Local teenager sentenced to 10 years in prison after vandalism spree

Wednesday, October 31, 2018
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Evan Decker talks with his attorney, Karl Knuchel, during his sentencing hearing Wednesday morning in District Court. (Enterprise photo by Nate Howard)

A Livingston teenager who pleaded guilty to seven felony charges after a vandalism spree last year was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Wednesday morning — twice the sentence jointly recommended by the prosecution and defense.

Evan James Decker, 18, was charged in August 2017 for vandalism that included starting a fire in the pressroom of The Livingston Enterprise, damage to the Livingston City Pool, slashing tires and burglary.

Decker pleaded guilty in July to four felony counts of criminal mischief, two felony counts of burglary, and one felony count of arson. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the prosecution agreed to drop two misdemeanor charges and recommend a prison sentence of five years in prison with five additional years suspended for each charge, to run at the same time.

District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert accepted the change of plea at a hearing on July 30. Gilbert was not bound, however, by the sentencing recommendations and could impose prison terms of up to 10 years for each count of criminal mischief and 20 years for each count of arson and burglary.

But at the Wednesday hearing, Gilbert told Decker she didn’t think the plea agreement provided enough prison time for him to take responsibility for his crimes and be rehabilitated. She then sentenced Decker to 10 years in prison with five suspended for each of the four charges of criminal mischief, 15 years in prison with five suspended for each charge of burglary, and 15 years in prison with five suspended for the charge of arson. The sentences are to be served at the same time, and Decker was credited for 461 days of time served.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, if Judge Gilbert imposed a harsher sentence than that recommended, Decker has the right to withdraw his guilty plea and take the case to trial. At the request of Decker’s defense attorney Karl Knuchel, Gilbert stayed the sentence until Monday to give Decker time to decide.

Gilbert also ordered Decker to stay 500 feet away from all victims of his crimes, pay court fines, and pay $224,986.55 in restitution for damages, including $153,294.85 to Liberty Mutual Insurance for damages to The Livingston Enterprise, $12,603.41 to the city of Livingston for damage to the city pool, and $11,607.79 to the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority for damage to the pool.

Decker, who turned 18 in June, was 17 when the crimes occurred, but he was charged as an adult. Gilbert set Decker’s bail at $950,000, and he has been incarcerated since his arrest last July, first at the juvenile detention center in Billings, then at the Park County Detention Center. He has no prior criminal or juvenile convictions.

The prosecutor, Deputy Park County Attorney Kathleen Carrick, called only one witness, Nancy Kessler, who testified that Decker had caused nearly $21,000 worth of damage by theft and vandalism to her property. Her insurance company had covered most of it, Kessler said, but she had paid $6,703 out of pocket, had suffered mental harm, and had lost time she couldn’t get back.

“I don’t feel safe around him. I fear for my life,” Kessler testified in the Wednesday hearing. “He broke into my house with a blow torch.”

Kessler, who said her bedroom window is 50 feet from Decker’s house, called on the court to impose a restraining order against him.

“I am terrified of him and I don’t want him near me,” she said.

However, Kessler also said she did not want Decker to go to prison.

“I have no desire to see this young man go to jail,” she said. “I want Evan to get the help he needs.”

The defense, led by attorney Karl Knuchel, called three witnesses who testified about Decker’s character and pleaded with the court to give him a second chance.

The defendant’s mother, Elise Decker, described Decker as a hard worker and a thoughtful, loving brother.

“He used to not so much think about things before he did them,” Elise Decker said. “I think he’s changed during these last 461 days. I’ve watched him grow up.”

“He did what he did, he admitted what he did,” she continued. “I would like him to get a chance now.”

Next to the stand was Evan’s father, Ron Decker, who backed the claim that Decker had changed since being incarcerated.

“When Evan was first arrested and sent over to Billings, I seen a young man that was troubled, a young man that had issues,” Ron Decker told the court. Over the next year though, he said, he watched Evan grow up and become a man.

“I think this (case) has been a little bit political because The Enterprise was involved and because Nancy Kessler has given her account so vividly,” he continued.

He said The Enterprise had overly and unfairly covered the case.

“Every time somebody sneezed, it was front-page news,” he said. “Let’s back off now and give him a chance.”

Dixie Bullock, an older woman who said Decker used to work for her, testified that Decker “was a good boy, is a good boy.”

“Perhaps whatever pushed him are things that some of us should have recognized and didn’t,” Bullock said. “People who don’t have children have no idea what it’s like in this day and age to raise them.”

Before Gilbert delivered the sentence, Evan Decker himself elected to address the court.

“When I was arrested, I thought I was on top of the world,” Decker said. “I thought I had all this power, and I could do whatever I wanted.”

Then, he said, he realized that what he did hurt people, and realized he wouldn’t want the same thing “to happen to his stuff.”

“I’ve spent a lot of nights thinking about what I did,” he said. “If I get out in five years, I will work as hard as I can to pay it back.

“I messed up and I am sorry.”

After the sentencing hearing, Decker’s family gathered to say goodbye before the guards took him away. One of his young brothers, his plaid cowboy shirt tucked into his jeans, broke from the group and walked by himself out of the courtroom, crying.

As a victim of Decker’s crimes, The Enterprise was invited by the prosecution to make a statement to the court before sentencing. Though no Enterprise representative appeared at the hearing, Enterprise Publisher John Sullivan wrote in an Oct. 23 letter to Gilbert that the terms of the plea agreement were not sufficient.

“We think five years imprisonment — particularly with the chance it could be reduced (by parole) — is insufficient punishment for the scope, scale and impact of (Decker’s) crimes. We feel it sends improper signals to others who may contemplate such wanton mischief in our community,” Sullivan wrote.

In light of the likelihood that Decker would never be able to generate sufficient funds “to even make a dent in the total damages he has caused our company,” Sullivan continued, he urged the court to consider a “more realistic and exemplary sentence in this matter.”