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Ranch killing tied to alcohol, treatment of horse

Ranch killing tied to alcohol, treatment of horse

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An alcohol-fueled dispute over the treatment of a horse preceded the fatal shooting Wednesday of a 23-year-old Billings man.

According to Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office reports, Steven Bearcrane was shot to death by Bobby Gene Holcomb at about 4:25 p.m. in a trailer house at 2077 Barnes Road. The trailer is on the Leachman Cattle Co. ranch about 20 miles east of Billings on the Crow Indian Reservation.

The FBI is investigating the shooting because it happened on tribal land, officials said. Ernie Weyand, the FBI supervisory agent in Billings, said Thursday the agency is working on the case with assistance from the sheriff's office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He declined to release any further information.

Physical confrontation

But according to reports by sheriff's deputies who responded to the shooting, Holcomb claimed he shot Bearcrane during a physical confrontation. The two men are ranch hands at the cattle company, the reports state.

Holcomb, 53, has not been charged with any offense connected with the shooting, although he was arrested at the scene on a misdemeanor warrant. He was released Thursday afternoon from the Yellowstone County Detention Facility after posting a $500 bond.

Court officials said the warrant was issued after Holcomb failed to report to the county jail to serve a one-day sentence. Holcomb was convicted last year of misdemeanor drunken driving, which carries a mandatory one-day jail sentence for a first offense.

It was unclear Thursday if federal authorities intend to charge Holcomb with a crime for the shooting. Federal authorities could have asked that Holcomb remain in custody at the county jail while the case was investigated further.

Men had been friends

In a statement released Thursday, members of Bearcrane's family said the two men were good friends who often worked together on the ranch. Early media reports based on information from the sheriff's office that Bearcrane was shot while breaking into the trailer house where Holcomb lived were not accurate, the statement said.

"He would not break into the trailer house and rob a friend," the statement said.

An autopsy was performed Thursday on Bearcrane, but Deputy Yellowstone County Coroner Keith Montgomery said he would not release a cause of death. Montgomery said he was asked by an FBI agent to withhold the public information and refer media requests to the federal agency.

Weyand declined late Thursday afternoon to disclose the cause of death or comment on the status of the homicide investigation.

Holcomb and Roger Reitman, the ranch foreman, gave similar statements to sheriff's deputies about the events surrounding the death of Bearcrane. According to the reports, this is what the two men said:

Holcomb said he and Bearcrane met at the ranch Wednesday afternoon and were to move some mares on pasture about 10 miles from the trailer where Holcomb lives. Bearcrane was drinking from a liter bottle of Southern Comfort, Holcomb said.

When the two men were done moving the horses, Holcomb said, Bearcrane indicated he wanted to tie his horse to the horse trailer and drag it back to the ranch. Holcomb refused to let Bearcrane tie the horse to the trailer and left Bearcrane with the horse in the field.

Holcomb said he returned to the ranch house without Bearcrane and started drinking beer. He said he was fearful of Bearcrane, and he removed bullet clips from two of Bearcrane's rifles that were in his truck.

Bearcrane arrived at the trailer after riding his horse in from the field, Holcomb reported. The two men spoke inside the trailer, then Bearcrane challenged him to step outside to fight. Holcomb said he tried to close the door on Bearcrane, but Bearcrane kicked it open. Holcomb said Bearcrane came inside the trailer, grabbed him by the throat and threw him against a wall.

Holcomb told deputies that he sat down at a table, and Bearcrane kicked the table. Holcomb said he grabbed his .22-caliber pistol off the table, and the men exchanged words. Holcomb said Bearcrane came at him and he fired one bullet at the man.

Holcomb said he called 911, and then drank three or four more beers while waiting for law enforcement to arrive.

Reitman told deputies that Holcomb and Bearcrane had loaded their horses into a trailer at about noon and left to move other pastured horses. Holcomb returned alone at about 4 p.m., Reitman said, and Holcomb told him Bearcrane was drunk and upset. Holcomb told him about Bearcrane's desire to tie his horse to the back of the trailer rather than load it into the trailer, Reitman said.

Holcomb then went inside the trailer house, Reitman said, located about 50 yards from the barn where Reitman was working.

Bearcrane arrived about 20 or 25 minutes later, Reitman said, and unsaddled his horse. Reitman said he saw Bearcrane go into Holcomb's house, and Reitman decided to drive his truck to the house. As he arrived and was getting out of the truck, Reitman said, Holcomb came out of the house. Reitman said Holcomb's shirt was torn the man looked upset.

Reitman said Holcomb told him he had shot Bearcrane. Reitman said he went inside the trailer and found Bearcrane on the floor.

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