Grant County Circuit Court Judge William D. Cramer Jr. declined to significantly reduce the bail for Thomas Joseph Elliott, 55, John Day, who faces a manslaughter charge connected with the shooting death of Todd Alan Berry in the Dog Creek area east of John Day on Aug. 24.
During a Nov. 9 hearing, Cramer agreed to allow Elliott to have contact with his wife, either in jail or if he is able to post bail and is released pending trial.
According to a grand jury indictment, Elliott faces one count of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm and one count of unlawful use of a weapon.
A murder charge filed the day after the shooting incident was dropped from the grand jury indictment. But Colin Benson, an Oregon Department of Justice attorney assigned by Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter to prosecute the case, told Cramer that depending upon additional evidence that could be forthcoming, the case might be brought back to the grand jury for more serious charges.
Elliott remained in Grant County Jail and appeared in court via video. Matthew Baughman of Bend, Elliott’s court-appointed attorney, asked that bail be reduced from $750,000 to $50,000, “which is the maximum amount defendant can post.”
Baughman said Elliott has never failed to appear in court or forfeited bond, has a prior conviction for disorderly conduct in 2002 and perhaps a DUII conviction from the early 1980s, has lived in Grant County most of his life and has significant community ties, including with his mother, wife and children.
Baughman twice called the matter “an interesting case” in that it involved a serious charge but the defendant could be considered for a bail reduction and perhaps release. If released, Elliott would reside locally at either his home or with his mother, Baughman said.
Benson and several witnesses, however, opposed this arrangement. Benson said he initially motioned to stop contact between Elliott and his wife because the case was still under investigation — but more evidence was expected. He also noted that the crime took place in a small community and involved members of an extended family.
Benson said he had concerns about the safety of witnesses named in the grand jury indictment, as well as others related to Berry. Benson also noted that while Elliott might not pose a flight risk based on his court history, he was now facing serious charges — first degree manslaughter is a Class A felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Jessica Williams, Berry’s daughter, told Cramer she lived near Elliott’s home and she feared for her life as well as the life of her children and her stepmother, Billie Jo Berry. Williams said the more she learned about Elliott, the more she was convinced he could do something similar again.
“I don’t want to live in fear,” she said.
Billie Jo Berry told Cramer she was not just the victim’s widow, but was also Elliott’s cousin and had known him since they were young. She pleaded with Cramer not to lower the bail and give Elliott a chance to get out of jail, alleging that Elliott had threatened to kill other family members and just two weeks before the shooting had described strangling a dog to death.
“Tom is not one to be crossed,” she read from a long letter.
Alleging that Elliott possessed numerous firearms, Billie Jo Berry characterized him as a “cruel,” “calculating” and “selfish” man who “hurt us all.” She said Elliott and Berry had long been friends who played golf and cut firewood together, but when he’d been drinking, Elliott would make cruel and demeaning statements to her husband.
Family and friends in the courtroom grew more animated as they listened to the two women, and at one point Cramer halted Billie Jo Berry to warn both sides about rustling, whispering and head shaking.
“Frankly, it irritates me,” he said, adding, “I don’t want people making faces at witnesses.”
Baughman called one witness, Carolyn Elliott, Thomas Elliott’s mother. She was sworn in and testified that the family could only come up with $5,000 — enough cash to meet bail if it was lowered to $50,000. She also testified she didn’t believe the allegations that her son had threatened friends or family members or was cruel to animals.
In stating his decision, Cramer said he expected to hear more evidence in favor of a bail reduction. He said he knew the defendant’s extended family from other circumstances and knew they owned property that could be posted for bail purposes.
Cramer said he would lower Elliott’s bail to $500,000, or $50,000 cash, but he wanted to require daily drug or alcohol testing and house arrest. He also had concerns about the proximity of Elliott’s home to the home of witnesses and Berry’s family, and he ordered Elliott to reside at least 1,000 yards away from those with safety concerns.
Benson told Cramer the case was proceeding rapidly, but he didn’t expect to see the crime lab report for about a month. After conferring with Baughman and family members from both sides, Cramer set the plea hearing for 2 p.m. Jan. 18.
Elliott had not posted bail and was still in jail Friday, Nov. 10.