Charging documents allege that Crouse confessed to the murder in a handwritten note found at the crime scene, to another man and to Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agents after he was arrested in Mills on Friday.
Crouse has been charged with first-degree — that is, premeditated — murder, which is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty, if prosecutors choose to pursue it.
Crouse made his first appearance in Big Horn County’s Circuit Court in Basin on Monday, where Circuit Court Magistrate Randy Royal agreed with prosecutors and set Crouse’s bail at $1 million cash.
Chief Deputy Big Horn County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Blenkinsop said he had serious concerns about the safety of the community if Crouse was to be released on bond, calling Crouse “an unbelievably dangerous person, considering what we know about what he did.” Blenkinsop said authorities believe Crouse was attempting to flee at the time he was taken into custody in Mills.
Big Horn County prosecutors are also seeking additional prison time for Crouse, alleging that — with two prior felony convictions and the latest allegation being a violent offense — he is a “habitual criminal.” Natrona County District Court records say Crouse served jail and prison time for felony drug possession between 2002 and 2004. If Crouse was to be convicted of first-degree murder, the habitual criminal designation could result in an additional 10 to 50 years being tacked on to whatever sentence he received.
Crouse’s court-appointed defense attorney for the initial hearing, Tim Blatt of Cody, unsuccessfully asked for bond to stay at $500,000, where it had initially been set. During the hearing, Blatt mentioned that Crouse “has had a long history of mental health as well as physical ailments.” The defense attorney attempted to introduce statements from a professional counselor in Big Horn County about the importance of medications that Crouse is taking, but Royal agreed with prosecutors that the information did not need to be publicly laid out at Monday’s hearing.
A preliminary hearing, to consider whether there is enough evidence against Crouse for the case to move toward a trial, was tentatively set for Jan. 17.
Law enforcement’s investigation began around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, when one of Barnes’ family members asked police to check on her, reporting she’d sent a text reading: “I need help.”
Lovell police officers and deputies from the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office responded to Crouse’s apartment on Lovell’s 7th Street and saw blood around the door, Lovell Police Officer Matt Koritnik wrote in an affidavit filed with the case. Officers found Barnes’ body inside, finding she had suffered apparent stab wounds; multiple bloody knives were discovered in the apartment, Koritnik wrote.
A handwritten note, apparently signed and dated by Crouse, was also found in the apartment. In the message, Crouse claims he had been wronged by Barnes and “I have done what I’ve done to end that pain and be able to rest in peace with self respect,” Koritnik wrote. Another note reportedly said that, “If you want to know what caused this, read the memos in my phone … my mission is explained in there.”
Police found several other messages, which dated back to Dec. 30, Koritnik said. In those entries, Crouse allegedly says he fears that he’s lost his chance for “revenge,” calls Barnes names and says he hopes she will show up because “I just need to have this last chance and I won’t mess it up, I’ll get the job done.”
Court records say that Barnes and Crouse were married and living in Evansville from May 2014 until late 2016, when Barnes divorced him and moved. Her attorney at the time said witnesses would testify that Crouse had been “abusive and controlling” toward Barnes, with “her having to call law enforcement for assistance due to [Crouse’s] threatening conduct.” Crouse submitted hand-written filings to the court that year in which he disputed there were irreconcilable differences, complained that Barnes “abandoned” him and suggested they could fix their relationship through counseling.
Lovell Police Chief Dan Laffin said a collaborative effort from many law enforcement agencies — including an alert Mills Police Department officer — led to Crouse being arrested quickly. A police report obtained by the Casper Star-Tribune says the officer spotted Crouse leaving a convenience store, covered in blood and with cuts on his wrists that he said were self-inflicted.
“The most important thing for all of us now is to ensure that a fair trial is held and justice for the victim is secured,” Chief Laffin said in a Sunday statement, adding, “Please keep the family of the victim [in] your thoughts and prayers.”
While living in Cowley, Barnes was attending classes at Northwest College in Powell. She was a sophomore, majoring in business administration, according to college records.
“All of us at Northwest College are shocked and saddened by this tragedy that’s taken the life of one of our students,” said Mark Kitchen, Northwest College vice president for college relations.