A man tied to one of the largest stockpiles of stolen goods in recent memory in Butte pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a burglary authorities pinned on him because of DNA from empty Coca-Cola cans left at the scene.
Police found enough stolen items at a house Frank Reuben Medina had been staying at in 2017 to “fill an entire U-Haul truck,” prosecutors said, but they only recently tied some of them to a specific burglary because of DNA results.
“It’s the largest stash of goods I have seen, and I’ve been doing this for 32 years,” Undersheriff George Skuletich said Wednesday.
Medina, 38, was sentenced to five years in prison in September on unrelated drug and theft charges, the latter involving a stolen ATV, before new charges were filed.
He pleaded not guilty to felony burglary Wednesday before Judge Robert Whelan, who set the next hearing for March 13. Medina has another burglary case pending, too, involving allegations that he stole lumber from a forest cabin.
Burglary in Montana carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine up to $50,000.
In June 2017, police served a search warrant on a house near the East Ridge that Medina had stayed at and found “multiple items that were stolen from numerous burglaries and thefts,” prosecutors said.
Medina wasn’t at the house when the warrant was served, and he didn’t turn up in subsequent checks. He was ultimately arrested on other complaints.
Some of the stolen goods found belonged to a man whose house on the East Ridge was broken into in October 2016, but authorities were only recently able to tie Medina to that burglary because of DNA.
The homeowner said numerous items were taken, including a wall safe with $2,800 in cash and numerous rifles and handguns. A gallon of Sunny D citrus juice had been opened and left on the counter and a case of Coca-Cola cans also was taken.
The house is fairly isolated and police found ATV tracks nearby as well as two empty Coke cans. The homeowner said the cans were new and he would not have left them there, so police sent them to the State Crime Lab for DNA analysis.
Over the next several months, the following happened:
- On Dec. 16, 2016, a detective was told that a recently arrested man had two checks that belonged to the homeowner. One was for $680 and another for $700. The arrested man told police he got them as payment for a quarter-gram of meth.
- On Feb. 9, 2017, the homeowner called police and said he found a Bushnell range finder that belonged to him at a pawn shop. It had been pawned by another suspect, according to a pawn slip.
- On June 15, 2017, police with a warrant searched a residence on Holiday Drive that Medina was staying at. At the time, the other suspect was there and had items that had been stolen from a vehicle. That other suspect has since died.
In the search, police found items that had been reported stolen in numerous burglaries and thefts throughout Butte.
“Law enforcement seized enough stolen property to fill an entire U-Haul truck,” prosecutors said in a charging document. One item was a wallet the East Ridge homeowner said belonged to his grandfather.
- On Dec. 17, 2017, the state crime lab said they had completed a full male DNA profile from items including the Coke cans and the Sunny D juice container.
- On Sept. 17, 2018, District Judge Kurt Krueger signed a search warrant for a cheek swab from Medina, who was in jail at the time. A week later, they were sent to the crime lab for comparison with the Coke cans and Sunny D container.
- On Oct. 11, 2018, the crime lab reported that the swabs from Medina were “statistically similar” to one of the pop cans. That finding was turned over to prosecutors, who filed the burglary charge last month.
Skuletich said efforts have been made to return many of the stolen goods to their owners, but many had serial numbers removed or were altered in other ways and are still being stored. Some items could be used as potential evidence in more cases, he said.