A family searches for answers after a gay teen in a small town is beaten and buried in a shallow grave

click to enlarge The walls of Pepper Fox's motel room in Newport are lined with pictures of her son. - WILSON CRISCIONE PHOTO
Wilson Criscione photo
The walls of Pepper Fox's motel room in Newport are lined with pictures of her son.

In the hours before authorities say he was brutally murdered, Jason Fox felt something familiar to him as a gay kid growing up in a small town: the fear of being unwelcome.

That night on Sept. 14, Jason — a 19-year-old counting down the last days of summer before college began — planned to meet up with some people at Timber River Ranch, located a short drive from his hometown of Newport, about 50 miles north of Spokane. He was worried, however, about a man who lived there named Riley Hillestad.

Before Jason agreed to go, he checked to make sure Hillestad wouldn't be there, using "fr" as a shorthand for "for real."

"Where's ur place and is it fr not Riley?" Jason asked on social media, court records say. "Like I fr wanna kick it, I just ain't down for drama."

"Bro that's why I'm at where I'm at because I don't like that shit around me," replied the person encouraging Jason to go, Claude Merritt.

Jason agreed but remained uneasy. He sent the address to his cousin.

"22 Yergens Rd," Jason wrote, according to a screenshot of the conversation. "Just in [case] anything happens to me."

It was the last time anyone from Jason's family would hear from him. Weeks later, Jason's body was found buried at the ranch with his hands tied behind his back, police say. Four people have been charged with murder in connection with his death: Matthew Raddatz-Freeman, 28, Kevin Belding, 24, Claude Merritt, 25, and Riley Hillestad, 26.

As investigators in Pend Oreille County search for a motive, his death has reverberated across the LGBTQ community. Details of the alleged murder sound eerily similar to that of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student tortured in a Wyoming field and left to die in 1998 — a murder that eventually led Congress to expand the federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Jason's mom, Pepper Fox, is convinced that Jason's death was because of his sexual orientation. Pend Oreille County Sheriff Glenn Blakeslee says that right now there is no evidence for a hate crime, though "it has not been completely ruled out."

But while Jason's family continues to search for answers about his death, it's what they remember about his life that reveals the challenges Jason faced as a kid grappling with his own sexuality and yearning for acceptance, wherever he could find it.

"He was a great kid," says his dad, Michael Fox. "He always made people smile."

Those close to Jason portray him as a magnetic, caring person with an infectious smile. He could light up a room one minute, and talk his way out of a bad situation in another.

But at home, life wasn't always easy. Jason's mom, Pepper, moved to Seattle when he was young after she and Michael split up. Jason went long periods of his childhood without seeing her at all. Susan Fox, Michael's wife, raised Jason and his older brother, Robby, as a mother from a young age, but it took awhile for the kids to open up to her. Susan says she and Jason had a "rough relationship" at times, but she says they loved each other like a mother and son.

Meanwhile, Jason and Robby, less than a year apart, had contrasting personalities. Jason liked the theater, and Robby liked sports. Jason was drawn to art, and Robby liked working on cars.

Jason had a good group of friends in school. In high school, Jason was a DJ for the high school's radio station. He joined the wrestling team, and tried other activities as he was "trying to find his way," Michael says.

It was more difficult for him to fit in compared to his older brother, who effortlessly joined the popular kids. Robby and Jason were close as young kids, but as they got older, Robby says even he picked on Jason and his friends — something he says he now deeply regrets.

"In Newport, if you don't do sports, or if you don't do certain things, you're not popular," Robby says.

But Jason wasn't just the kid in school who everyone singled out. If someone said something to him, he'd go back at them. He never came home crying because kids picked on him, his family says. He would, however, come home roughed up after being in a fight.

Jason didn't come out until he was 18. When he did, it wasn't exactly a shock. Robby always knew Jason was gay, he says. Michael says he and Susan knew early on, too.

"It was like, 'OK, I'm glad you're telling us," Michael says. "But we've known forever."

"In Newport, if you don't do sports, or if you don't do certain things, you're not popular."

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Before his senior year of high school, Jason decided he wanted to live with Pepper in Seattle. It was partly because he wanted to reconnect with her, and partly to get out of Newport. Michael doesn't want to generalize about the people of Newport — a town of just over 2,000 people right by the Idaho border — but he admits it is not the easiest place for a kid to come out as LGBTQ. There are a lot of "simpletons here that have raised their children to be simpletons," he says.

"A lot of young people got a real problem with anyone that has a different sexual orientation than they think is correct," Michael says.

Maybe a more accepting culture in Seattle would help Jason, his parents thought.

In some ways, Pepper thinks it did help. Initially, she saw how happy he was at first to "finally experience being accepted just the way he was." He made friends easily and went to parties with kids his age.

One day, he confessed to Pepper that he told people in Newport he was bisexual instead of gay, only because he thought that was more acceptable in Newport. In Seattle, he started to push the limits more, and Pepper grew concerned because Jason was using gay dating apps to meet strangers. His fear of acceptance, however, never went away. At one point she scoured his phone and found that Jason was looking up instances of violence against LGBTQ people, or he was searching for which areas of the country are LGBTQ-friendly.

Before long, his grades started to drop. Pepper says he also missed his friends in Newport, and he didn't have enough credits to graduate. Michael was adamant that he graduate, so Jason went back to Newport in June to finish the last of his credits at an alternative high school.

