Federal judge’s ruling allows Butte man to reclaim his life

Montana AG says they’ll appeal ruling

By: - May 12, 2021 4:00 am

An illustration of the scales of justice (Wikimedia Commons).

A federal judge Tuesday ruled a Butte man would never again have to register as a sex offender in the state of Montana.

Randall Menges, 45, was convicted as an 18-year-old under Idaho’s Crime Against Nature statute after he had consensual sex with two 16-year-old boys. Idaho courts have interpreted the statute as a ban on anal and oral sex. 

As a result of the Idaho conviction, Montana required he register as sex offender.

In December 2020, Menges sued the Montana Attorney General over the state’s requirement he continue to register as a sex offender. The Montana Attorney General’s Office opposed Menges removal from the sexual offender list.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen said Montana was forcing Menges to register as a sex offender “because he was convicted of engaging in oral or anal sex with a person of the same sex, not because he had oral or anal sex with a minor or because such contact was nonconsensual. In sum, Montana has no rational basis for forcing Menges to register as a sexual offender.” 

According to Christensen’s order, by Friday, May 21, the state of Montana must: Remove Menges from Montana’s Sexual or Violent Offender Registry; expunge all records indicating Menges was ever required to register; and alert all agencies, such as courts, police departments, sheriff’s departments and the FBI, that Menges’ registration information is no longer valid.

The Attorney General’s Office in Montana said it plans to appeal the decision.

In a release from his lawyers, Menges said he was grateful the court put an end to his nightmare. 

“It should not have required a lawsuit to enforce the Supreme Court’s command from 18 years ago,” Menges said. “But I’m happy that it’s over.”

The ACLU is involved in a lawsuit in Idaho over the constitutionality of the law under which Meges was convicted. Menges is a party to that lawsuit. However, Menges also filed a lawsuit against Montana agencies for requiring he register as a sex offender.

In an earlier interview with The Daily Montanan, Menges said before the lawsuits, he saw two ways out of his sexual offender registration: Escape to somewhere without U.S. extradition or die by suicide.

“That was my two plans because life here had just become unbearable,” Menges said. “No human should have to go through this loneliness, the hurt, the pain.”

Happiest time of his life

When Menges was arrested in Idaho, he was working at a 12-bed youth foster program and ranch for troubled young men. It was called Pratt Ranch and was in Gem County, just outside Boise. 

A court ordered Menges to live at the ranch when he was about 15 years old after he’d had trouble at home and at school. The court called him a delinquent, he said. 

While some might have viewed this order as a punishment, Menges said he was elated about the placement. As a 6-year-old, Menges’ grandpa took him to his first rodeo. After that, all Menges wanted was to work with horses and cattle.

At Pratt Ranch, Menges got to work with a real cowboy named “Lou.” Lou taught Menges the “old school” way of ranching, Menges said. Menges would work the cows everyday, putting his eyes on every single one to see if they were hurt or sick.

Menges looks back at his time at Pratt Ranch as one of the happiest in his life. He had multiple opportunities to leave and return home, but he loved the work and chose to stay.

When Menges turned 18 in October 1993, he continued to work for the Pratts.

A couple of months later, a detective with the Gem County Sheriff’s Office came out to speak to Menges. In a crime report filed on Dec. 28, 1993, the investigator wrote that Menges had separate sexual encounters with two 16-year-old boys staying at the ranch. The two 16-year-olds are not named in the report, but appear to have had a relationship with one another prior to Menges’ involvement. 

When the investigator came to talk to him, Menges said he didn’t understand how serious the situation was. He brushed a horse through the entire conversation, he said. 

Neither boy reported being forced to participate. The only person who reported feeling forced was Menges, because one boy told Menges he’d report what he did with the other boy if Menges didn’t do it with him.

In the notes attached to the police report, someone wrote a paragraph next to Menges’ name about how he was reacting to questions about what happened. 

“Not like he is doing it with children,” the notes read. “Says he has stopped because of Lou and his Christian influence.”

