Owyhee County could seek death penalty against 3 suspects in the killing of a hitchhiker

From left: Nicholas Vandenberg, Montanna Reed and Willie Rabey
From left: Nicholas Vandenberg, Montanna Reed and Willie Rabey

Three people in Owyhee County still await trial in the random, brutal killing of a teenage hitchhiker, after Prosecutor Douglas Emery in November filed notices of his intent to pursue the death penalty against all three defendants.

On Aug. 13, District Judge Christopher Nye denied a request to dismiss suspect Nicolas Vandenberg’s indictment after police say he plotted Hunter Smith’s death.

Vandenberg, 28, is accused of fatally shooting Smith in June 2017. Vanderberg’s two co-defendants, Willie Rabey, 35, and Montanna Reed, 21, could also get the death penalty if convicted in the case for their alleged roles in Smith’s death.

Emery said Friday that the pleadings and/or allegations in one or more of the suspects’ cases could be amended, removing the death penalty as an option.

“Typically in case negotiations, the potential removal of the death penalty ... is a focal discussion,” Emery wrote in an email to the Statesman.

Vandenberg is accused of luring Smith, 18 — who was hitchhiking from Junction City, Oregon, to Boise — and shooting him in the head in the Bruneau Desert in Owyhee County. The group is accused of inviting him to go shooting at Vandenberg’s residence. His body was found in October 2017.

The trio did not know Smith personally, and law enforcement has said they believe the suspects planned to kill him, and could have killed again in the future.

Rabey is accused of witnessing the killing, knowing about the plan to kill Smith and helping move his corpse.

Reed is also accused of witnessing the killing, helping in the removal of Smith’s body, knowing about the plan and helping to destroy his clothing.

Vandenberg was indicted by a grand jury in November, but he filed a request to have the indictment dismissed. He claimed that at least one juror was biased, that he wasn’t read his Miranda rights in an October meeting with a detective and that some evidence shown to the grand jury was inadmissible. Nye denied the request.

Nye wrote that the juror the defense attorney was questioning would have been biased only if the case involved domestic violence.

In reference to the October meeting with a detective, the judge determined that the detective was not required to read Vandenberg his rights because he wasn’t under arrest at the time. He voluntarily came to the police station, he was not detained or handcuffed, and at no point while police questioned him did Vandenberg ask to leave, according to court documents.

Vandenberg also argued that some texts to his co-defendants were inadmissible in court. The texts, sent on June 21, 2017, showed conversations between the co-defendants about killing Smith and about Vandenberg’s actions, according to court documents.

Additionally, the judge’s order states that Vandenberg admitted he intentionally shot Smith four times, including shooting Smith in the head when he was already on the ground. Vandenberg allegedly admitted that it was not an accident and that he intended to kill Smith.

He also allegedly admitted to stripping Smith of his clothes and burning them in a fire pit, later using a front-end loader to remove the fire pit and replacing it with gravel, according to the documents. Rabey reportedly told police that Vandenberg had “a lust for blood,” according to court documents.

The court determined that even if some of the evidence given to a grand jury was inadmissible, there still would have been enough to indict Vandenberg.

Vandenberg is charged on suspicion of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, failure to report a death and destruction of evidence.

Rabey is charged on suspicion of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, destruction of evidence and failure to report a death. He has an enhancement for being a persistent violator, filed because Rabey has felony convictions in 2003 and 2004 for burglary in Owyhee County.

Reed is charged on suspicion of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and failure to report a death.

All three suspects remain in custody while they await trial, tentatively set for June 2019.

Idaho Association of Counties Executive Director Seth Grigg said Owyhee County filed claims with the Capital Crimes Defense Fund, which supports counties that need help paying for potential death penalty trials.

Pursuant to the rules of the Capital Crimes Defense Fund, Owyhee County would be responsible for the first $10,000 in expenses of a trial for each of the three suspects at trial. Any costs after that would be paid for through the fund.

Grigg said Owyhee County paid about $4,780 into the fund in Fiscal Year 2019, but until now, the IAC has never had a claim submitted from Owyhee for a death penalty case. Every participating county pays into the fund, with a calculation based on its population.

Ruth Brown: 208-377-6207, @RuthBrownNews