BUTTE, Mont. — The three boys are ready to describe what happened in Nathaniel Bar-Jonah's cramped, smelly apartment on the edge of the Montana plains. How the oldest one was locked in the bedroom and forced to undress. How his 9-year-old cousin had a rope put around his neck and was hoisted up on a pulley to the kitchen ceiling. How he dangled there, naked and choking, until the breath was nearly gone out of him.
But the events these boys are preparing to detail in Bar-Jonah's sexual assault and kidnapping trial that opened here Tuesday are only part of the story. In May, another jury will hear what police found when they searched Bar-Jonah's home, looking for clues to what happened to 10-year-old Zachary Ramsay, missing since 1996.
They found a list with the names of 23 boys, including two of the boys allegedly assaulted at his apartment, and Ramsay's. They found human bone fragments in his garage. And they found coded, handwritten notes that often referred to--and this is where the case took a turn for the worse--food.
"Barbecued kid," said one of them. "Little boy stew." And, "Lunch is served on the patio with roasted child."
There may be a day when a town like Great Falls, Mont., where Bar-Jonah sold toys at flea markets and out of his garage for nine years, is ready to deal with something like that. But it isn't now. Certain that he would never get a fair trial in a community that barely sees a murder a year, court officials moved this week's sexual assault trial 150 miles away to Butte.
Bar-Jonah's other trial on charges that he killed the Ramsay boy and served the remains to his neighbors will be held in Missoula, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
"We're a small, close community. We're only 60,000 people," said Cascade County prosecutor Brant Light, who is trying both cases. "And when you lose a child walking to school, that may be something that happens elsewhere, but it doesn't happen in Great Falls, Mont. It really struck the heart of people."
'We Have a Good Defense,' Lawyer Says
The 45-year-old fast-food cook has pleaded not guilty in both cases. "He didn't do it," his attorney Don Vernay said outside the courtroom Tuesday. "At this stage, we feel the case [against him] for a number of reasons is not very strong. We have a good defense, and we're going to pursue it."
The 213-member jury pool assembled at the county courthouse in this historic mining town is the largest ever called in a state court case in Montana. After 28 jurors were dismissed for personal hardships by District Judge Kenneth Neill, lawyers began questioning individual jurors, a process that is expected to take most of this week.
If convicted on the three counts of sexual assault, one count of aggravated kidnapping and one count of assault with a weapon, Bar Jonah could face up to 330 years in prison--a severe enough sentence that prosecutors say they may not seek the death penalty in the murder case, for which the evidence is far more circumstantial.
Gruesome Allegations From Acquaintances
The case, played out in this wind-swept prairie town in the heart of Montana wheat country, has assumed operatic proportions.
There is the acquaintance, Debbra Baker, who came forward to say that Bar-Jonah had cooked spaghetti sauce for her and her sons that he said was made with venison. "I told him I know what venison tastes like, and this was spoiled. It tasted funny. He got mad and took the whole thing out to the trash," Baker recalled in an interview this week.
There is the man who lived next door to Bar-Jonah's apartment, Doug McGiboney, who had to take the new next-door neighbor's cat after the couple moved into Bar-Jonah's unit because the cat refused to go into the residence. "They had the apartment exorcised, and . . . the cat went back in after that," McGiboney said.
There is Bar-Jonah himself, a heavyset, sweet-faced man whose psychologists have said has violent fantasies that are behind his propensity for strangling or sitting on little boys until they can't breathe. For years, he operated what neighbors called a child's paradise in his garage, full of "Star Wars" action figures, trading cards and Freddy Krueger dolls.
Throughout this week's court proceedings, Bar-Jonah sat impassively at the counsel table, dressed in khaki slacks, a blue sport coat and white athletic shoes, his double chin tucked into his blue shirt and tie.
In a last will and testament he sent to the Great Falls Tribune after his arrest, Bar-Jonah entreated the public to "celebrate my death" if prosecutors seek the death penalty against him. "I mean party on dude for I'm going to a place where there is no more pain and sorrow," he wrote. "Gee, it sure sounds like heaven time. Ooops! You know what? It is! Silly me!"