Police in Newport, Washington, arrested five people in connection with the torture and murder of a young gay man, but questions remain for those left behind. The body of 19-year-old Jason Fox was found buried in a shallow grave on a remote rural ranch in Pend Oreille Country last month following his disappearance in September. According to multiple reports, his hands were tied behind his back, his body showed signs of torture, and the cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma to the head. While police have indicated they have little evidence to bring hate crime charges, family and friends insist Fox was murdered and tortured because he was gay.
“I have full good reason to believe, and so do other people, that Jason was killed because he’s gay,” Jason’s mother, Pepper Fox, told KHQ News.
Police arrested Kevin Belding, Matthew Raddatz-Freeman, Claude Merritt, Riley Hillestad and Sean Bellah in connection with the murder, according to KREM News. Hillstead, the alleged ringleader of the crime, was charged with nine counts, including first degree murder and first degree kidnapping. Merritt and Raddatz-Freeman face similar charges, while Bellah was arrested for providing false or misleading statements in connection with the investigation.
According to multiple reports, Fox was trying to get his life back together in the small northeastern town of Newport on the Idaho border. He had come out as gay to his family, but told others he was bisexual because he felt it might be more acceptable in town. The fun-loving teen had experienced problems with acceptance in the conservative town and had experimented with drugs, but was looking forward to attending school again.
According to Inlander, Fox had been invited to hang out with friends by Merritt on the night he was murdered, but he had reservations. He received assurances Hillstead, would not be joining the group at the Timber River Ranch where his bound and tortured body was eventually discovered. According to Inlander, Fox sent a text message with the address of the ranch to his cousin “just in [case] anything happens to me.” The text would prove to be the last time his family heard from him.
His family immediately reported him missing and when police contacted the suspects the day following Fox’s disappearance, all five gave different versions of the previous evening’s events. Fox’s car was later found abandoned outside Libby, Montana, and his buried body was discovered on the ranch on October 4.
Making matters worse, a memorial in his honor was recently vandalized with homophobic slurs. Fox’s mother Pepper had been visiting the memorial every night to light a candle.
While the arrests are a positive development in the case, Fox’s murder is still difficult for the family to digest.
“The sad part is I was beginning to feel like he was finally getting in touch with who he was,” Jason’s father, Michael, told KHQ News. “And he was comfortable with himself.”