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Idaho man sentenced in Montana case

| April 24, 2010 9:00 PM

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - An Idaho man was sentenced Friday to 25 years in prison for drug crimes after charges that he ordered the killing of three women at a western Montana hair salon were dropped because of misconduct by authorities.

Lincoln Benavides, 35, of Boise, Idaho, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who acknowledged that Benavides has been "designated as someone who committed murder, and there is no proof that he did."

"This is a drug conspiracy and a drug conviction that Mr. Benavides is being sentenced for," Molloy said. "He is being sentenced for no other allegation, or connection, or association. This is a drug offense only."

Benavides pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and distribution of methamphetamine. Prosecutors dismissed seven other charges related to the November 2001 slaying of three women at a hair salon in Florence.

Defense attorneys alleged prosecutorial conduct and outrageous government conduct in the investigation and prosecution of the attack that killed Brenda Patch, Cynthia Paulus and Dorothy Harris.

"We have never seen the kind of misconduct that we saw in this case," said defense attorney Tim Foley, who described instances in which attorney-client mail was opened, read and distributed while Benavides was incarcerated on a state drug conviction in Lake County.

Letters from jailhouse informants that contradicted grand jury testimony were hidden from the defense and in some cases lost, Foley charged, adding that the problems were only addressed when Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thaggard took over the prosecution.

Similar charges filed against a co-defendant, Brian Weber, 33, were also dropped.

Prosecutors recommended a 30-year prison term but Molloy said such a long sentence wasn't warranted, acknowledging that Benavides had endured a difficult childhood and made efforts to better himself, including taking a business class.

However, Molloy said Benavides was the leader of a drug operation that was distributing "tremendous amounts, pounds of methamphetamine in western Montana and elsewhere," and that the drug offenses included the use of firearms, violence and the employment of juveniles.

Benavides, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, will likely serve the entire 25-year sentence at a federal prison in Milan, Mich.

He said he still hoped one day to be able to make positive contributions to society.

"I only wish that you would not give me such a short amount of time that I cannot continue to receive an education, but not such a long time that I cannot eventually repay my debt to society," Benavides told Molloy.

Information from: Missoulian,

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