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Lewiston Morning Tribune Friday, August 8, 1997

Leas isn't surprised by verdict; Helmer man found guilty of child custody interference

David Johnson

MOSCOW -- "No big surprise," is how 49-year-old Fred Leas responded Thursday morning to a guilty verdict rendered by a jury in his felony child custody interference trial.

"It makes me wonder about the jury system," said Leas, who was released on a $16,000 bond pending sentencing Oct. 17. "I think they should have been more informed ... and they should know my whole story."

Three members of the jury, however, said they had no difficulty finding Leas guilty based on the evidence presented to them. The three, who asked not to be identified, said the panel deliberated for three hours only to make sure of their decision, not because they were necessarily struggling with guilt or innocence.

Leas, a Helmer resident, faces a possible five years in prison and a $50,000 fine after taking his two young daughters to South Dakota in violation of a child custody order involving his ex-wife, Ruth Mohr of Boise. His attorney, Latah County Public Defender Steven C. Mahaffy, has said he will appeal the verdict.

The trial was expected to last most of the week, but moved along rapidly as 2nd District Judge John R. Stegner consistently denied Mahaffy's efforts to tell what he called "Fred's whole story."

Leas has insisted he acted because his children were in danger of physical harm. He claims he notified authorities of more than 20 instances of potential child abuse, but no one took action beyond coming down harder on him.

Latah County Deputy Prosecutor Robin Eckmann told jurors that all the evidence at the trial, except for Leas' denials, proved the defendant's guilt. And Leas, during testimony, said he indeed took his children, first to Arizona and then to South Dakota. He also admitted that he and the children changed their names and the girls had their hair dyed and wore glasses to disguise their identities.

Stegner refused to allow 13 defense witnesses, including the Leas children (the two sisters and two older brothers) to testify for the defense. The judge said the testimony would either be hearsay, irrelevant or both.

Leas must now stand trail in early October for a second felony charge of attempting to influence jurors. A sign calling for the Leas children to testify on behalf of their father was placed in the Latah County Courthouse parking lot when the custody interference trial was originally scheduled to being in June. Leas was bound over to answer that charge after a preliminary hearing.

Leas also is pursuing a child custody case on his own, whereby he is trying to regain custody of all four of his children.

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Last modified: August 21, 1997
Email: Joe Huffman