Arrest In Christmas Night Murder 5/20/98
By William Simonsen
Bigfork, Mont. — Two Bigfork area brothers were arrested Monday afternoon and charged with the Christmas night murder of Bigfork businessman Larry Streeter.
Ted Ernst, a computer technician and wheelchair athlete, was arrested along with his brother, Jesse. Both face felony charges of burglary and deliberate homicide.
Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont said detectives picked up Jesse, 18, for questioning after receiving a tip. When Jesse was taken into custody at the home of his parents, he was wearing boots whose soles allegedly matched plaster cast impressions made at the murder scene, the sheriff said. He was formally arrested after questioning.
Detectives then obtained a warrant for Ted’s arrest. He was taken into custody Monday afternoon in Bigfork by sheriff’s deputies. Ted was also arrested after questioning by detectives. Dupont said the snow tires on Ted’s car allegedly matched plaster casts of tire treads from the crime scene.
Both the Ernst brothers were being held Monday night in the Flathead County jail. Bond was set at $750,000 each.
Flathead County Attorney Tom Esch said both brothers were charged with the crimes, due to the way state law is written.
“If while committing a felony somebody dies, then it is a felony murder charge for all involved with the initial felony. It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger, all are culpable,” he said.
Streeter, 51, was slain late last Dec. 25 or early Dec. 26 after something prompted him to check a neighbor’s home while he was returning from work at a Columbia Falls motel he owned.
Authorities had believed he interrupted a burglary in progress at the home.
Dupont said Streeter apparently caught the brothers red-handed when he stopped to check on the house of his neighbor, John Bradshaw, a famous psychologist from Houston, Texas, who was out of the area at the time.
Streeter’s family became concerned and mounted a late-night search when he did not return home from his Columbia Falls business. His body was discovered very early the next morning by a son-in-law.
Streeter had built Bradshaw’s house and acted as informal caretaker while Bradshaw was out of town. Bradshaw later offered a $10,000 reward for information on the murder.
Streeter was shot several times execution style from close range, according to Dupont.
The motive was burglary, “just like we thought all along,” the sheriff said on Monday.
Guards were posted on the Ernst house and at least one storage unit in the Bigfork area Monday night while sheriff’s officers obtained search warrants.
Early in the investigation, sheriff’s detectives had said the burglary of Bradshaw’s home could be linked to other burglaries in the area.
Neither brother had any previous criminal history, authorities said.
Jesse was home schooled and did not attend Bigfork schools.
Ted, 20, has been confined to a wheelchair since he fell some 60 feet from a tree in a tragic childhood accident.
He began wheelchair racing about eight years ago. Ted training in his custom-made racing wheelchair was a common sight on the highways in the Bigfork area.
He had competed for eight years in Wheelchair Championships, and he went to Phoenix, Ariz., last summer for the Junior Nationals Wheelchair Championships, returning with three gold medals, four silvers and one bronze.
He had planned to train for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.
A computer expert, Ted worked for the International News Network, an Internet service provider for newspapers located in Bigfork. Co-workers expressed shock and disbelief and said they didn’t even realize Ernst had been arrested on Monday.
© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.
Sentenced For Murder 2/10/99
By William Simonsen
Bigfork, Mont. — Testimony about guns, thrills and bloody corpses came alive in the courtroom last Thursday evening, 14 months after the Christmas Night 1997 crime.
During a long and nightmarish afternoon for the families of both the murder victim and his murderers — many questions about the death of Larry Streeter were answered. Streeter was discovered shot to death in the driveway of his neighbor’s home. He was caretaking the place while its owners were out of town for the holidays.
Because murderers Ted and Jesse Ernst confessed to the crime and pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide charges, no trial was held. So evidence that would normally have been brought out was not introduced until Thursday’s sentencing hearing.
The level of planning for the crimes done by Ted and Jesse Ernst became apparent for the first time. It was revealed that while the brothers were enjoying Christmas Night dinner with their family, Ted Ernst’s car sat in his parents driveway loaded with five guns, sophisticated radio communication gear, laser lights and other burglary tools — carefully prepared for the evening’s crime.
Large color photographs brought into evidence by his widow Serena, showed Larry Streeter’s shot-to-pieces corpse crumpled on the snow in the driveway of neighbor’s house.
“This is the way my husband looked the last time I saw him and held his head in my lap,” Serena Streeter told the court. Larry Streeter was shot in the chest six times from close range with a .22 caliber pistol. Then as he lay squirming on the snow in his death throes, Ted Ernst executed him with one final shot from a .357 caliber pistol.
