A prosecutor is recommending 25 years in prison for Lionel Scott Ellison, who was convicted in September for trying to frame a Yellowstone County detective for a fire at his parents’ house.
Ellison, 56, is to be sentenced Monday for convictions on two counts of felony tampering with evidence and a count of felony impersonating a public servant. The sentencing will cap a long, peculiar history that Ellison has had with the law enforcement and the courts.
The current case involves a fire that started at Ellison’s parents’ house on March 13, 2013. Initial responders found that the fire had already been extinguished when they arrived. The doors of the home had been roped shut from the outside. Ellison, who had been inside the house with his parents, told authorities that he broke out a window and cut a rope to escape.
Investigators turned up evidence that Ellison might have staged the fire. In charging documents, investigators noted that the doors that had been tied shut were easily opened. They were lashed to movable objects like an unanchored whiskey barrel and a freestanding wagon wheel. Ellison’s hand didn’t have any cuts or marks, though he claimed that he punched out a window.
Investigators also found a lighter outside of the home with the word “FRITZ” scrawled on it. Early on, the Ellisons claimed that they saw a man running from the house after escaping the fire.
In later letters and statements, Ellison and his parents repeatedly tried to implicate Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office detective Frank Fritz as a suspect.
Fritz had been assigned to a previous criminal case involving Ellison in 2009, for which Ellison was accused and later convicted of tampering with evidence and violating a protection order. Those and other charges were wrapped up into a conviction for violating terms of a previous sentence.
Ellison’s parents filed a lawsuit in 2010 against Fritz and the sheriff’s office on claims of harassment. The suit was dismissed due to lack of any action over a year.
Prosecutors said that Fritz was on the other side of the county, with multiple other deputies, on the night of the fire at the Ellison home.
With that evidence, Ellison was charged in 2014 for the fire and subsequent attempts to frame Fritz. In court, lead prosecutor Julie Mees called Ellison a "treasure trove of evidence." Defense attorney Michael Kakuk argued that there wasn't enough evidence to prove that Ellison had started the fire.
In September, a jury found him guilty on all counts— except arson.
In a sentencing memo filed Friday, Mees argued for 25 years, with 10 of them being ineligible for parole. She wrote that a long history of staging crimes — and subsequent convictions — makes him a persistent felony offender.
“Fortunately, the only person to be harmed by the defendant's schemes has been the defendant himself,” Mees wrote. “The defendant’s pattern is escalating, however, and he poses a real risk to first responders and the public.”
In 2007, Ellison was charged with arson for setting fire to a 1986 Ford Thunderbird that he’d been driving. He was convicted and sentenced was scheduled for 2008.
The day before his sentencing, Ellison was found on the banks of the Yellowstone River. He claimed that he’d been kidnapped and left to die, but investigators found evidence that didn’t match his story.
Ellison was sentenced a year later after making failed claims that his guilty plea was unfairly induced.
In 2009, a probation officer filed documents that Ellison had violated the terms of his suspended sentence for the arson.
One of the violations was a false employment letter from a construction business that Ellison had presented. It was signed by an apparent vice president at Gerace Construction.
When asked about the letter, the real vice president of Gerace said that the company had not offered Ellison a job. He also said that the signature at the bottom of Ellison’s letter was not the name of any VP at the company.
In 2010, Ellison was found bound with a plastic bag over his head on a roadside near Livingston. Again, Ellison claimed that he’d been jumped. It was two days before a court hearing in Yellowstone County. He would later lay the blame on two men matching the description of suspects he read about in a separate news story.
He was charged in Park County for fabricating evidence. In charging documents, responders said that Ellison appeared to "feign" seizures and didn’t display symptoms necessary for that type of medical problem.
A Park County judge initially deemed him unfit for trial, and Ellison was taken to a Department of Health and Human Services facility. He was later released and declared fit for trial, but the case was ultimately dismissed.
In 2011, Ellison was charged for making false claims to his insurance company for damage to his house. An investigation found that Ellison’s damage claims were unfounded and that it appeared Ellison did some of the damage himself.
He was convicted for the insurance claims in 2013, just a month after the fire at Ellison’s parents’ house.
Ellison has been particularly active in his criminal defense. In various court cases, his appeals have reached the Montana Supreme Court four times. The court denied his appeals four times. In one opinion, the Supreme Court cited a transcript from the Yellowstone County District Court:
“This Court has been in the position to weigh (Ellison’s) veracity for a number of years,” the document read. “(Ellison’s) veracity — or lack thereof — is an important factor, and this Court considers his veracity to be lacking.”
Now, even after his latest conviction, Ellison maintains that he has been wronged. In October, Ellison submitted a handwritten motion to the court requesting a new trial. In it, he alleged that Fritz had lied in court about his history with Ellison, saying that Fritz had been present for more criminal and civil proceedings than the number he revealed in testimony.
Judge Blair Jones denied the motion, noting that Ellison should not file his own motions when he has a lawyer. Jones also referenced a previous court motion that barred Ellison from filing his own court motions.
So in late October, Ellison had the motion sent directly to the jurors in his case. An example of the letter was entered into the court record — handwritten with no return address or signature.
Mees filed a motion in November condemning the letters, saying that some jurors felt intimidated by the contact. That same month, the judge denied Ellison’s request to fire his public defender.
Ellison has also written to The Gazette from the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, repeating his claim of harassment at the hands of public officials. He focuses on small details, avoiding the larger facts in his prior convictions.
Ellison has been in jail since February.
The Gazette also obtained a handwritten “victim’s statement” that is meant to be read by Ellison’s elderly parents at Monday’s sentencing.
“We now ask that you release our son with time served and let him fight this unjust case or call for a mistrial due to the crime of perjury committed in conspiracy with Julie Mees,” the statement reads.
At the end of the letter is a side note. Ellison urges his parents to read the statement in court. It’s signed, “LSE.”