a guest room, but it took weeks to find the gun’s missing serial number and list it as stolen in law enforcement databases.
Meanwhile, investigators followed a lead they found in the soft, muddy soil outside the Ramey’s house, where footprints led almost to the highway.
The prints tracked closely to a small camp trailer parked along Trestle Creek Road. It was painted in gray and white camouflage – a do-it-yourself job – that helped it blend into the snow drifts during the winter.
The 9 mm bullet holes and broken front window stood out to deputies. Glass shards lay just inside the window frame.
The owner of the trailer became the prime suspect within 24 hours of the killing.
“We had video from a bar a few days before that (of him) boasting that he was going to shoot two old people,” Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said.
He was arrested, but officers learned he was in Oregon at the time of the killing and officials dropped the charges.
Over the next two years, detectives traveled across Oregon, Washington and California tracking down leads over the course of the investigation but could never identify another suspect.
Meanwhile, the communities of Hope, Clark Fork and Sandpoint were shaken.
People who had never owned weapons before were buying guns and enrolling in safety courses. Lifelong residents were locking their doors for the first time and installing security cameras.
“We were all in shock,” said Vicki Bennett, the Rameys’ friend and manager of the Clark Fork senior center.
Shirley Ramey was a well-known member of the community. The Rameys moved to Hope in the 1970s and raised their two kids there. When they were grown, Shirley helped lead the city as clerk.
“The clerk actually runs the city. The mayor just has to be there because somebody has to be,” former Hope Mayor Larry Keith said.
Shirley’s tombstone says, “Never missed a council meeting,” because she planned vacation around government functions. That community led her to friends like Bennett.
“We believe in God. Everything happens for a reason,” Bennett said. “Shirley had survived cancer twice. Why did she have to die this way?”
George Andres had to have been caught by surprise when he was killed, his friends say.
The former Army marksman during the Vietnam War and gun collector always carried a small pistol in his pocket, and investigators have no evidence he got a shot off to protect himself.
He had likely been dead for more than two days when his two best friends, Evelyn Anderson and Rod Farrace, drove 4 miles north of Clark Fork along gravel roads lined by dense trees and found their friend the evening of Dec. 6, 2017.
The 73-year-old bachelor kept to a strict schedule. No one had heard from him since Sunday, after he had his weekly lunch with Anderson.
Typically, on Monday mornings he bought groceries in Sandpoint, then he picked up his mail and went to the library to read before returning home, Farrace said.
At the library, Anderson was told no one had seen Andres that day. He was close with many of the employees, because in past years he had informally taught young children how to read.
When they pulled up to the one-bedroom home Andres built for himself some 30 years before, his vehicles were in the carport and the lights were on.
Farrace carried a flashlight. Anderson pushed the front door open with her foot when she noticed the clasp was pried off.
The house was well kept. Everything had its place. Antique rifles and photos of Andres’ favorite outdoor scenes and animals adorned the walls.
Farrace and Anderson called Andres’ name, but no answer came.
His home had been burglarized before – mostly ammunition was taken because Andres always locked up his guns – but this seemed different.
When they called 911, they were told to get out of the house and not disturb anything. As they turned to walk down the porch, Anderson spotted a pile of groceries and mail on the ground about 20 feet away near the carport.
“I said, ‘Give me the flashlight,’ ” Anderson remembers.
Andres was on his back with his grocery cooler dropped on one side of him and his mail on the other.
He had been shot twice, once in the chest and then in the forehead. But the wound to his head didn’t bleed, meaning he likely was dead before the gunman fired that shot.
“It looked like he had totally been caught by surprise,” Farrace said. “He probably had both hands full” and couldn’t reach for his gun.
While Farrace said nothing seemed to be out of order when he peered inside Andres’ home, Anderson was told some of Andres’ guns that were in a smaller locker were missing.
Investigators also found a fingerprint and some DNA. Two years after the killing, though, that evidence still has not come back with a match.
Meanwhile, residents of Hope and Clark Fork were concerned about the similarities between the Andres case and the Ramey homicide eight months earlier: Both victims were elderly. Both were shot in their homes down gravel roads miles off Highway 200. Both looked like robberies gone wrong. And neither had been solved.
