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Fourth suspect faces charges for murder of Newport teen found with hands tied behind his back

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 10, 2020

The fourth suspect charged in the killing of 19-year-old Jason Fox in Newport, Washington, made his first appearance in court Tuesdayafternoon wearing shackles.

Riley James Hillestad, 26, posed what the judge called “the risk of violence” and “attempted revenge,” as he overruled the objections of public defender Carson Van Valkenburg who argued Hillestad had a constitutional right to be free of restraint in the courtroom.

The charges against Hillestad, including first-degree murder, could put him in prison for life if convicted.

Three other Pend Oreille County residents – Matthew J. Raddatz-Freeman, 28, Claud L. Merritt, 25, and Kevin M. K. Belding, 24 – also are charged with killing Fox.

A fifth man, Sean D. Bellah, was arrested on a charge of providing misleading statements to investigators.

Fox disappeared Sept. 16. His last known communication occurred the previous day, when he wrote to a friend to say he would be at a property on Yergens Road outside of Newport and that he was letting her know “in case something happens to me,” according to court documents.

Investigators found Fox’s body buried with his hands bound behind his back in early October.

When a sheriff’s deputy and a Newport police officer first went to the address in search of Fox on Sept. 17, Raddatz-Freeman, Merritt, Hillestad and a woman who has not been named as a suspect each gave different accounts of when they had last seen the missing teen.

Belding later gave his own inconsistent account of when he had last seen Fox, according to court documents.

“None of them could explain why they lied about the last time they saw Jason,” Pend Orielle County Sheriff’s Deputy Travis Stigall wrote in materials supporting the criminal charges.

When investigators began conducting follow-up interviews with witnesses and suspects, Hillestad arrived for his “wearing a ballistic vest, pepper spray, hand cuffs, knives, an AR-15 and a handgun,” court records say.

Hillestad told deputies he had witnessed, but not participated in, the beating of Fox, which he blamed on Raddatz-Freeman and Merritt.

A witness who was at the Yergens Road property the night of Fox’s disappearance told investigators she saw Hillestad operating a skid-steer loader for 20-30 minutes in the area where his body was later found buried.

In his interview with law enforcement, Hillestad acknowledged operating the skid-steer, court documents say, but he said it was part of work he was doing on a broken sewer pipe.

At one point during the interview, court records say, Hillestad “was talking angerly (sic) about” the owner of the Yergens Road property and saying “he should have killed him when he had the chance.”

Merritt told deputies in a subsequent interview that Raddatz-Freeman and Hillestad had beaten up Fox and that Hillestad “threatened him and Kevin (Belding) with his gun and told them not to say anything.”

He also said he saw Raddatz-Freeman lead Jason out back door of the shop where the beating occurred “with his hands tied behind his back,” according to court records. Merritt told officers that the next morning Raddatz-Freeman told him “Jason was dead and they had buried him.”

When he was interviewed, Raddatz-Freeman gave yet another conflicting account of what occurred, telling deputies that Merritt and Hillestad beat up Fox, that Merritt led him out with his hands tied behind his back and that he could hear the skid-steer on the back of the property.

“When he was asked how he (Raddatz-Freeman) thought Jason was killed he said he thought they buried him,” the sheriff’s affidavit reads.

Fox was found in a 3- or 4-foot grave with a ratchet strap binding his wrists, as Raddatz-Freeman described, on the Yergens Road property in early October.

In asking for Hillestad’s bail to be set at $1 million on Tuesday, Pend Orielle County Prosecutor Dolly Hunt said the state is “concerned about intimidation of witnesses.”

District Court Judge Robin R. McCroskey agreed to the amount over objections of Hillestad’s defense attorney, saying she was keeping bail high “because of my concern for community safety.”

Raddatz-Freeman, Merritt and Belding are being held on $750,000 bond.

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