Menges was interviewed alone without a lawyer present. Not long after he was interviewed, the Pratts told him he needed to leave the ranch. 

Menges would end up serving seven years at the Idaho State Prison. His sentence was fully discharged in July 2015. 

Rights revolution

Between Menges’ arrest and his release, courts made drastic changes to the laws governing homosexual relationships. Montana, like Idaho, once criminalized same-sex sexual activity and required those convicted under its “deviate sexual relations” statute to register as sex offenders. In 1995, the state repealed that requirement for people convicted for having sex with another person of the same gender. 

In 1997, the Montana Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for Montana to criminalize sexual activity between “consenting adults engaging in private, same-gender, non-commercial, sexual conduct.”

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Texas statute was unconstitutional because it criminalized sexual activity between people of the same sex. The decision overruled the precedent set in a 1986 case, which had held such sexual conduct received no constitutional protection. 

In 2013, Montana formally revised its law to remove the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity by amending the definition of “deviate sexual intercourse” to apply only to acts of bestiality. When Attorney General Knudsen was in the Montana State House of Representatives, he opposed the bill to decriminalize sexual activity between two people of the same sex.  

In Menges’ original complaint, his attorney, Matthew Strugar, wrote it was through a “combination of other states’ obstinance and how Montana treats out-of-state convictions for the purposes of registration” some people with convictions for same-sex sexual activity “are still forced to register as sex offenders in Montana.”

Montana law requires people who must register in other states to register in Montana if they move to Montana. This is mandatory, regardless of whether the initial charge is an illegal offense in Montana. 

The Montana Attorney General’s Office has not argued the facts of that case. Rather, it argued that Menges’ quarrel is with Idaho, not Montana. 

After prison

When he first got out of prison, Menges felt he put everything behind him. He still had to tell police where he was and check in, but he said he didn’t mind because “life was OK.” He worked as a car salesman in Washington for a time and was able to earn a living. He said he felt “normal.”

“My life is a story of two halves,” Menges said. “At some point it all changed.” 

It began to feel like everything Menges tried to accomplish would go wrong after getting out of prison. He would apply for a job and try hiding his registration status, but employers would learn of it. He would try to explain the truth and no one believed him. He spent a lot of time on the road. 

“Between the Dakotas and Washington, I could tell you every Walmart where they’re probably in every single town without a GPS,” Menges said. “Because I was traveling that much and I would sleep in Walmart parking lots.”

He sometimes looks at that time as a blessing. He got to see places some people will save up for a year to go see, he said. But he didn’t want to have to live on the road his whole life. He tried to get a job in agriculture hauling horses. He got pretty far with one woman who said he’d be good for the job. The woman said she considered hiring Menges for her hauling business, but decided against it because of his sex-offender status, the woman told him.

“It was frustrating when you feel like you can’t win, they’re not going to let you win,” Menges said. “They’re not going to let you get help. They’re not going to let you get a job, because they feel like you’re a danger, and they’re going to protect society first.”

It all felt like it was closing in on him a couple of months before he connected with Strugar. He was sitting in his house with a needle loaded with enough heroin to kill him, he said. A call from his girlfriend at the time stopped him. 

When he saw an article about the case the ACLU was fighting against Idaho, he reached out about his case. That was how he met Strugar.

Menges ended up going to treatment for his drug addiction. He’s been sober almost a year. He said the court cases were what motivated him to get clean. He is working to save enough to buy a horse trailer to open his own hauling business.

In an interview with The Daily Montanan after Christensen’s decision, Menges said he was hopeful the ruling would help him get his life back. 

“I’m excited about the possibilities,” Menges said. 

Ashley Nerbovig is a freelance reporter based in Montana. Her work has been published in USAToday, The Marshall Project, the Billings Gazette and the Chinook Observer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Ashley Nerbovig
Ashley Nerbovig

Ashley Nerbovig is a journalist whose previous stops include the Missoulian, The Billings Gazette and the Detroit Free Press, where she covered the 2020 election and the topics of misinformation and disinformation. She went to the University of Montana's school of journalism.