It was the third time that year that all of Bonner County’s detectives dropped all of their cases and devoted close to two weeks to a major homicide.
“So all the burglaries and thefts that detectives were dealing with had to be put on the wayside to deal with the newer cases,” lead detective Phil Stella said. “That was definitely a strained year.”
Investigators initially thought the cases could be linked. Sheriff Wheeler and lead homicide detective Phil Stella said they feared someone might have been targeting elderly people.
While Anderson spread her friend’s ashes around Lightning Creek, per his wishes, and Andres’ entire estate went to the Panhandle Animal Shelter, per his will, the tension in the community that began with the Ramey murder was amplified. People felt like crime from the big city was coming their way.
Farrace said people began buying guns and carrying weapons more often. There was even some talk about hunting down the killer themselves.
“Just let us know who did it and we’ll take care of it,” some boasted.
Anderson, a widow who lives alone close to downtown Clark Fork, said people encouraged her to find a way to protect herself, but she chose to just be more aware of her surroundings.
“Everybody thought I ought to get a gun or get a dog,” she said. “I didn’t.”
Wheeler said membership in the county neighborhood watch group has ballooned to 1,500 people since the killings of Ramey and Andres.
Follow the gun
The Ramey and Andres cases were different than other homicide investigations on which lead detective Phil Stella has worked.
“In Shirley’s case and in George’s case, we don’t have any idea who, so we have to look for little clues,” said Stella, adding that the killings’ rural settings meant a lack of witnesses and security camera footage.
The big break in the Ramey investigation came about a year after her death, in the form of a casual remark an Idaho State Police detective made to ATF Special Agent James Butler about the unsolved killing and the possible clues related to the gun.
That led Butler to get in touch with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office about a computer database for examining spent ammunition casings.
NIBIN has been around since the 1990s. It has generated close to 100,000 investigative leads from approximately 3.3 million pieces of evidence entered from around the country since 1999. So far, NIBIN has been 97% accurate and no false positives have been correlated in the Pacific Northwest.
A machine takes high-definition, 3-D images at different angles and lighting, then uploads a composite image showing all of the imperfections on the bullet casing and any available information about the gun to NIBIN for comparison across the country. An algorithm returns the 30 closest matches for a technician to compare on a computer screen.
All told, that entire process can take as little as 30 minutes and less than 2 hours from when a trigger is pulled.
But without a network of local law enforcement agencies all submitting casings to NIBIN, the information does little good.
Before 2018, it was hard for law enforcement in Eastern Washington and North Idaho to make use of the database. That year, the ATF paid for an additional 11 new BrassTrax machines in 2018 and 22 in 2019 to expand the accessibility of the tool. So Butler made it a priority to spread the word about the system among the 200 law enforcement agencies in his region. About 75 have made it protocol.
One of the new NIBIN machines went to Cheney. Until then, a facility to examine casings didn’t exist in Eastern Washington and casings from the region had to be sent to the WSP lab in Seattle. That made large agencies, like the Spokane Police Department, less likely to submit them. It meant many smaller offices, like the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, didn’t know about the technology at all.
So when Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler heard about the technology and about how it might help solve the Ramey case, he was “unbelievably, ecstatically happy.”
But the results weren’t immediate.
A small room in the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Cheney is as close as real-life investigations get to the popular television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
A $250,000 black metal box sitting on a desk was the key to solving the two-year-old Ramey case.
The box, containing a state-of-the-art system called BrassTrax, helped link spent ammunition casings from the Ramey home to a gun seized within hours of the killing from a Coeur d’Alene woman named Judith Carpenter after a road rage incident in Montana.
After casings from the Ramey scene were entered into NIBIN, it took about a year of Butler and other ATF agents asking local agencies to submit bullet casings and test-fired rounds.
Butler mentioned the make and model of the gun used in Ramey’s killing, a 9mm Glock, at trainings around the region and in bold letters in every informational email.
He eventually expanded his search and asked an agent in the Montana ATF office to help.
This spring, an agent learned the Lincoln County, Montana, sheriff’s office seized a Glock 19 the day Ramey died.
