Unsolved Montana: Bozeman’s Only Uncleared Homicide in 50 Years
February 10, 1985. Under the icy, clear winter sky, the Bozeman Pizza Hut at 2300 West Main Street closed and was locked at midnight.
Randy Church, a 23-year-old Montana State University student, turned off the front lights and stayed to wash the tables and scrub the ovens. It was a run-of-the mill Saturday night, a steady spill of customers dining in, mostly college students, and plenty of delivery orders dispersed to dorms across campus and adjacent student housing.
Randy worked about 15 hours per week at the restaurant, responsibilities he balanced with a full load of electrical and computer engineering courses. Now, he was the shift supervisor, covering the nighttime for a coworker who requested the weekend off.
“A nice fellow with great promise,” as his college advisor at Montana State University later described him, Randy was known to contribute when asked, and to be giving with his time. While there should have been two employees at closing time paired together, Randy, “a slow closer,” according to one coworker, was in the store by himself.
Sometime around 3 a.m., there was a knock on the rear door of the restaurant. Randy opened the door to face the wintry darkness.
All of a sudden, someone pumped two .22 caliber bullets into his head. Randy was shot the first time directly below an eye, and the second time in the back of his head, killing him instantly. His bullet-riddled body was found at approximately 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning, near the cash register and safe, by business manager Jeff Pierce, after Pierce was called to unlock the doors when Church failed to meet an employee there at 9 a.m.
Sgt. Ron Green of the Bozeman Police Department said the day after the murder that the police were assuming that robbery was the motive for the shooting. He said that police had no suspects and “no idea why Church (wittingly) let the assailant in.” Green speculated that Randy, perhaps thinking that friends had stopped by to visit with him after the store had closed, had allowed the perpetrator inside of the restaurant. Green said that the store’s safe “was not open” and that the total take that morning obtained in the commission of appropriating this young man’s life was roughly $1,000.
The autopsy performed on Randy showed no obvious signs of any resistance, Green later said. There were no alarms at the restaurant, though Green noted that an alarm probably would not have saved Randy in his situation.
Bozeman residents and the family of Randy Church were taken aback over the news of the slaying, “apparently the first murder in Bozeman in more than eight years,” according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. The last murder in Bozeman, according to the Chronicle, occurred in September 1976, when a man named Anthel “Bobo” Brown killed another in a robbery at Hoadley’s Standard gas station.
“It was a horrible thing. I can’t understand why anyone would do something like that,” said Randy’s uncle, Wesley Church of Havre, to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Randy was really a nice young man, always energetic with an exceptional personality. It’s a terrible tragedy for the family.”
Pizza Hut offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons “responsible for this heinous crime.” A memorial service was held at the Holland-Bonine Funeral Chapel in Havre and burial followed at the Highland Cemetery. A memorial service was also held at the Danforth Chapel on the MSU campus and a scholarship in Randy’s name was funded.
Thirty-five years later, the young man’s murder remains a sad, lost footnote in the annals of Bozeman, the sole “uncleared” homicide in the last 50 years on the city’s books. Adding to the heartbreak, lead investigator Ron Green believes that he once came face to face with Randy’s killers, and that justice for Randy was squandered in a bureaucratic maze.
The Sensitive, Creative Life of Randy Church
Randy Church was born on September 28, 1961, in Havre to Richard and Darlene Church, the second youngest of their five children. Richard Church, a native of the Harlem-area on the Hi-Line, and Darlene, a native of Havre, had married in 1955.
Richard Church supported the family of seven, employed as a machinist with the Great Northern Railway, one of the economic drivers of several small, rural towns along US Highway 2 like Havre. Based out of the train repair and refueling station depot in Havre, Richard worked the same shift for many years, 2 to 11 p.m.
Darlene, described as “the loving type” by one of the Church siblings, stayed at home with the children and worked as the main cook at the Pancake House and other local restaurants. Randy clung closely to his mother and often accompanied her to the train depot to deliver Richard his home-cooked dinner.
“Randy was the most sensitive of the siblings,” says Rick Church, his older brother. “He was the person who kept the family connected, and who could relate to everyone in the family. Dad was a hard guy, and Randy could communicate and connect with everyone, including our father.
