Fred Van Valkenburg is stepping down as Missoula County Attorney after four terms. He spoke with KGVO News for an extended interview with Peter Christian on Friday morning, December 26. 

Van Valkenburg said his public service career spans 36 years, counting his work with the Missoula City Attorney's office, the state legislature, and in the county attorney's office, first as a deputy, then chief deputy and finally as the county attorney.

"One of the reasons I decided to run for the legislature, is that after being the public defender for about three or four years, I realized that the state needed a much better system for providing a defense for those who could not afford their own attorney," Van Valkenburg said. "I was fortunate enough to get elected in 1978, and reelected several times after that."

Van Valkenburg remembers vividly the prosecution of Bob Martin, the man who shot Sergeant Bob Heinle in downtown Missoula in 1998, which resulted in Heinle spending the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.

"That case was transferred from Missoula to Butte, and it was a very tense situation," he said. "The defendant claimed it was an accidental shooting, that he just tried to fire a warning shot and did not intend to harm the officer. But, to me, it was pretty darned clear that he was trying to shoot the police officer."

After spending over a decade in a wheelchair, Sergeant Heinle passed away in 2010 from complications of the shooting that caused his paralysis. Van Valkenburg said there was no effort to amend the charges against Martin to homicide after Heinle's death.

"We had already convicted Martin of attempted deliberate homicide and he was serving a sentence of 100 years, so we saw no need to refile those charges."

Van Valkenburg was thrust into the national spotlight after publicly defying Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez on May 1, 2012, in a press conference announcing a federal investigation into how Missoula city, county and University of Montana law enforcement agencies were addressing cases of sexual assault. Van Valkenburg's comments to Perez can be heard here. Van Valkenburg explains his comments.

"I was upset because they accused our office of denying people their constitutional rights," Van Valkenburg said. "Thay had no evidence whatsoever to back that up."

Van Valkenburg initiated a lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department to decide once and for all whether the federal government had the right to information contained in the files of the Missoula County Attorney's office. He said that lawsuit instigated a particularly unpleasant confrontation in February, 2013.

"We had tried for over a year and a half to get the federal government to come up with any evidence that we were denying people their constitutional rights, and they essentially stonewalled us, they had nothing they wanted to share with us. Finally, on February 11th, we filed our suit in federal court. Three days later on February 14th, they came out with what we now call the Valentine's Day Letter, in which they laid out a whole bunch of anonymous allegations. Clearly, it was their way of saying their were very upset that we had filed a lawsuit against them. It was their very unfair approach to prejudice the result with respect to that."

Van Valkenburg said , “The letter that (Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn) Samuels issued on February 14th was the single most unprofessional thing I’ve seen in the practice of law in 41 years.”

The lawsuit against the justice department and their claims against the county were resolved by a settlement crafted by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, even though Van Valkenburg maintained his criticism of the federal government.

Van Valkenburg said he made the decision not to run for a fifth term as Missoula County Attorney.

He said he will take the next few months off to 'depressurize', as he put it, then, he said his future actions are unclear.

"That will take two or three months for me to relax, and get to know my wife again," he said. "Then, I think I'll be able to make a decision. It's hard to imagine that I wouldn't get into some form of public service, but it may be something as simple as teaching kids to read in grade school as opposed to going to the legislature and arguing with people. I'm spent in that regard," Van Valkenburg laughed.

Kirsten Pabst will take over as Missoula County Attorney on January 1, 2015.

She has promised to cooperate more fully with state and federal authorities in regards to their investigations.


More From Newstalk KGVO 1290 AM & 98.3 FM