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A Gallatin County judge reduced bail Wednesday from $500,000 to $25,000 for a Florida man arrested in connection to a string of thefts last month believed to be part of an organized crime ring. The decision came as protesters and attorneys inside and out of the courtroom argued the high bail was excessive, oppressive and based on “his race and not the criminal history and the facts of this case.”

Joshua David Blair, who is black, is charged with conspiracy to commit theft, criminal mischief, tampering with evidence and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, all felonies. He is one of four people arrested in connection to a string of car break-ins at parks and trailheads that have been tied to the Felony Lane Gang, a Florida-based crime ring that has garnered national attention for its “smash and grabs.”

Blair appeared in Gallatin County District Court before Judge John Brown with attorney Elizabeth Musick. In court on Wednesday, Musick said Blair was accused of a property crime and that his bail was set at $500,000 because of his race. She said he doesn’t have a criminal history, and that the high bail didn’t reflect the facts of the case.

“It’s not the crime of the century,” Musick said.

Musick read a list of other cases in which defendants received lesser bail for serious charges, such as negligent homicide and vehicular homicide while under the influence. She said the high bail amount was “excessive and oppressive.”

“It just doesn’t add up, your honor,” Musick said. “This is not an appropriate case for a $500,000 bond.”

Bail was set at $500,000 for each of the other three people arrested in connection to the thefts. Andrea Latie Monroe, Xavier Avanti Taylor and Elmer Denaro Ellison are each charged with conspiracy to commit theft, criminal mischief and tampering with evidence, all felonies.

The three co-defendants have more extensive criminal histories, according to charging documents, and have each filed a request for a hearing to lower their bails.

All four have pleaded not guilty to the charges and have been held at the Gallatin County jail since May.

Gallatin County Justice of the Peace Bryan Adams set bail for all four co-defendants after hearing arguments from the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office. Justice court typically sets high bail amounts that can be lowered when a matter is turned over to the district court.

Judge Brown agreed with Musick and said that the alleged violations are serious property crimes but don’t deserve such a high bail. He said his decision takes into consideration Blair’s lack of criminal history and the support he has from family.

Brown reiterated that he continued bail set at the lower court and asked Musick to request a hearing to lower the bail, which he typically does. He refuted Musick’s accusation that the decision was based on Blair’s race.

“Before I go through and issue the conditional release order, just for the record, I will tell you that this court does not set bail, Ms. Musick, on the basis of race,” he said.

On April 30 and May 1, law enforcement received several reports of car break-ins near Lindley Park, Peets Hill, Bozeman Pond, the Bozeman Softball Complex and the Cherry River Fishing Access. Court documents say the four broke car windows to steal purses, electronics, and wallets with credit cards and licenses.

Detectives found Monroe and Taylor driving in a car that a witness confirmed was seen at one of the places the group targeted, court documents say. Police released Monroe and Taylor but followed them back to their vacation rental, on West Shore Drive near Belgrade, and confirmed the car was the same one seen at the sports complex.

Detectives then arrested Taylor, Monroe, Blair and Ellison. During a search of the home, police said, they found stolen items from the break-ins hidden in trash cans and inside packed luggage waiting at the front door of the house, court documents say. Police said they found seven wigs scattered under a refrigerator and a couch, and stolen IDs and credit cards.

In court on Wednesday, Peemui Blair, Joshua’s mother, and Nordam Blair, Joshua’s aunt, both testified that Joshua was trustworthy, helped pay the family’s bills and had never been in trouble with law enforcement. Peemui said she’d buy Joshua a plane ticket to return to Florida if his bail was lowered, and that she’d have him enroll in online classes and start working right away.

“He’s going to be under my eyes, my watch, at all times,” Peemui Blair said.

However, both women said they were unaware that Joshua had left to Montana.

Prosecutor Erin Murphy tried to use that to argue that, if Joshua were to post bail, he couldn’t be trusted to make his court appearances.

“I don’t believe that we have sufficient guarantees that he would return,” she said.

On the lawn in front of the Law and Justice Center, around 75 protesters supporting Bozeman United for Racial Justice shouted “Justice for Joshua” and “25,000.” The number represented the bail the group deemed fair for the defendant.

The group issued a news release Tuesday night announcing the rally and criticizing Blair’s original bond amount.

“White people in Gallatin County charged with similar or far more egregious crimes have been given a bond as much as ten times lower than Joshua’s,” the release said. “Joshua’s incarceration and the absurd, half-a-million dollar bond separating him from freedom and his family lay bare the racist inequalities that define America.”

The group’s news release referenced individuals including Brody Broles, a white man arrested for sexual abuse of children, strangulation and assault. His bond was set at $50,000. It also references Gary Adams, a white man arrested for burglary. His bond was set at $35,000.

The crowd’s chanting could be heard inside the courtroom — an organizer said they wanted the judge to know there were a lot of people supporting the bail reduction. Protest organizers occasionally paused chants and asked attendees to call the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office to request that Blair’s bail be reduced.

They also asked protesters to donate money to a GoFundMe to help pay for his bond. So far Bozeman United for Racial Justice has raised around $1,800 out of a $2,500 goal to pay for Blair to return home and see his family.

Because of his incarceration, Blair missed the birth of his child, organizers said.

Julie Brogdon, a song and chant leader for Bozeman United for Racial Justice, said she was upset about the situation.

“It’s clearly based on discrimination and racism, and doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “It’s 2020.”

Justice Geddes has been attending Bozeman United for Racial Justice rallies since the group formed. He said he’s been having conversations with his dad, a lawyer, about bail reform, and feels the bail bond system is classist.

When organizers got word that Blair’s bail was reduced from $500,000 to $25,000, cheers erupted in the crowd. Protestors sang “Freedom” by Beyonce.

Shortly after the rally organizers announced Blair’s bail had been reduced, a man could be seen driving by the protesters, flipping them off.

“It [the bail reduction] wouldn’t have happened if people had not been paying attention,” said Lyla Brown, an organizer. “Just because one person is out doesn’t mean the system is fixed.”

Brown said Wednesday’s rally is just the beginning. Bozeman United for Racial Justice is hosting a meeting on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Bozeman Pond.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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