Several characteristics defined Randy from the onset of his teens, namely creativity and industriousness. Instead of something store-bought, he would wax his father’s car as a birthday present. With eager facility, he shined shoes at a local barber shop.
Skinny and modest, Randy was a perfectly ordinary kid who enjoyed goofing off with and chasing his brothers around their property, typically until his asthma forced him to scale it back. As a teenager, he fell in love with electronics, computers and the power and torque of muscle cars. His first car was a Dodge Charger, which he used to travel back and forth to his job at the Iron Horse restaurant in Havre. There, Randy was employed as a dishwasher, busboy, and cook; at one point he worked alongside his mother Darlene, who helped run the kitchen.
“I was one year older than Randy, but we were in the same grade because I got left back,” says Randy’s brother Robert Church. “We were in the same classes. Randy was always very balanced. I’d come home and he’d be studying. He could party and still do well in school.”
“We used to ride motorbikes together,” says Randy’s cousin Rusty (who requested that his last name be withheld). “We were pretty close to the same age. What’s always stuck out to me the most was when Randy rode his bicycle out here in the summer time, maybe age 13 or so, forty miles from Havre, twenty miles of pavement, and the rest of gravel. He was one of my best buddies.”
Randy attended Northern Montana College for one year (1982-83) before transferring to Montana State University as an electrical engineering student.
“Randy was extremely intelligent and he had a heart of gold,” says his long-ago friend Gene Meek. “I’m not just saying that because he is deceased. He would help anybody with their studying, their school work. He was kind, and he had an absolute heart of gold.”
“One person I thought he always reminded me of a bit was Sonny from Sonny and Cher,” says Randy’s friend Suzie Williams. “Just from overall physical looks and things; he was really skinny. He loved to ride motorcycles and go out in his blue VW bug and go hill climbing. He owned a ‘69 green Firebird. We would go motorcycle riding in Havre and the Bear Paw’s mountains. I met Randy in a college calculus class in Havre. It was a small class of six kids and we got to know each other.”
Randy’s college résumé listed his favorite interests and activities as motorcycling, rafting, and “applying programming knowledge to labor and payroll system needs.”
In the fall quarter at Montana State, Randy received three As and one B. He had an overall grade point average of 3.4, and had recently been nominated for the engineering honorary fraternity, Tau Beta Pi. “He worked awfully hard to get through school,” said Bruce McLeod, an electrical engineering professor who had Church in two classes in 1985. “He was a typical kid from Montana. He knew how to work and knew what he wanted.”
“Randy would’ve been very excited with these modern computers and smart phones and how they’ve progressed,” recalls his brother Robert Church, who received a letter sent from his brother within days of the crime. “He had a basic computer back then, and he loved technology, and he loved learning about it. He would’ve loved all of this change. He embraced life.”
Randy started working at Pizza Hut in Bozeman in February 1983, advancing from waiter, to cook, to shift supervisor, a position that entailed responsibilities he enjoyed, including controlling the cost of sales and labor and operating expenditures. The job supplied him with money, a concrete work history, and a boost of self-confidence.
Then, one winter night Randy closed the store. Shortly thereafter, someone filched his life, snatched a good deal of money in exchange, and left a smart kid with a positive future murdered in a pool of heavy blood.
Robbery as Motive
Police were never able to determine whether Randy was slain because he refused to give the gunman the money, or if the gunman killed Randy so there would not be a witness. According to available police and media reports, the back door of the restaurant had a peephole, but it would have been difficult for Randy to see who was standing outside in the dark.
It appears as if Randy should not have been in the building alone. The assistant manager of the Pizza Hut in Bozeman, Jan Brandon, said in an interview shortly after the crime that “there are supposed to be two people on duty at night, and the back door is supposed to be locked at midnight.” Brandon suggested that Randy might have opened the back door thinking it was “probably a fellow employee.”
Randy’s friend Suzie Williams remembers that, one week before Randy was killed, she and her boyfriend David, an employee at the same Pizza Hut, were startled in the back end of the restaurant by a group of people who appeared after closing time.
