JUSTICE FOR TONY

Life sentences for killers of former Columbus boy
Thursday, September 8, 2022
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Tony Renova shows the smile he was know for as a Columbus child. He was also known for his love of super heroes — especially Spider Man. (Courtesy photo)

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The killers of a former Columbus 5-year-old have been sentenced to 100 years in prison for the brutal murder committed in 2019.

Making the crime even more horrendous is the fact that it was his biological parents who murdered him — less than a year after being returned to their custody.

Tony had been raised from birth by a Columbus family — Jeff and Christy Foster — who wanted to adopt him.

Eight months after being taken from the Fosters and returned to his birth parents, Tony Renova was found dead as a result of a severe beating in Great Falls.

Emilio Renova and Stephanie Byington were sentenced at the end of July, after the case was delayed due to the COVID pandemic. A third person, Racso Birdtail, was also charged in the case. All three entered into plea agreements.

Renova, 33, pleaded no contest to Deliberate Homicide and was sentenced to 100 years in the Montana State Prison without the possibility of parole. Already on his record were convictions for felony Aggravated Assault in 2011 and Robbery in 2015, both committed in Yellowstone County, according to the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC).

Byington, 34, was sentenced to 100 years in the Montana State Women’s Prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years for Accountability to Deliberate Homicide, plus a concurrent 15 years for Criminal Child Endangerment. She had previously been convicted of Endangering the Welfare of Children and Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs, both in 2015 in Yellowstone County, according to DOC. She will be eligible for parole at age 64.

Birdtail, 26, drew a sentence of 15 years in the Montana State Prison for Accountability to Assault and Evidence Tampering, according to the Associated Press.

Judge Elizabeth Best said that the three had “made the very short life of a child into a life of misery, worse than some think than death itself,” according to the Associated Press and Montana Right Now.

Christy Foster told the News this week that she was satisfied with the sentences.

“The judge was fair in her sentencing and I’m happy that Tony finally got some justice for the horror he had to endure. It won’t bring him back, but I feel he’s at peace now,” said Christy Foster. The convictions and prison sentences don’t bring Foster peace, but they do give her something important.

“Knowing that these people will not ever be able to terrorize defenseless children again helps. It doesn’t really give me any peace, but it does give closure,” said Christy.

DEVASTATING DETAILS OF THE DEATH

Great Falls Police were called to the home and arrived to find Tony bleeding from the nose and mouth, covered in bruises and cuts, with a cut on his forehead and a possible broken leg. He was declared deceased on scene.

Police found videos on his parents’ phones showing the boy being punished by being required to hold cans or his arms over his head and another showing the boy getting hit in the head or slapped for wetting himself, according to the Associated Press.

Birdtail was carrying a bag containing bloody items and alcoholic beverage cans to the garbage when officers arrived, court records said. A witness reported Birdtail also egged Renova on while Renova beat Tony.

Two other children who were in the couple’s care at the time of Tony’s death were removed.

TONY’S PATH TO COLUMBUS

Tony was placed with Jeff and Christy Foster in Columbus in 2014. He was less than a month old and was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Both parents were incarcerated at the time of his birth, according to the family and reports in the Great Falls Tribune.

The couple wanted to adopt Tony and knowing it was important to keep him tied to his heritage, often took him to pow wows and other Native American events.

In 2018, the Fosters learned that the Crow Tribal Court was leaning toward returning Tony to his birth parents. Because the Fosters are not Native American, they were not allowed to plead their case or even attend any of the tribal court proceedings. (Even in district courts, Foster parents have no rights to children for whom they are caring). A tribal judge ruled that Tony be returned to his biological parents. There was a transition period that involved both parents being required to get jobs and somewhere to live. Visitations were initially supervised, which morphed into overnight visits.

The last time the Fosters saw Tony was in March 2019.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Tony was returned to his biological parents by order of a Crow Reservation tribal judge under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). That judge’s order forced CPS to facilitate a reunion between Tony and his eventual killers.

ICWA was enacted in 1978 as a means to protect Native American and Alaska Native children. At the time, studies showed that 85 percent of the native children who were being removed from their homes were being placed outside their families and communities.

Congress’s intent was to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families,” according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

The ICWA applies to children who are members of a federally recognized tribe/ Alaska Native village or are eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe/ Alaska Native village and is the biological child of a member of a federally recognized tribe/Alaska Native village.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association states that the law is not based on race, but rather “applies to children who are citizens (referred to as “members” in ICWA) of a federally recognized tribe.”