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Barry Beach on May 14

Barry Beach is shown at a Billings restaurant on May 15. He later turned himself into authorities and was returned to Montana State Prison.

After 18 months of freedom, convicted murderer Barry Beach returned to Montana State Prison on Wednesday to finish serving a 100-year sentence after turning himself in at the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office.

"Beach's conviction is valid," said John Barnes, a spokesman for the Montana Attorney General's Office. "Therefore, like every other person convicted of murder, Beach is required to serve his prison sentence." 

The dramatic turnaround in a case that has captivated many people across the state and nation began Tuesday afternoon when the Montana Supreme Court reversed a ruling by a judge in Lewistown that Beach deserved a new trial for the 1979 slaying of 17-year-old Kimberly Nees.   

That judge, E. Wayne Phillips, ruled in November 2011 that there was sufficient evidence presented by Beach at a hearing that he was wrongfully convicted. About two weeks later, on Dec. 7, 2011, Phillips released Beach from the prison in Deer Lodge, where he had served nearly 30 years of his sentence.

State prosecutors appealed the ruling, and in a 4-3 vote the state's high court said there was not sufficient evidence to order a retrial.

As Beach, 51, ate breakfast at a Billings diner with supporters and Mayor Tom Hanel on Wednesday morning, prosecutors worked to secure an arrest warrant from a judge in Roosevelt County. During his last hours of freedom, Beach wore a T-shirt proclaiming "I didn't do it."

"It was hard enough to be innocent to begin with," Beach told the Associated Press while at the diner. "But to be going back, still innocent, for a second time, is just unbelievable." 

A few hours later, shortly after 11 a.m. and with the help of former Yellowstone County Commissioner James "Ziggy" Ziegler, Beach turned himself in at the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office.

Ziegler, who met Beach years ago through a prison ministry, said he spent Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning with Beach. They had steak and lobster for dinner, he said, and discussed personal issues before Beach returned to his home for the night.

At the time, Ziegler said, they presumed that Beach would have at least another day to wrap up his affairs.

Beach and Ziegler got together at the diner for breakfast at about 7 a.m., Ziegler said, and within a short time learned that a warrant was being sought for Beach's arrest.

"It all happened very quickly," Ziegler said. "They wanted him, and they wanted him now."

Beach was told he was to turn himself in at the Sheriff's Office at 11 a.m. Ziegler said he and his wife, Stella, walked with Beach the few blocks from the diner and arrived at the Sheriff's Office a few minutes past 11 a.m.

"He wasn't going to run from this," Ziegler said. "He's a very proud person and a man of honor." 

Barnes, of the Attorney General's Office, said arrangements would be made to return Beach to Montana State Prison. The prison confirmed Wednesday evening that Beach was there.

Ziegler said he was told Beach would be returned to Montana State Prison sometime Wednesday afternoon.

In a prepared statement, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox praised the efforts of prosecutors in his office.

"It was their job to defend a lawful conviction that is many years old, and they did it appropriately," Fox said. "Their diligent efforts honor the memory of Kimberly Nees and hopefully bring about some sense of closure for her mother, Diane Nees."    

Meanwhile, supporters of Beach's efforts to prove his innocence expressed dismay. 

"I'm sickened by this decision," said Jim McCloskey, the founder of a nonprofit organization that has backed Beach's legal efforts. "It's a nightmare. We're all living a nightmare."

Speaking from his office in New Jersey on Wednesday morning, McCloskey said he spoke with Beach shortly after the state Supreme Court ruling was released.

"You can imagine he's distraught," McCloskey said. "He keeps his chin up, and he is keeping his dignity because he knows he's innocent."

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McCloskey said he planned to fly to Billings on Wednesday.

Nees, 17, was bludgeoned to death and her body thrown into the Poplar River on June 16, 1979. Her murder remained under investigation until 1983, when Beach, a former classmate, was arrested in Louisiana and confessed to the killing.

Beach later recanted the confession, saying he was coerced by detectives in Louisiana who were investigating other unsolved murders of young women.

The case drew national attention when "Dateline NBC" produced an hourlong episode examining Beach's conviction and claim of innocence. McCloskey's organization, Centurion Ministries, provided Beach's legal representation.       

Glena Nees Lockman, who lives in Billings and is related to Kimberly Nees, said she has closely followed Beach's effort to prove his innocence.

"I'm outraged over this decision (by the Supreme Court) because I truly believe he is innocent," said Lockman.

Lockman said she believes that Beach was wrongly convicted based on a forced confession.

"What was he, 20 years old?" she said. "He was a scared kid." 

Lockman said she is a second or third cousin of Kimberly Nees, whom she used to babysit.  

In more recent years, Lockman has become a friend and supporter of Beach. She last spoke to him on Sunday, she said, when he called to wish her a happy Mother's Day.

Ziegler said he plans to spend Thursday morning speaking with McCloskey. The next step, he said, remains unclear.

"We don't know if this is the end of the legal process or not," Ziegler said. "We'll have to let the legal eagles figure that out." 

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State courts reporter for the Billings Gazette.