The DNA of a White Sulphur Springs man matches that from the 1987 rape of an 8-year-old Billings girl, the same case for which Jimmy Ray Bromgard wrongfully served 15 years in prison before being exonerated in 2002, according to court records.

Ronald Dwight Tipton, 55, of White Sulphur Springs, has been issued a summons to appear in Yellowstone County District Court on Dec. 14 to face three felony rape charges.

“We don’t have very many cases this old,” said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, admitting that fact could pose challenges during prosecution. “I can’t remember any case we’ve filed that’s been this old.”

Two weeks ago, Twito filed the charging documents in Yellowstone County outlining the case for three felony sexual assault without consent charges.

Except for unsolved homicides, state law limits how long after a crime prosecutors have to start an investigation and file charges. Until 2007, Yellowstone County would not have been able to do so. That year — the same year the statute of limitations deadline passed in the girl’s rape — legislators approved a change that allows charges for sex crimes up to one year after receiving a DNA match.

Peter Neufeld, founder of the New York-based national Innocence Project and the attorney who represented Bromgard when he was exonerated, said the charges illustrate a larger national trend.

The only physical evidence in Bromgard’s conviction was a microscopic hair analysis, a technique that has largely been discredited and linked to hundreds of wrongful convictions nationwide. In April, the Innocence Project, U.S. Department of Justice, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the FBI issued a joint report that at least 90 percent of trial statements by FBI experts on hair microscopy contained erroneous statements.

Ron Waterman, a Helena attorney who represented Bromgard during a civil suit against the state that secured a $3.5 million settlement, said the charges against Tipton should provide closure both for the victim and Bromgard.

“The state came up with any number of justifications as to why it could’ve been Jimmy despite the DNA evidence that he wasn’t responsible for the crime,” Waterman said. “Because of that, there always was that cloud over Jimmy that he had gotten off on some technicality.”

About 4:30 a.m. on March 20, 1987, a man entered a Pioneer Park-area home by propping open a bathroom window, according to the affidavit and newspaper archives. He then went upstairs into the girl's bedroom, where he raped the 8-year-old, threatening to kill her if she made noise. After the man left the home, the girl immediately told her father. A rape kit and examination were completed at Billings Clinic.

Five hours later, she described the suspect to Billings Police detectives, who put together a composite sketch. One of them noted the sketch resembled a teenager being held in jail on an unrelated assault charge: 18-year-old Jimmy Ray Bromgard. Four days later, a stolen checkbook from the home was found in a back yard near Bromgard’s home.

He was charged in June 1987 and convicted in November, sentenced to 40 years in prison.

When Bromgard was asked what he thought of the person who raped the girl, he said, "I think they should go to jail or get a death penalty. I think it's sick."

After two unsuccessful appeal attempts, Bromgard’s case was taken up by the National Innocence Project. Evidence in the case had been lost, sparing it from the usual schedule for destroying it. After being rediscovered, a 2002 DNA test confirmed that Bromgard was not a match for semen samples taken from the girl’s underwear.

On Oct. 1, 2002, Bromgard was exonerated and freed from prison. Billings Police and prosecutors vowed to reopen the investigation, noting that DNA technology had not been available at the time of his conviction.

"We've had a false sense of security all these years,” the girl’s father said at the time. In an interview a year later, he added, "There is a man out there who did this to my daughter. The question is, 'Is this somebody I met?' The idea that we're going to our graves never knowing who it is, is disturbing."

The victim’s family did not return a request for comment on the case, but Twito described them as appreciative.

“I think they were grateful to see that law enforcement was still doing their job and investigating the case,” he said.

For years, DNA tests of samples taken from the girl’s underwear returned no hits in regular searches of national and state criminal databases.

Cold case

Meanwhile in White Sulphur Springs, officers from the Missouri River Drug Task Force prepped for a raid in January 2012. They had received a tip from a power company employee reading an electric meter outside a trailer house that the home was using a lot of power for a residence of its size.

On Jan. 6, 2012, officers from the task force and Meagher County Sheriff’s Office went to the home owned by Tipton’s mother. As they approached, they were met by Kenneth Tipton, Ronald Tipton's brother, who invited the officers into the trailer and asked what they’d like to see. A detective noticed the smell of marijuana and that the home was very warm and humid. 

