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Frontier Justice or Murder? A Jury Must Decide Father's Fate : Idaho: Man faces trial for allegedly gunning down a couple he suspected of drugging and raping his daughter. He has pleaded not guilty, and has no shortage of supporters in town. Victims had been accused of rape before.

November 05, 1995|LINDA ASHTON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LEWISTON, Ida. — It was vengeance, prosecutors say, that drove Kenneth Arrasmith to do what he did: He believed that Luella and Ronald Bingham had drugged and raped his 15-year-old daughter, and so many other daughters.

It was vengeance, they say, that drove him to take a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol to the Binghams' ramshackle garage. "I've got something for you," a witness recalls Arrasmith saying when he found Bingham working under a pickup.

Then, authorities say, he shot Bingham 23 times, and he shot Luella Bingham six times in the back as she tried to escape.

Arrasmith surrendered that day in Clarkston, Wash., across the Snake River. Police Sgt. Ronald Roberts can remember Arrasmith's words.

"I'm having a very bad day," he said, "and I'd love a cold beer."

Now, nearly six months later, Arrasmith is about to go on trial for the Binghams' murders. There is no shortage of people who say he should go free--that he merely administered frontier justice.

Arrasmith's wife, Donnita Weddle, has raised nearly $30,000 for his defense, coordinating bake sales, car washes, spaghetti feeds, dances and raffles. Donations have come from as far away as Florida and Alaska; Marilyn Van Debur, Miss America of 1958 and a sexual-abuse survivor, sent $1,000.

"If the law can't take care of it, as a parent myself, I'd probably feel like I had to do the same thing," said Lon Sharp, co-owner of Sharp's Burger Ranches in Lewiston and Clarkston, where sympathizers can drop change in a donation jar for Arrasmith's defense.

The Binghams were hardly anyone's idea of good neighbors. Dorothy Poirer lived nearby: "It's good riddance to bad rubbish," she told the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane, Wash.

The first time the Binghams were charged with rape was in 1978; the accuser was their 13-year-old niece. An irony: Arrasmith, then working as an Asotin County, Wash., sheriff's deputy, stood guard over the couple while their Clarkston home was searched.

The girl's father sent her away, and charges were dropped.

In 1986, the Binghams were charged in the rape of their 16-year-old baby-sitter. In a plea agreement, Bingham pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and the charge against Luella Bingham was dismissed. He served 18 months.

It seems there were many other victims. Since Arrasmith's arrest, 17 women have come forward with stories of depravity involving the Binghams stretching over two decades, say his lawyers, Roy and Craig Mosman.

Last February, Arrasmith's daughter, Cynthia, moved into a trailer next to the Binghams' home with her boyfriend, whom they had hired as a mechanic. Cynthia was a frequent runaway; she rebelled by using drugs and dying her hair purple or cutting it into a Mohawk.

When she settled in with the Binghams--just a half-mile down the road from Arrasmith's parents--Arrasmith and his ex-wife, Linda Bartlett, figured at least they could keep track of her.

"We thought that was better than not knowing where she's at," said Arrasmith, now a trucker. He had forgotten the 1978 rape investigation in which he had played a part.

Cynthia says the Binghams treated her grandly at first, buying her clothes and giving her drugs and money. But later, she contends, the Binghams drugged her, raped her and brainwashed her.

"I walked around like a zombie. I wished I was dead. I felt sick because of what they had done to me," she told the Lewiston Morning Tribune.

On April 18, the Bingham home was raided by the Quad-Cities Drug Task Force. When officers asked Cynthia if they should call her parents, she says Bingham told them her parents knew she was there.

A few days later, Cynthia blurted out her predicament to her mother and older sister.

Arrasmith and Bartlett arranged for friends to take their daughter from the Binghams' house to a Lewiston motel. Then, he said, they had Lewiston police pick her up as a runaway and take her to a juvenile detention center for her own safety.

Arrasmith says he decided to conduct his own investigation of the Binghams. When he took the information he'd gathered to the sheriff's office, he learned deputies already had a report from a woman who contended she and Cynthia had been raped by the Binghams at a Clarkston motel weeks before.

"It was a shock. I couldn't believe they knew all of these things and nothing had been done," Arrasmith said.

Sheriff John Jeffers has said the case was under investigation when Arrasmith came to his office, but he has declined to discuss specifics.

What happened next may come out in the trial, which is scheduled to begin Monday. Arrasmith has not admitted shooting the Binghams and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder.

In October, another man, Kyle A. Richardson, 25, was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Prosecutors say he provided the gun that killed the Binghams, though Arrasmith denies Richardson played any part.

"We should never, ever, be put in a position where we take the law into our own hands," said Arrasmith, 44, in one of many interviews he's given from the Nez Perce County Jail.

"I would like to tell my whole story now," he said. "When this unravels in the courtroom, it's just sickening and horrible."

But however sickening or horrible, does that justify killing? The Nez Perce County prosecutor, Denise Rosen, said the case "reeks of vigilantism." She says she will seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

Luella Bingham's mother, Rilla Smith, lived with the couple and their 16-year-old son; she acknowledges that the Binghams were sexual "swingers" and probably sold drugs.

"I'd be the first to admit where there's smoke, there's fire," she told the Morning Tribune.

But "whatever the kids might have done, he had no right. As far as Ken's concerned, he had no right to make himself judge, jury and executioner."

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