A woman says she got into a heated argument with an older boyfriend she lived with in Dillon before she strangled him to death with a rope in January 2020.
Sandy Rose Moore confessed to the crime Tuesday in pleading guilty to mitigated deliberate homicide. She faces up to 40 years in prison if District Judge Luke Berger goes along with prosecutors’ recommendations when he sentences her at a later time.
Moore, who was 19 at the time, said she got into an incredibly heated argument on January 9, 2020, with 49-year-old Larry Coon at a rental house in which they were staying in Dillon.
In answering questions from her attorney, Moore said Coon then threatened to call child protective services on a family member and she grabbed the rope, put it around his neck and killed him.
She acknowledged that she knew what she was doing but said she was in “extreme emotional duress” because of the argument. She was calm, composed and polite throughout the 10-minute hearing.
Two others — Christina VanDuinen and Kerry Samuel Johnson — were accused of trying to conceal the crime. VanDuinen and Johnson were charged with obstruction of justice and VanDuinen was also charged with tampering with evidence.
VanDuinen pleaded guilty to the tampering charge Tuesday and faces up to 10 years in prison when sentenced.
A July 9 trial date was previously set for Moore on a deliberate homicide charge, which is punishable by death or up to 100 years. Prosecutors were not seeking the death penalty and when the trial date was set in March, an evaluation on Moore’s fitness to proceed was still pending.
In a deal with prosecutors, Moore pleaded guilty Tuesday to mitigated deliberate homicide, meaning it was committed “under the influence of extreme mental or emotional stress for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse.” Berger ordered a pre-sentencing investigation and will set sentencing later.
Under Montana law, the mitigating circumstances are not an element of the reduced crime that the state or defense is required to prove but either side can present evidence of mitigation.
A conviction carries a minimum sentence of two years in prison and maximum of 40 years. Prosecutors are recommending that Moore be sentenced to the Montana Women’s Prison for 40 years and her defense attorneys are free to argue their own range at sentencing.
But under the plea deal, Moore would be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea if Berger exceeds the state’s recommendation. The only way he could do that is to impose a parole restriction beyond 10 years.
According to prosecutors, Johnson indicated on Jan. 11, 2020, he might know the location of a dead body. He told police he had been at Coon’s home to fix the washer and dryer and found Coon’s wallet but he wasn’t there. He said Moore was acting “strange and nervous.”
Police went to the home and after Moore first refused them admittance, she let officers inside, saying she and Coon had argued and he was out for a walk to calm himself.
Police found Coon’s body between the washer and dryer, with a plastic bag over his head, in a position that indicated the body had been moved. Moore was arrested immediately.
A search turned up numerous articles of evidence and neighbors said they heard Moore and Coon fighting frequently. They said two people identified as Johnson and VanDuinen had been frequenting the house.
VanDuinen told police Moore had admitted killing Coon. But VanDuinen explicitly denied seeing or touching Coon’s body “despite having detailed knowledge of the condition and location of the body,” according to charging documents.
Johnson said he wasn’t present when Coon was killed, had not seen the body nor attempted to move it. But police inspected the washer and dryer and said it was unlikely work had been done on them recently, conflicting with Johnson’s previous statements.
VanDuinen, who was 23 when the crimes occurred, and Johnson, who was 56, both appeared in court Tuesday after Moore. In pleading guilty to tampering, VanDuinen admitted taking steps aimed at concealing the body.
She is already serving time for a separate and previous drug possession conviction and could be sentenced to more time for the tampering conviction. She remained jailed Tuesday.