Written by Devon Boen
Robert Belton, the 48-year-old Poplar man who is currently the focal point of the case that started with a high-speed police chase on Sept. 5 and ended in assault and drug charges, pleaded not guilty to all nine of the counts he faces and was subsequently charged in federal court on two additional charges.
Belton appeared Sept. 12 in the Montana 15th Judicial District Court and the courtroom was filled with friends and family. He pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest, obstructing a peace officer, fleeing from or eluding a peace officer and failure to remain at the scene of an accident and felony counts of assault on a peace officer, criminal endangerment, tampering with evidence, criminal distribution of drugs and criminal possession with intent to distribute.
Court documents allege that, on the afternoon of Sept. 5, police conducted a traffic stop after receiving a tip about a possible drug transaction outside a gas station. Belton was identified as a possible suspect and pulled over. Shortly after exiting his vehicle, Belton attempted to drive away while Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Lingle tried to switch off the ignition, causing Lingle to be trapped in Belton’s truck as he drove away. Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice Officer Patrick O’Conner, who was also conducting the traffic stop, fired shots at Belton’s front tire.
Reports said Belton was able to continue driving and Lingle was thrown into the middle of the road after Belton drove his vehicle into an oncoming tractor/ trailer.
Belton was finally stopped after one of his tires gave out and police detained him west of Poplar.
Documents said a Crown Royal bag was observed flying through the air during the chase and was later recovered. It was confirmed it contained a large amount of methamphetamine, over $12,000 and a handgun.
Belton’s vehicle caught fire after the chase ended and, once it was extinguished, police discovered there were two assault rifles and one hunting rifle in the truck.
Belton’s bond was set at $505,000 due to the violent and potentially dangerous nature of the alleged crimes, but a bond reduction was discussed in-depth at his Sept. 12 arraignment.
Out of the many supporters present, two were called upon to testify on his behalf so District Judge David Cybulski could make a well-informed decision regarding his bond amount.
The first witness called was William Pritchard, who identified himself as part of Belton’s family, saying he had essentially raised him since high school. Pritchard is a resident of the area and owns a construction company, which has employed Belton for many years.
Pritchard said he needed him for business purposes and said Belton’s two children needed him as well.
Pritchard said he would be willing to post a $50,000 cash bond in order to bail Belton out of jail.
Belton’s lawyer explained to Pritchard that Belton would have to be present for every court date, couldn’t leave the immediate area and could only go to work and take his children to school. Both his lawyer and Cybulski urged Pritchard to understand he would be liable for Belton’s behavior and, if Belton violated bail conditions, Pritchard would forfeit the $50,000 and no obligation would fall to Belton to repay Pritchard the amount. They also told Pritchard he had an obligation to immediately inform authorities if Belton had somehow broken his bond conditions, to which Pritchard agreed.
Pritchard said he understood the high stakes and felt confident he would have his money returned to him at a later date.
Pritchard’s son, Bill Pritchard Jr., also took the stand. Pritchard Jr. similarly testified in defense of Belton’s character and assured the court Belton could be trusted if given a bond reduction.
The floor was then given to county attorney Jim Patch, who said he knew both witnesses and many members of Belton’s family. Despite his familiarity with the defendant’s support system, Patch did not believe a $455,000 bond reduction was reasonable.
Patch said he believed in the integrity of the two men who took the stand, but expressed doubts considering their potential conflict of interest.
“Sometimes straightforward people look the other way,” Patch said.
Patch was also concerned with Belton being a flight risk. He stated he believed Belton was a Canadian national and would be able to cross the border if he so chose.
In light of that information, Patch suggested his bond be set at $250,000 rather than $50,000 and asked that Belton be required to surrender his passport if he had one.
Cybulski met the two recommendations in the middle and set Belton’s bond at $75,000. He also said Belton would be required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet so his whereabouts could be tracked, he would not be allowed to drive and he would have a curfew.
It was later discovered no one in the area had the capability to provide an ankle monitoring bracelet, so Belton’s lawyer was required to seek an alternative solution.
Shortly after his Wednesday court date, Belton’s friends and family posted the $75,000 bond. However, Belton couldn’t be immediately released because the alternative solution to his ankle bracelet had not yet been established.
A press release from U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Montana District said the case gained enough recognition to be looked at by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, on Sept. 13, Belton appeared in federal court on felony charges. One charge was a felony count of intent to distribute methamphetamine, which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and a $5,000,000 fine. He was also charged with a felony count of use or possession of a firearm during and in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison consecutive to any other sentence and a $250,000 fine. Belton was detained federally at the time the public report on his federal charges was released.
He faces a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $500 fine for his resisting arrest charge as well as his obstructing a peace officer charge, one year in prison and $2,000 for fleeing or eluding an officer, and 20 days in prison and a $300 dollar fine for failure to remain at the scene of an accident.
He also faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine for his charge of assaulting an officer. He faces the same punishment for criminal endangerment and tampering with physical evidence. The charge of criminal distribution of drugs carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $50,000 fine, and criminal possession with intent to distribute carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Belton is set to appear at an Oct. 24 omnibus hearing, and a tentative Dec. 10 trial date has been set for his original charges out of Roosevelt County.