After bringing the photographs to the court’s attention, Serena played a recording of Larry Streeter’s voice — his Christmas greeting from a telephone answering machine.
Both Serena Streeter and her daughter, Teresa Streeter Little, told District Judge Ted Lympus about the terrible effects Larry Streeter’s death had wrought on their family.
Serena Streeter said because Larry had several business deals pending, which he was unable to consummate due to his untimely death, facts corroborated by Probate Court records of his estate. Consequently she lost the family home, her car and is currently living in rooms at the Super 8 motel in Columbia Heights — one of the family’s few remaining assets. She said all of the family’s possessions — and all of the memories linked to those possessions — are scattered all over the valley in storage units. Ironically, some of the Ernst brothers first burglaries were from storage units.
Ted and Jesse Ernst’s father Ed Ernst was called upon to testify for both of his sons — guilty of the same crime — on the same afternoon. Ted Ernst sat emotionless in his wheelchair and his brother Jesse sat staring tearfully at the floor while their father testified and begged the judge for mercy during Ted’s portion of the sentencing. Ed Ernst claimed his son Ted was a deeply religious boy who had overcome huge obstacles with his faith in God. Ed Ernst claimed Ted lost his faith and fell into sin dragging his younger brother with him. He told the court he still loves Ted in spite of what he has done. Ed Ernst — an assistant pastor at a Bigfork church — described Ted’s troubled childhood, especially his adjustment to being a paraplegic after falling from a tree. He said Ted responded to the tragedy by taking up the challenge and becoming a nationally-ranked wheelchair racer. Ed Ernst described his efforts to help in his son’s rehabilitation by running alongside Ted as he trained in his wheelchair on local roads.
Ted had adjustment problems in school Ed Ernst said, especially after his accident. Ed said that due to Ted’s injuries, it was necessary for him to wear diapers. “And he smelled bad.”
Ed Ernst also related two stories indicative of the family life of the adolescent future murderer. Ed said during a trip to Miami he and Ted spent time examining the sins of the people in the big city around them, then reading from the Bible.
The second story was about a much older Ted who had moved out of the family home into his own townhouse apartment. Ed Ernst said during one vision to the apartment he saw video tape movies and music CDs he did not approve. Ed said he informed his son that his younger sister would not be allowed to visit the apartment until the offensive material was removed.
Ted Ernst read a short statement apologizing to the Streeter family — he had previously written a letter to Serena Streeter — a letter she described as self-serving.
In his statement to the court Ted Ernst said, “Please don’t punish my brother for something I did.”
In his closing statement Esch described Larry Streeter as “an innocent victim doing a good deed” and asked the judge to give him a 100-year sentence.
Lympus obliged, and added a caveat that he not be paroled before serving the entire sentence. (See related story)
The next portion of the hearing took up the sentencing of Jesse Ernst. His attorney, David Ortley, attempted to portray Jesse as a guilt-ridden, not-too-bright victim of his manipulative brother. Jesse Ernst has blamed himself for the past decade for the crippling fall his brother took from the top of a tree where both were playing. The brothers were high in the tree breaking off branches to build a tree fort when Ted fell to the ground, his back broken, paralyzed from the waist down.
Since the accident Jesse has always tried to serve Ted by doing whatever Ted wanted him to do said Ortley. He painted a picture of a Jesse dependent on his brother for happiness — and a picture of Ted as a manipulative brother perfectly willing to withhold his caring if Jesse did not carry out his wishes.
Ed Ernst described Jesse as having a severe learning disability, but the more religious of the two boys. Because Jesse was slow at his studies and teased by his fellow students, his parents pulled him out of public school to teach him in a home school setting.
Although Jesse claimed to be an unwilling participant in the killing of Larry Streeter, he rolled Streeter’s body around to take his wallet, then returned to the crime scene twice that night.
After the brothers left Streeter dead on the snow-covered driveway, Ted Ernst realized he had left his wallet behind in the possession of Larry Streeter. Streeter asked for Ernst identification when he stumbled on the crime in progress.
Then, wearing Ted’s shoes, Jesse returned a second time to the crime scene to gather potentially incriminating evidence. The second set of footprints led detectives to look for a team of burglars, not one burglar in a wheelchair with an assistant.
Lympus said it was difficult for Jesse to claim a lessened responsibility for the murder because he carried a .357 magnum pistol in a shoulder holster.
Jesse Ernst was sentenced to 100 years in prison, but in his sentence, Lympus did not forbid parole.
© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.