“They had come in the side door after closing,” says Suzie. “Someone had gone out the side door earlier that day and it didn’t latch correctly. Unless it was something extremely personal no one knew about, I couldn’t think of any reason someone would want to do that to Randy.”
It’s possible that since Randy was supposed to be opening the next morning, he intended to stay at the restaurant overnight, and that he was working on homework when the intruder entered.
Bill Davis of Billings, at the time the regional director of Pizza Hut, told the Associated Press in 1985 that Pizza Huts “in large inner cities” had alarm buttons that employees could push to notify police. But that system was yet to be in effect in Pizza Huts in Montana or Wyoming because crimes rates in those states were not “high enough to warrant it.”
The restaurant’s bank bag and approximately 25 checks in a vinyl bag were found later in a ditch on Jackrabbit Lane near Belgrade. There also was a theft of $911 reported the Sunday morning that Randy was killed at the Town Pump in Bozeman.
Local Suspects Identified
Michael Nickelson, 19, of Livingston was named as a suspect in the Randy Church killing after he was taken into custody for the slaying of a co-worker at Yellowstone National Park. In the summer of 1985, Nickelson beat to death Randy Dean Reddog of Wolf Point near Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Bozeman Police Sgt. Stan Kenney said that an inmate “who met Nickelson while they both were in custody” alerted authorities that Nickelson had told him that he was involved in the Pizza Hut murder.
Kenney said that police “were not able to prove that Nickelson was at the crime scene,” and that Nickelson “refused to discuss it.” Nickelson was charged with – and later convicted of – an armed robbery of the Heritage Inn in Bozeman several weeks after the Pizza Hut homicide. Later convicted of the park slaying, Nickelson was never charged in connection with Randy’s death.
Soon after Randy’s homicide, police questioned James Livermore, 25, a man arrested in Livingston and charged with robbing a gas station there on February 9, 1985. In that incident, Livermore menaced the clerk of a Town Pump with a pistol and fled with $700. Authorities, however, could find no apparent connection between the robbery of the Livingston Town Pump and the shooting of Randy Church in Bozeman the next day. Two .22-caliber shells found at Pizza Hut could not be conclusively matched with the ballistics of the pistol that was used by Livermore.
New Mexico Prison Escapees
Ray B. Schrivner, 53, and Mark St. Clair, 37, escaped from a state prison in Albuquerque, New Mexico on January 7, 1985. St. Clair was serving 30 years for the murder of a New Mexico deputy sheriff, and Schrivner was serving 20 years for armed robbery and kidnapping. The two men stole a beige 1983 Mazda in Colorado and headed north from New Mexico through Montana to Saskatchewan, Canada, and were believed to have entered Canada north of Plentywood or Wolf Point.
The duo crossed the border the day after Randy was killed and were eventually arrested on February 21, 1985, by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) near Nipawin, Saskatchewan, near the city of Prince Albert.
A map authorities found in their vehicle had a route drawn on it from Colorado, where the vehicle was stolen, through Montana, entering Montana on Highway 87 southeast of Billings and continuing west to Bozeman. Several witnesses later claimed to have seen two similar looking strangers in the vicinity.
Sgt. Ron Green thought that the snowy tire tracks left at the Pizza Hut would be worth matching against the escapees’ vehicle; if the outlined map he had been informed of could definitely place them near Bozeman the night of February 10, 1985, he would have a hot lead. The escapee’s fingerprints were sent to the state crime lab in Missoula to check against prints taken at the scene. The results of these tests are unknown.
Green traveled to Prince Albert on March 18, 1995 to interview Schrivner and St. Clair. According to Green, he wflew from Bozeman to Winnipeg, and then to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. where he was escorted to Nipawin by the RCMP.
According to Detective Green, the duo seemed like the most likely suspects, linked by the map, as well as the shoe prints and tire tracks similar to those gathered at the crime, and, finally their own incriminating statements.
“It was at a time of a recent snowfall so car tracks, footprints were easily photographed,” says Ron Green, in 2020. “In the car was a map from Colorado to Montana. [The map went] from Billings to Bozeman, Montana, back to Billings, and crossing at the Canadian Border, near Plentywood, Montana. Not sure how they managed to cross the border... The RCMP called asking about crimes that had happened in Montana. After an interview with the suspects and getting certain information that they should not have known, seeing the shoes they were wearing and the tires on the car, I was certain they were involved. [We] brought the tires back on the plane and other info. This was all turned over to County Attorney, Marty Lambert, and items sent to FBI.”