In a room at the front of the trailer, the Tiptons had 11 chest-high budding marijuana plants. In the next room there were 26 mature plants and 34 seedlings, along with an ounce of buds drying on top of a grow light with wire casing.

Ronald Tipton, who was inside the trailer, said the plants were his. Both he and Kenneth showed officers their medical marijuana cards, both of which listed them as providers. The officers told the Tiptons it was illegal to have a provider grow their own marijuana.

The house was owned by the Tiptons’ mother and they said they were trying to buy it from her.

An arrest warrant wasn’t issued until March 21, 2013, because of prosecutorial uncertainty over how to proceed in cases involving medical marijuana.

Tipton first pleaded not guilty, saying his arrest as well as the search and seizure had been illegal, according to discovery papers. He faced up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000.

On Oct. 30, 2013, Tipton pleaded guilty to an alternative count of criminal possession of dangerous drugs, a felony. In April 2014, he was sentenced to two years with the Department of Corrections, all suspended.

As a part of his suspended sentence, Tipton had to agree to 30 conditions set by the state. No. 11 on the list was, “All defendants convicted of a felony offense shall submit to DNA testing.”

Those 12 words, buried among the hundreds of pages of court documents attached to Tipton’s name, are what led to the December 2014 DNA match to the 1987 rape in Billings.

As required by state law, Yellowstone County investigators collected a new sample and confirmed the results in a second test that January, according to court records. At that time, Tipton told the officers that he didn’t remember raping anyone in 1987, according to court records.

Twito said it took several months to interview witnesses and confirm that Tipton had been in the Billings area at the time of the rape, which is why it took 10 months for his office to file charges.

Despite the strength of DNA evidence in court, legal experts say the case could present challenges for prosecutors, which might lead to years of appeals.

First, Twito said he expects a challenge to the charges on the grounds that they’re so old. Although he said the 2007 amendment to state law makes charges possible, he said “it’s never been tested.”

Jeffrey Renz, a professor at the University of Montana’s School of Law, said it is likely that the reliability of witnesses also will be questioned since memory fades with time.

Despite the violent nature of the case, Twito defended his decision to issue a summons for Tipton, rather than an arrest warrant as is most common in rapes with child victims.

“In a cold case it’s not uncommon to do a summons. We know where he is. He’s also supervised on probation,” Twito said. “There’s no victims available to him. There’s 30-some years since he did that kind of thing.”

Public records show that Tipton has been convicted on a handful of minor charges over the years, including a 1985 drug charge in Nevada, 1987 theft in Arizona and a 1988 theft in Yellowstone County for which he served three years in Montana State Prison.

Court documents from Tipton’s medical marijuana arrest help paint a picture of his life in White Sulphur.

He is disabled to the point he can’t hold a job, the records say. His poor health means he needs to travel to Gallatin, Park, Broadwater and Lewis and Clark counties for treatment. The documents don’t detail his health issues, but do say he doesn’t suffer from any mental illness.

Because Tipton relied mostly on Social Security Disability for his income, he couldn’t afford court fees of about $300. He also couldn’t pay for a 24/7 monitoring program.

Tipton isn’t well-known to many in the town of White Sulphur Springs, population 939. People asked about him often didn’t recognize his name, even after the medical marijuana bust.

A man who answered the door Thursday at Tipton’s address, a small residence that sits in a cluster of houses, trailers, a camper and outbuildings, said Tipton didn’t want to discuss the charges, but that he’d been in contact with an attorney.

From his office just a half-mile from Tipton’s house, Sheriff Jon Lopp said Tipton has been off his radar.

“He keeps to himself,” Lopp said. “He doesn’t seem to get out much. We’ve never had any problems with him. He and his family all stick pretty tight together.”

Lopp said it was “pretty surprising” to get the call from Yellowstone County about the DNA match. The biggest demand on his staff this time of year typically comes from hunting season, which keeps his deputies running from one end of the county to another chasing calls of illegal or dangerous hunting practices.

The charges wouldn’t have taken Tipton by surprise, Lopp said. Billings detectives met with him in the spring to discuss the possibility, but it wasn’t clear if anything would happen because of the statute of limitations.

“It’s a relief for us,” Lopp said. “We weren't sure if he was going to be charged.

“He hasn't been a threat to the community, so far,” he said. “The only time we’ve dealt with him are the pot and this.”

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Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.

Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.