His teacher, Peg Waterman, remembers what Jason wrote in an assignment about his plans after high school.

"He'd written that he wanted to become a nurse to save lives," Waterman says. "He cared tremendously about others."

click to enlarge Jason Fox wanted to be a nurse. "He cared tremendously about others," recalls a teacher. - COURTESY OF PEPPER FOX
Courtesy of Pepper Fox
Jason Fox wanted to be a nurse. "He cared tremendously about others," recalls a teacher.

Within weeks of coming back home, Jason started going down a dangerous road.

At some point, Jason tried meth, admitting he did so to his dad. Michael says he wouldn't let that happen in his house, so Jason was couch-surfing through the summer.

Meth use has ravaged small towns across America, and Newport is no exception. "It's definitely part of our community," and it has been for the decades, Sheriff Blakeslee says.

Over the summer, not long before his death, Pepper says Jason called her and told her that a man raped him. She asked him to come back to the west side with her, but he said he didn't have any real friends there. When she told him to report the sexual assault, he said he would. Blakeslee, however, says that as far as he knows, it was not reported to anyone.

Looking back now, Pepper is overcome with regret that she let Jason return to Newport.

"I hold myself responsible for it," she says. "I shouldn't have let him come back."

Still couch-surfing, Jason sometimes stayed with Matt Raddatz-Freeman, one of the people accused in his murder, Pepper says. Jason also mentioned hanging out with Claude Merritt, she says.

His dad didn't know exactly what was going on, but he had an idea.

"I'm a realist. I figured he was doing some drugs and whatever," Michael says. "But I never imagined anything like this was going to happen."

Susan worried about Jason. He had reached a crossroads. A bright future was ahead of him, but he needed some support getting there. In August, his family suggested that Jason go visit Robby in Pullman.

Robby says he bought a new bed and a TV, setting up a room to make his brother comfortable. The plan was for Jason to stay there until he started college at Spokane Falls Community College.

Robby tears up when he remembers Jason visiting in August. They had their issues in high school, but that last time Jason visited Pullman their relationship was "the best it's ever been," Robby says. Robby jokes that Jason "stole" his friends. For the first time, Robby saw Jason really fit in.

"I'm a realist. I figured he was doing some drugs and whatever," Michael says. "But I never imagined anything like this was going to happen."

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Robby thought it could help him stay away from drugs.

"I think he used because he was worried about what everybody else would think," Robby says. "So he never accepted himself."

After a week, Jason told Robby he didn't want to intrude, so he went back to Newport. Jason said he would visit his brother again in Pullman the next month.

But just three days before Jason planned to go to Pullman, Merritt encouraged Jason to pick him up and head to Timber River Ranch. The ranch, an 11-minute drive from Newport, is actually a wedding venue where couples can have a ceremony in front of the Pend Oreille River. The drive would have taken Jason along a highway surrounded by forests, hills and a Trump flag about every other mile. Then, he would travel past the gate into a dirt road, deeper into the trees until he reached the ranch.

There, authorities say, he'd meet Raddatz-Freeman, Belding and Hillestad.

On Nov. 7, nearly two months after Jason's murder, sheriff's deputies brought in Riley Hillestad for an interview. Hillestad showed up "wearing a ballistic vest, pepper spray, hand cuffs, knives, an AR 15 and a handgun," court documents say.

All of the suspects told a different story. Hillestad, Raddatz-Freeman and Merritt each deflected blame and said that the other two beat up Jason in a shop at the ranch, records say. They all said Belding, the fourth man charged, was in the shop at the time. Witness statements and social media records indicate that Hillestad operated a "skid steer," a type of excavator, that night which authorities believe was used to bury Jason. Blakeslee says Jason was not buried alive and that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.

Before the arrests, Michael thought his son was a victim of a hate crime for being gay. Now, he and Susan say they're just glad to see arrests made, trusting the sheriff if he says there's no evidence for a hate crime. The four men remain in jail and have not made any public comments since their arrest.

"The thing that I think has helped us most is knowing that these assholes have been arrested," Susan says.

The sheriff declined to answer Inlander questions about whether homophobic slurs were used by any of the suspects during the alleged murder, or whether Jason was lured to the property under false pretenses. He says Jason was "familiar" with the individuals at the property but wouldn't specify what the nature of the relationship was.

Pepper says she read parts of Jason's diary describing his being raped this summer, but Blakeslee says the diary — which they've investigated — "does not provide a level of detail" that would indicate Jason was sexually assaulted.

However, Blakeslee tells the Inlander that a rumor of a sexual assault is "something we're looking into" in trying to determine motive. He says Jason never reported a sexual assault to police and, as he understands it, the incident would have occurred outside his jurisdiction.

Even if they can't prove it's a hate crime, Pepper remains convinced that Jason's murder had to do with sexuality — either Jason's, or that of his murderers.

"I have that, in my book, as a hate crime," Pepper says.

One day, she says she wants to build a house in Newport that would be safe for anyone who identifies as LGBTQ.

For Robby, what helps him cope with his brother's death isn't the arrests. It's Jason's memory. At home, he keeps a bag of Jason's clothes next to a hope chest full of Jason's belongings. He leaves a spot open for Jason on the couch. When he thinks of Jason, he takes out some items — stuffed animals, clothes, a blanket — and sets them next to him where his brother is supposed to be.

"Sometimes I just put my head down and fall asleep there on the couch," Robby says. "That's what helps me." ♦

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.