They also had another gun in evidence – the Savage Model 99 rifle stolen from the Ramey home.
Judith Carpenter called 911 the morning of April 5, 2017, with an urgent message, according to Kootenai County dispatch records.
She hadn’t been at her home in Coeur d’Alene for a week and was followed by 40 people while trying to return, she told a dispatcher. She said she’d been receiving death threats leading up to that day and thought someone was inside.
But when police arrived at her home at about 8:20 a.m., no one was there and the home was locked.
Minutes later, Carpenter called 911 from the Idaho Panhandle National Forest Headquarters and advised employees that she was going to the Coeur d’Alene police station across the street.
Just after 9 a.m., someone else called 911 about a woman in a car matching the description of Carpenter’s GMC SUV driving around a strip mall about 2 miles north of the police station, telling people they were going to jail and taking pictures of them.
About two hours later, Carpenter got a phone message that placed her in the Sagle area south of Sandpoint, within 30 minutes’ drive of Hope, according to court testimony.
Then around 3 p.m. a married couple were driving north on Bull Lake Road toward Libby when they passed a GMC SUV, according to law enforcement records.
The SUV sped up, closing the gap behind them, then rode their rear bumper. The truck pulled over to let the other car pass and avoid a conflict.
But as they kept driving down the road, the SUV was parked in the shoulder and a woman was aiming a black handgun at them out of a rolled-down window.
The couple continued on Bull Lake Road with the SUV close behind and went east on Highway 2 for about 16 miles toward their home in Libby. They waited until they were in the city to call 911, and dispatchers advised them to go to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.
Less than a minute later, their pickup pulled into the sheriff’s office parking lot and the SUV was still following them closely.
As the SUV passed by, Deputy Bo Pitman, a patrol captain at the time, said the woman driving avoided eye contact with him as he yelled at her to stop her car. Pitman prepared for a pursuit as she accelerated around the corner until a plainclothes detective pointed at her to turn around.
The couple were visibly shaken while talking to deputies, Pitman said, and told him they were scared for their lives.
In most road rage cases, Pitman said, callers exaggerate the circumstances or mistakenly report seeing a weapon. The worst-case scenario is typically a minor traffic infraction.
But then the other driver, who identified herself as Judith Carpenter, told deputies she was armed. Deputies removed the handgun from her car and found a holster on her hip. She also had a Savage Model 99 rifle in her back seat that she said she found while going to the bathroom on the side of the road.
Carpenter initially denied pointing the gun at the couple, Pitman said. Then she admitted that she thought the woman looked like a person who stole her identity and believed they were going to run into her car.
Carpenter “was extremely paranoid,” Pitman said.
Carpenter told him she was having trouble with her high-stress job and was turned away from the Canadian border twice over the weekend while trying to go see her daughter.
Over the phone, Carpenter’s husband, Jim Flannery, told Pitman she had vanished from their home six days earlier and that he had received several calls from Eastern Washington and North Idaho law enforcement agencies who said she was exhibiting erratic behavior but they didn’t have a reason to jail her.
“I thought it was the female version of ‘Falling Down,’ where actor Michael Douglas was in a kind of high-stress job and he just broke one day on the way to work,” Pitman said.
In the movie, Douglas’ character has increasingly violent encounters with people as he travels across Los Angeles.
But Pitman said Carpenter appeared more paranoid than violent, and the Lincoln County court system sent her to Montana’s state mental hospital for two weeks after two days in jail. After she returned to Libby, Carpenter paid $5,000 to bond out of jail and was a patient at the Idaho state mental hospital from July 31 until Sept. 19.
Doctors described Carpenter as clear-thinking and in a stable mood, but said she lacked “insight into her mental illness,” according to court documents.
Carpenter’s primary care provider disputed a bipolar diagnosis given by an Idaho State Hospital doctor that December and asserted she was “back to her normal mental status and mood” following treatment and medication after an apparent mental health breakdown.
The Lincoln County Attorney’s Office agreed in February 2018 not to prosecute Carpenter for an assault with a weapon charge if she did not reoffend and continued mental health treatment.
Carpenter lost her job as a real estate appraiser after the incident and has been out of work since, according to her defense attorneys.
