By MICHELLE MERLIN email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY -- Jason Anthony Ryan, newly charged in the 1996 rape and murder of Kalkaska resident Geraldine Montgomery, is no stranger to the criminal justice system.
Ryan, 35, built a criminal record that dates to his days as a juvenile, and increasingly had brushes with the law as an adult. He spent the years between 1998 and 2003 behind prison bars.
Authorities connected Ryan to Montgomery's slaying after new DNA tests placed him at the scene of the crime.
Detectives revisited the case after they were approached by officials with an organization called the Innocence Project on behalf of Jamie Lee Peterson, the man who originally was convicted of and imprisoned for the crime.
Details of Ryan’s youth aren't yet clear, but his brief placement in an alternative high school in Kalkaska speaks to a troubled adolescence.
Members of the Innocence Project said Ryan attended Flint Central High School and then dropped out, but the then-teen made an appearance at the Northside Educational Center in 1995, though he did not graduate. The Kalkaska school is an alternative high school for students who struggle in the main high school.
“(They’re) basically kids that are having trouble functioning in a traditional high school,” Northside principal Brian Harbour said. “A lot of our kids are homeless, a lot are in trouble with the law.”
Police interviewed Ryan about Montgomery's slaying as part of the original investigation, but he denied knowing anything about the incident, said Bob Carey, Peterson's original defense attorney.
A few months later, Ryan was arrested for a driving violation, and police, as a matter of routine, again asked him about the case, Carey said.
Ryan was given two polygraph tests, and after the first was inconclusive the second indicated he was not guilty, Carey said. Police took a sample of Ryan's saliva at the time but never tested it for a potential match to evidence left at the Montgomery crimes scene.
Carey, along with David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School and who represents Peterson, worked from the original police reports in the group's quest to probe Montgomery's death.
Ryan told police in 1996 he was staying with a man who years before had been convicted of rape. The man, who lived about two blocks from Montgomery’s house, called police with details about the case the day after the murder and was the first suspect in the investigation, Moran said.
“It’s a pretty good clue now as to how he would have known the details,” Moran said.
Ryan dodged serious scrutiny in 1996, but his first felony conviction quickly followed -- in 1997 -- when he pleaded guilty to breaking and entering a building with intent to commit a felony and attempt to receive and conceal stolen firearms. He originally was charged with second-degree home invasion and receiving and concealing firearms, but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge to lower the sentence, said Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney David Leyton, who started at that office in 2005 but reviewed relevant court documents.
Ryan violated his probation served a prison sentence from 1998 to 2003.
Once released, Ryan reverted back to his criminal past. He was arrested in 2004 for felony charges after breaking into a construction site and stealing equipment, but agreed to a deal on a lesser count, Leyton said.
Ryan has been arrested multiple times since then, but that was his last felony charge prior to the Montgomery charges.
“A lot of frequent fliers, we’ll recognize names,” said Leyton. “I don’t believe we’ve charged him since I’ve been in office.”
Ryan’s first adult conviction came in 1997 for possession of marijuana in Mount Morris, near Flint. Ryan was put on probation, which he later violated and then had to serve 90 days in jail, said Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan.
Ryan also was arrested in 1996 in Kalkaska on two separate occasions: he had one driving violation and one arrest on the suspicion of larceny under $100.
His most recent arrest was in May 2012, when he was charged with larceny in Richfield Township.
Kyle Trevas, Ryan's new court-appointed attorney, has only had time to briefly meet with Ryan.
"He seemed like a fairly regular person," said Trevas.