BILLINGS, Montana — A 25-year-old man charged in a triple murder of family members on Montana's Crow Indian Reservation could face life in an institution after he was civilly committed and found incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.
Sheldon Bernard Chase was committed by a federal judge in Missouri under a federal law governing the treatment of mentally ill defendants, public defender Michelle Nahon Moulder said Wednesday.
The case had dragged out for almost three years since Chase's October 2011 arrest in the killings of his grandmother, cousin and cousin's boyfriend.
Since January 2013, he has been held at a federal Bureau of Prisons psychiatric hospital in Springfield, Missouri, to undergo treatment and evaluation.
The Aug. 29 commitment order from Judge M. Douglas Harpool was sealed by the court and will not be made public, Courtroom Deputy Linda Howard said. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Montana has said three counts of first-degree murder against Chase will remain in place.
He still could face trial if his mental health improves — or even be released if he's found to be not dangerous. But his public defender in Montana, David Merchant, has said Chase's release is unlikely, which means he could remain institutionalized for the rest of his life.
Chase grew up on North Dakota's Fort Berthold reservation and had been living with his grandmother, Gloria Sarah Goes Ahead Cummins, in the months before authorities say he gunned down Cummins, cousin Levon Driftwood, 21, and her boyfriend, Ruben Jefferson, 20, after an argument.
The killings hit hard within the close-knit Crow community, where the 80-year-old Cummins was the matriarch of an extended clan on the reservation.
An FBI affidavit said Chase had stopped taking his medications before the shootings, although it did not specify when or what the medications were.
Chase shows symptoms of schizophrenia and depression, Federal Bureau of Prisons psychologist Elizabeth Tyner testified during an Aug. 27 competency hearing in Montana. Previous efforts to restore his mental health — by involuntarily medicating Chase at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield — were unsuccessful.
Because so much of the case is under seal due to privacy issues, it's unknown if those medications will be continued or what other treatments Chase will receive under his commitment.
It's also not certain where he will end up. Under the federal commitment law, authorities first will seek to place Chase under the care of state officials in Montana or North Dakota.
If a state won't take responsibility for him, he would remain in the prison system. Bureau of Prisons officials will be required to prepare an annual report advising the court on the results of efforts to place Chase under state care and the status of his commitment.