The two fugitives fought against their extradition and lost. Green says that upon return to the US, the suspects were first held in North Dakota and then released to the custody of New Mexico authorities.
“The Gallatin County attorney, Marty Lambert, decided not to bring them to Bozeman for a hearing,” says Green. “They were being returned to prison in New Mexico, and they were being charged for escape, and had to finish out the original life in prison charges.”
According to information obtained from the Public Information Officer at the New Mexico Corrections Department, both Schrivner and St. Clair died “of natural causes” in prison.
“Not A Cold Unsolved Case”
Officer Ron Green planned to retire from the Bozeman Police Department in May 1985, but stayed on the job longer, hoping to close the books on the Randy Church murder.
“I really did believe they [the New Mexico prison escapees] were involved,” says Green in 2020. “Without my testimony at a hearing I was lost and felt it was the [Gallatin] County attorney [Marty Lambert] who did not want to waste his time if they were returning to prison.”
“I do not view this as a cold, unsolved case,” continues Green. “A hearing would have resolved this one way or the other. After my retirement, many detectives had tried to reopen the case without any new information to solving this. I am saddened by the fact this is still a cold case and, yes, I am reminded many times about this case without ever had being able to testify.”
Despite his strong inclination, Green concedes that there was not as much substantive evidence as he would have liked to pinpoint the New Mexico men to the crime – no witnesses, no ballistics, no confessions, and no weapon. Perhaps further obscuring the mystery of Randy’s death, police have never officially eliminated other suspects, including a man “who served time in Wisconsin for murder,” according to available police and media reports, and who “was in Bozeman at the time of the shooting and who knew Church.”
According to emails obtained between Bozeman authorities and members of the Church family, a remaining person of interest in the case is one of Randy’s co-employees at Bozeman Pizza Hut, someone who moved into the apartment at 301 W. Story, in Bozeman that Randy vacated shortly before his murder. On top of this, Bozeman authorities contacted several of Randy’s siblings in 2015 about obtaining a DNA sample, “to help separate the DNA from the crime scene, but then they never followed up,” says Rick Church.
Time and time again leads were established yet no charges in the killing of Randy Church were ever levied against anyone, a pattern deemed cruel and insufficient by his family and friends. Questioned about the media and police reports corroborating Green’s timeline of activities, Marty Lambert, now in his sixth term as Gallatin County attorney, declined to comment on the murder of Randy Church. He did say that he was “a homicide survivor and victim” and that he needed “to get conversant again in the status of the case and the investigation.”
“It’s almost a daily occurrence that Randy is a part of some thought,” says his friend Suzie Williams. “I wonder what it would be like for him to still be around, and what he would’ve done.”
Randy’s sister, Ruby Burney, says that her multiple questions about the lack of transparency in Randy’s death have yet to be answered.
“Why would you do that to him and his family? His mother and father didn’t get the answers they needed. Why is it that everybody has apparently forgotten about this case? I can’t forget about this case. It’s a part of my life.”
A Father’s Haunting Words
Two years after Randy’s murder, his father, Richard Church, told the Associated Press that he had “little hope” that authorities would ever track down and punish those who murdered his son. His bitterness was palpable.
“If they do find the guy, they won’t do anything about it,” Richard Church was quoted as saying. “They’ll throw him in prison and feed the sucker. And that ain’t good enough in my book…They should catch the guy and give him the same medicine he gave my son…and I’d like to do it.”
Richard, who passed in 2010, made sure he had his tombstone connected with Randy’s at the cemetery. Randy’s mother, Darlene, died in 2017. Three of Randy’s four siblings each named one of their children after their lost brother.
“If there is one thing in this world I would change, it would be going back to that Saturday night,” says his brother Robert Church. “I’d somehow go back to that Saturday night and get him out of there before he got killed."
Please visit the Justice for Randy Church Facebook page for additional information or to leave a tip about Randy’s case. For future “Unsolved Montana” suggestions, author Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org