The guns seized from her that day stayed in Lincoln County evidence for more than two years. Because the witnesses never said the guns were fired, deputies had no reason to test the casings.
Because the rifle wasn’t reported stolen, there wasn’t anything to follow up on.
Not until the ATF called this spring.
The NIBIN match didn’t just help link Carpenter to the Ramey killing. It also changed protocol for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Darren Short, who was a Libby police officer in 2017 and elected sheriff in 2018.
Deputies now enter recovered shell casings and conduct test fires for all guns they seize.
Why is secondary
As Daryl Ramey told the story about finding his wife dead in a hearing that would decide whether Carpenter would be tried for first-degree murder, Carpenter sat on the edge of her seat and listened with a raised chin.
In arguing to have the charges against Carpenter dismissed, her lead defense attorney, Joseph Sullivan, cast doubt on the circumstantial evidence connecting her to the Ramey killing.
No physical evidence has been presented that places Carpenter in the Ramey home, Sullivan said. The strongest connection is her possession of Daryl Ramey’s rifle.
“There is no evidence of planning. There is no evidence of motive,” Sullivan said.
No personal connection between Ramey and Carpenter has been identified, either.
Sullivan questioned investigators about how the NIBIN match to Ramey’s gun might be a false positive if it was made with molded copies of parts, not unique machined ones.
“Every one of the shell casings,” chief deputy prosecutor Dan Rodriguez said, “matches her Glock.
“We know that the kill shot came from her gun,” he added, noting that there is no evidence Carpenter was elsewhere at the time and that she was found hours later having pointed a gun at a man and woman in Montana.
And where Highway 200 meets Bull Lake Road, deputies found a vehicle soon after Ramey was killed with its windows shot out that day. Carpenter reportedly had a cut on her hand, and Bonner County investigators think blood recovered on that car’s steering wheel and door handle will match to her.
“She wanted to shoot things, and she wanted to shoot people,” Rodriguez argued.
Carpenter’s husband, Flannery, has maintained his wife’s innocence in statements to other news organizations. He has declined multiple requests for interviews with The Spokesman-Review.
A late night SWAT arrest of Carpenter on Aug. 1 at the Coeur d’Alene home she’s owned for about two decades was the talk of her cul de sac the next morning.
Carpenter was known as a mostly friendly introvert. Her grandchildren were at the home often, and she worked to keep a neat yard.
Elizabeth Barker, a next-door neighbor of Carpenter’s for less than a month, said she only talked with her twice and mostly about overgrown trees and a fence that was built 9 inches too far across Carpenter’s property.
“She was really very nice,” she said.
Prosecutors expect Carpenter to plead not guilty at a plea hearing set for Nov. 25, which is customary before attorneys can discuss a plea bargain. An arraignment hearing scheduled last week was delayed so Carpenter could undergo a mental health evaluation to determine if she is competent to understand court proceedings.
Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah are the only states that do not recognize a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, mental health plays a role in how a judge hands down a sentence.
Rodriguez said prosecutors have not discussed seeking the death penalty, because the alleged killing does not fit the usual standards for capital punishment.
If found competent to go to trial, Carpenter’s trial date will be set at her next hearing. If she is not, she’ll be sent to the Idaho State Hospital until she is considered competent.
Investigators are still awaiting DNA test results from the blood of an unknown woman on the weapons seized from Carpenter. After the blood did not come back as a match to Shirley Ramey, Carpenter was served with a warrant this week to take her DNA for comparison to the blood and DNA recovered at the Andres crime scene.
The two cases have diverged from each other in most respects beyond initial similarities, investigators say. They believe two people may have killed Andres and hope to eliminate Carpenter as a suspect through DNA.
Wheeler, the Bonner County sheriff, said he hopes the resolution of one homicide will put the community at ease while more alert residents watch over each other.
And he has committed to sing the praises of NIBIN, encouraging other small law enforcement agencies to adopt it as protocol.
“We can’t count on Agent Butler for being so vigilant and trying to find the person responsible,” Wheeler said. “It’s really going to be a partnership with all the agencies in the Inland Northwest.”
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