By SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake
A Flathead Valley man who pleaded guilty to shooting a Coram resident to death on Valentine’s Day this year received a 20-year sentence for the offense Wednesday morning in Flathead County District Court.
Martin Jay Chandler, 20, of Columbia Falls, pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to an amended felony charge of mitigated deliberate homicide in the death of William Gene Melton, 54. Chandler was originally charged with felony deliberate homicide.
The plea agreement called for a 30-year sentence, but Judge Dan Wilson opted for fewer years, citing the mitigating factors. The mitigated deliberate homicide charge carries a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 40 years in the Montana State Prison.
The charge was amended by the Flathead County Attorney’s Office when further investigation by the county Sheriff’s Office revealed that Chandler had been drugged, passed out and sexually assaulted by Melton.
“This court is no fan of binding plea agreements and I object to it,” Judge Wilson said. “I find the level of provocation to be on the extreme end of what any reasonable person could expect to endure. The sexual abuse is a horrific source of violation and is a clear mitigating factor.”
None of the 20 years was suspended and Chandler will serve it in the Montana State Prison.
Chandler and his mother spoke on his behalf at Wednesday’s sentencing.
“He was a very caring boy growing up,” the mother said.
She said she first knew of her son’s drug use when he was about 16 or 17 years old.
“He came to me and said ‘Mom, I need help.’”
She said Chandler became a firefighter and received his wildland certification. She also explained that his younger sister had been molested when she was 8 years old and that Chandler knew about it.
“He’s been on both sides of this,” the mother said.
Chandler’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of their 2 1/2-year-old son, Aleena Riddle, wrote a letter to the court supporting a minimum sentence.
“Martin had his heart set on being here for our son and wants nothing more than to be a functioning member of society again,” Riddle wrote.
Chandler spoke and said he regretted what he did, but it was because he was injecting drugs and “was roofied with homemade knockout drugs.”
“I don’t see much justice in this court today, but we’re all in God’s hands,” Chandler said. “Do what you must.”
Chandler’s attorney, Lane Bennett, said his client regrets his actions.
“If he could go back in time, he could have made other decisions,” Hinchey said.
Chandler told members of his family that he loved them and was happy to see them.
Family members on both sides exchanged heated words as they left the court room, but cooler heads prevailed and there was no physical violence.
Initial court documents indicated that Chandler and Melton argued about methamphetamine.
The subsequent homicide investigation turned up at least two portable meth labs, including one in the victim’s home, according to Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino.
At about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 14, after receiving a report of shots fired in Coram, a police officer from Columbia Falls and a deputy from Flathead County responded to a home on Bear Street.
They found the body of Melton, who was pronounced dead at the scene. The officers were provided a description of a suspect who had fled and his vehicle.
A short time later, a county deputy apprehended Chandler in the vicinity of the North Fork Road near Columbia Falls.
Authorities said Melton and Chandler were believed to be acquaintances.
According to the affidavit of probable cause filed Feb. 15 by Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner, when officers arrived at the Coram home “deputies confirmed that William Gene Melton was deceased from an apparent gunshot wound to the chest.”
The affidavit reports a witness, identified as Melton’s girlfriend, was present when Chandler “entered their residence and began to argue with Melton about methamphetamine.”
But the investigation determined that witnesses had lied about the true motive behind the crime.