Conspirator in 2020 murder sentenced to five years in prison

By 
Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
VANDUINEN

VanDuinen

The Dillon woman who offered to help hide the dead body of Larry Coon was sentenced to five years in the Montana Department of Corrections last week.

Cristina VanDuinen, 24, previously pleaded guilty felony conspiracy to tamper with physical evidence in the January 2020 murder. She admitted she agreed to help Sandy Moore hide Coon’s body, and provided a suitcase in which to do so. VanDuinen faced up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $50,000 fine on the charge.

Moore pleaded guilty to mitigated deliberate homicide last year, admitting she got in a heated argument with her then-boyfriend Coon and strangled him. She was sentenced to 40 years in the Montana State Women’s Prison.

VanDuinen has been held in the Beaverhead County Jail since her arrest in 2020. Her guilty plea was part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, with a condition requiring her to testify against the third defendant in the murder, Kerry “Sam” Johnson of Dillon. Johnson, charged with felony obstructing justice, has recently retained his fourth attorney in the case, forcing trial dates to be reset. Johnson is accused of knowing about Coon’s death and delaying reporting it to police.

Special Deputy County Attorney Thorin Geist argued for a five-year commitment to the Montana Department of Corrections, in line with the plea agreement in VanDuinen’s case. He asked to be served after a separate felony sentence in a prior drug case. He also asked Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Luke Berger to strongly recommend that she complete the most intensive drug and mental health treatment program through Elkhorn Treatment Center in Boulder.

Geist pointed out this is VanDuinen’s second felony charge in her lifetime, and her prior felony’s sentence was revoked as a result of the charges in the murder case.

Geist and VanDuinen’s attorney Jill Gannon-Nagle both noted VanDuinen has been in jail over two years, and sitting in jail waiting for Johnson’s case to conclude is not helping her get the treatment she needs.

“It is anticipated the defendant will provide testimony in the case against Mr. Johnson, to the satisfaction of the Beaverhead County Attorney’s Office. For various reasons – including the fact that Mr. Johnson just got new counsel – that is not likely to happen for some time,” he said, asking the judge to make it clear she is expected to continue to cooperate with that testimony.

Gannon-Nagle asked the court to encourage a less-intensive drug treatment program (Passages in Billings) as Elkhorn has a six-month waiting list.

“My concern is she will sit in jail with no access to treatment or educational opportunities,” she said. “She needs substance abuse treatment, and mental health treatment, and assistance getting back into the community as a productive and stable member.”

Gannon-Nagle noted she has been the attorney for Van-Duinen for the past five years, starting with traffic violations in Dillon City Court through her felony cases in district court. She pointed out VanDuinen had a “pretty horrific upbringing,” living on her own since she was a teenager and “floating from community to community.”

“She came to Dillon, and she got stuck in the drug world with no way to get out,” Gannon-Nagle continued, noting Van-Duinen’s time in the jail has been good for her, and that she wants to get her GED and live a productive life.

Geist said VanDuinen has provided a statement to law enforcement that should suffice for trial purposes.

Prior to sentencing, VanDuinen apologized to Coon’s family members sitting in the courtroom for her part in the case.

Berger agreed with Gannon-Nagle that VanDuinen “got around the wrong people, and it just went downhill real quick.”

Berger said he would not specify which type of treatment is needed and leave that up to the DOC, but he agrees it should be the most intensive treatment available. He said Elkhorn is changing its focus to a more trauma-centered treatment program, which he believes would be ideal for VanDuinen.

“I worry Ms. VanDuinen’s forced sobriety would qualify her for less treatment, and I think that’s highly inappropriate,” he said, referring to the time she has spent in jail. “I understand there’s a wait list for Elkhorn, but if they think that’s best, they should place her there.”

Berger imposed the five-year DOC sentence, consecutive to her other felony sentence, with credit for time served applied to that other case; and assigned court fees. He also reminded VanDuinen that if she fails to abide by the terms of the plea agreement with the county attorney’s office, prosecutors could choose to inform the parole board, which could impact if she is released early.

“Ms. VanDuinen, don’t take this the wrong way. But I just don’t think Dillon is the best place for you, because I don’t think there’s a support system here for you,” Berger continued. “I’m not telling you to not come back. I’m just saying I don’t think what you need is here. I think you need people that are going to support you. You’re going to have to find those people and find that community. And that’s what I want for you. I want for you to get into a place where you can be supported and you can make good decisions.”

Johnson’s trial is currently set for September.

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