BIRDSEYE -John "Mike" Crites had a gentle heart and a twitchy trigger finger.

Crites, 48, was an in-your-face kind of man if he didn't like what you were doing and that included crossing his property. Standing 5-foot-10-inches and weighing close to 200 pounds, he looked every bit the mountain man he was. The home he built near the end of Turk Road northwest of Helena had no running water or electricity, and has been described as something out of the TV show "Hoarders," with few dishes but hundreds of antlers and stuffed animal mounts on the walls and in every corner.

Yet under that gruff exterior, Crites also was known as a gentle soul who loved wild places. He was an avid trophy elk and deer hunter, who once cried over an injured fawn he couldn't help and would live-trap chipmunks indoors and set them free outside. He meticulously cared for his four wolf-hybrid dogs, and treated his 80-acre parcel as a botanical garden where he spent hours pulling weeds.

Crites was an industrial sheet metal worker, but his sister says that he wasn't a fan of the 9-to-5 lifestyle. For years, he saved and prepared for a move from Colorado to Montana, where he could live off the grid in the wilderness he loved.

It was a dream with a nightmarish ending.

Chris Forseth was Crites' best friend. Late in the evening on June 24, 2011, they were at Crites' home, when Crites made an odd statement.

"He said, ‘Chris, they're going to kill me,'" Forseth recalled. "He was distraught."

Forseth understood that Crites was concerned about disputes in the neighborhood. Two days later, Crites was reported missing. His beloved wolf-hybrid dogs had been set loose and his wallet and car keys were found on the table.

"I know that I am the last person to see him alive," Forseth said.

Crites' remains were found on MacDonald Pass four months later, buried in trash bags along Highway 12. The coroner won't discuss the condition of the body, but called it "a bag of bones."

His older sister, Connie Crites, tried to find a delicate way to tell her mother about the gruesome discovery. She couldn't.

"That was a look I will never forget. I would love to have kept that from her forever," Connie Crites recalled. "That was horrible. Heinous - that word came about because of this because it just fits so perfectly.

"This is someone who was a son, a brother, an uncle and a friend. How can you do that to him?"

Gloria and Marc Flora lived on property next to Crites for more than a decade. Gloria Flora, well known as the former Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor, said Crites was an honest, good man.

"He was hard to get along with, and he didn't like authority figures, but he was a fine neighbor," she said. "When he picked some huckleberries or mushrooms, he'd share them with us. He didn't bother you, but loved to talk and if we needed anything, he was there."

Forseth and Flora added that Crites was an intelligent man.

"He had a 150 or so IQ. He'd talk over your head a lot," Forseth said. "His intelligence intimidated people. He was not an outcast but just needed particular friends."

Others paint a less generous picture. Dennis Shaw, who also lived in the Turk Road neighborhood, said Crites tried to cut off access to public lands, as well as private lands beyond his property.

"I've been dealing with that asshole for almost 20 years," Shaw said. "When he moved up on that hill, he wanted to control the whole place. He kept everybody off so it was his private hunting grounds."

Crites' affinity for hunting deer and elk, as well as shed horn hunting, got him in trouble with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens more than once.

In 1995, FWP received info that Crites was a nonresident but bought a resident hunting license, and he was issued a courtesy citation. He was investigated again in 1997, with FWP looking into allegations that Crites illegally killed a spike elk.

In 2002, Mike Ottman, a FWP game warden sergeant, talked to Crites about his pet wolf hybrids that weren't tattooed as required by law if they were more than 50 percent wolf. Crites said he didn't know their lineage, but paperwork that was found later at his home showed he bought them from a woman in Seeley Lake, and they were 87 percent wolf.

In 2005, Crites was charged with criminal trespass on the Beartooth Game Range for accessing the property before it opened to the public. He was gathering shed elk antlers and was convicted after a jury trial.

Also in 2005, he was sued and lost over easements to lots farther up the road that went past his home. Crites was ordered to pay the Realtor $3,041 in damages for lost interest on the sale of two lots and was ordered to stay away from the property, and remove barriers on the road that led to the lots. He appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, but lost again.

In 2006, he faced 15 charges relating to wildlife. But the state threw out eight of the counts, saying the laws were unclear, and while a jury convicted him of unlawful possession of a game animal in 2002 and unlawful sale of game animals, he was found not guilty of five other counts.

Ottman, now retired, said he heard secondhand of threats Crites had made against wardens, and it put them on edge.

"He told people he knew where we lived and knew where our kids went to school," Ottman said. "He was a different character. He wasn't overly sociable, but he was nice enough, especially if you talked to him about hunting. But he would always complain about people trespassing on his property. He was into protecting his area."

Crites also had ongoing disputes with others in the neighborhood (see related story). Those disputes led to numerous civil lawsuits as well as criminal allegations.

His sister said he lived by his own set of rules and was especially rebellious when it came to regulations that didn't make sense to him.

"By and large, he's always been a little rough around the edges. He had a gruff exterior but he was a pussycat," Connie Crites added.

With the positive DNA identification of the bones last week, Crites' death was vividly revived for friends and family members.

"This is a roller coaster. It just keeps coming. You can't quite complete the grieving process," Connie Crites said. "... It breaks my heart because this was a truly, truly, truly fine human being and the fact that someone treated him less than that - how dare they?"

 

Reporter Angela Brandt: 447-4078 or ngela.brandt@helenair.com . Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com or Twitter.com/IR_EveByron

 

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