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With deception case settled, Ell takes on tampering with witness charge

Cynthia Ell was back in court again on Tuesday.

Ell, whose theft by deception case wrapped up in February, now faces a tampering with a witness charge for what she allegedly did leading up to her last case’s trial date.

Southwest Judicial District Judge Dann Greenwood found probable cause to bind the tampering case over for trial at the preliminary hearing Tuesday. Ell, of Dickinson, pleaded not guilty.

Dickinson police Sgt. Nick Gates testified that after hearing that Raymond Hecker, the victim in Ell’s original case, was getting mysterious calls starting in December. The police sargeant set up a tracker and later a recorder on Hecker’s home phone.

A man named “Pastor Bill” made repeated calls to him, with his wife, “Lois,” also making an appearance. The “pastor” would tell Hecker to tell the truth — that Ell was innocent and make other statements in efforts to persuade him to drop the charges against Ell — so Hecker would go to heaven.

Once, the callers even threatened to torch his farm if he didn’t give in. The calls came between December and February as Ell’s March trial approached.

After setting up a tracker, Gates was able to determine the majority of the calls came from a phone registered to Ell’s husband — their home phone. The calls were excessive, with 23 made in one 24-hour period. A cellphone, later determined to be associated with Ell, was also used to make calls to Hecker.

Hecker is about 80 years old and lives alone in rural Billings County.

When given the chance to cross-examine Gates on Tuesday, Ell brought up that her cordless house phones had been stolen, and that they worked in a wide range around the house.

“So those calls could’ve been made by anybody,” she said.

Ell did not have a lawyer at the hearing.

Ell pleaded guilty in February to Class B felony theft by deception in a deal that allowed her to avoid immediate jail time. She was sentenced to one year of house arrest and 10 years’ imprisonment suspended for 10 years.

She was charged with taking money that added up to more than a half-million dollars from Hecker. The money came in 10 installments between July and November 2012 and was meant for medical costs and later as loans to be paid back after she got a multi-million dollar settlement from a botched surgery. But police testified in that case that the money went to vehicles for Ell’s children, among other things.

The lynchpin of the tampering with witness charge comes when “Lois,” allegedly Ell, tells Hecker “the only way this can be stopped” is if Hecker were to “call the state’s attorney and stop it.”

Gates later recorded some of the phone calls and heard the female caller. He said he recognized Ell’s voice from previous interviews with her, although could tell she was trying to disguise her voice with accents.

“This was someone that was trying to disguise their voice and not going a very good job at it,” he said.

In his investigation, Dickinson Police Detective Jeremy Moser brought Ell’s daughter in to listen to the recording. The daughter identified the voice as Ell’s, Moser testified.

In this Class C felony case, she faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 if convicted.

The man who is charged with playing “Pastor Bill” on the calls, Carl Mallison, faces the same charge and has a jury trial set for July 23. Ell’s trial is set for August.