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Triple Slaying Stuns Montana Town

THE NATION

November 08, 2001|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After three women were found slashed to death in a beauty salon, residents of tiny Florence, Mont., uncharacteristically locked their doors as police searched Wednesday for a mysterious man in a top hat seen outside the shop.

The victims were discovered Tuesday by a customer headed into the Hair Gallery in Florence, population 900, located about 20 miles south of Missoula.

The customer found the curled-up body of 62-year-old owner Dorothy Harris just inside the front door, police said, with a pool of blood around her.

She called authorities, who discovered manicurist Brenda Patch, 44, and another customer, Cynthia Paulus, 71, dead in a utility room in the rear of the salon.

The women's throats had been slit.

"Why this occurred, we simply don't know," said Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson. "What I fear is this could be somebody that, for whatever reason, decided this was a good day to do some evil work."

Investigators said they had few clues, and pleaded for help from the public.

Brian Philley, 18, pleaded for a key to his own house.

"I came home and my parents had the door locked," Philley said. "I said, 'How am I going to get in?' We never lock our door. Then I heard they came in there and killed these three old ladies."

Philley heard the news from his mother, Denise Philley, a paralegal, who found out about the murders when she tried to make an appointment with Patch, the manicurist.

"We haven't locked our house for 12 years," Denise Philley said. "We're not in Los Angeles. This is Florence, Mont., for crying out loud."

Sheriff's officials said they found no evidence that any of the victims were sexually assaulted. Nothing appeared to be missing from their purses. The store had not been robbed. And initial interviews revealed no evidence that anyone known to the victims may have been involved in the crimes.

The one piece of evidence is the man in the top hat.

The customer who first called police said a man in a top hat and business suit was standing outside the salon as she entered, sheriff's officials said. Another person also reported a man who was well-dressed and wearing a hat.

They described him as in his late 20s or early 30s, slender, about 6 feet tall.

"It's a such a small town--everybody knows everybody," Brian Philley said. "Everybody would know someone if he walked down the street. It must be an out-of-towner, or some guy up in the woods we don't know about. You know, a Unabomber guy or something."

*

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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