In 1912 the first murder trial took place in Park County history. Now, 107 years later, another murder trial will enter the fold as Wapiti man Dennis Klingbeil stands trial on charges of first degree murder.
Many studies show it is statistically more optimal for a defendant to come to a plea deal with prosecutors rather than take a chance with a jury trial. Correspondingly, the state and county end up spending much more time and money seeing a case to trial then if it ends in a plea deal. Because of such most criminal cases in Park County never make it to trial.
But with the increasing severity of a case also goes down the likelihood a deal can be met as the stakes get higher for both sides and compromises become harder to come by.
In 2012 the county was able to avoid a $100,000-$200,000 cost by coming to a plea agreement, rather going to trial in the capital murder case against Myron Friday. Jurors were planned to be sequestered in this case, leaving the county with a high expense for lodging them each night of an up-to-five-week planned trial.
Friday admitted to stabbing to death his wife Julie, 44, more than 40 times with a Phillips head screwdriver.
Friday was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole by District Court Judge Robert Skar.
The last time a murder jury trial took place in the county was in the case of Harland Kenyon, who was found guilty for first-degree murder, burglary and kidnapping charges in 2001. Kenyon was sentenced by Judge Hunter Patrick to life in prison without parole.
Kenyon shot and killed Justin Ritter and kept his half-sister Danielle Kelly hostage for two days.
Media released by the Enterprise and other outlets at the time show Kenyon exploding with rage upon the jury finding him guilty.
The Klingbeil hearings will be the first criminal jury trial in Park County since June 2017, when Rogelio Rodriguez Jr. was found guilty for distribution of meth, and sentenced by Judge Bill Simpson to 5-7 years in prison.
Park County was less than a year old as an organized county in 1911 when the first murder occurred in its borders. In that case John Cunningham was accused of first degree murder for the shooting of fellow sheepherder John Sanchez. Cunningham argued he killed Sanchez in self defense and the jury agreed, acquitting him on all charges in 1912.
Although it is unclear exactly where this hearing was held, Robyn Cutter, an archivist for Park County, said many early county court proceedings were held in a space above the current day Peter’s Cafe on 1219 Sheridan Ave. before the courthouse was completed in 1912.
The only unsolved murder in Park County history is that of Christine Nebel, a 13-year-old girl who was brutally murdered in her home in 1962. No individuals ever faced charges in connection with the death.
How the Klingbeil trial will stand up to the test of time and among Park County History remains to be seen. It all begins Monday when the first jurors are selected.