Jacob Standing Elk
BILLINGS, Montana (Billings Gazette) — A teenager was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison after pleading no contest to charges he sped head-on at another car in the Billings Heights in 2018, killing the driver and hospitalizing the passenger.
Jacob Lane Standing Elk, 18, was sentenced to 30 years in prison with 10 years suspended in the death of 20-year-old Haley Hutzenbiler on Sept. 23, 2018.
The daylong hearing took place at MetraPark to accommodate social distancing. Roughly 150 chairs were set out, and most were full throughout the day.
Members of the victim’s family broke out in applause after Judge Colette Davies handed down the sentence, but the judge admonished them, saying there was “nothing to applaud here today.”
A member of Standing Elk’s family then began shouting and crying, and those sitting next to her grabbed hold of her.
The defense had asked the judge for a sentence that avoided prison time.
Standing Elk was 16 when he was charged. Because of his age, the judge will reconsider his sentence 90 days before he turns 21, or in a little more than two years.
Under Montana law, inmates are eligible for parole after serving one-quarter of their sentence.
Standing Elk was driving at least 123 mph on Wicks Lane when he struck Hutzenbiler’s car. The gas pedal was fully depressed and no brakes were applied, according to crash data pulled from the car’s electronic system. He was driving the wrong direction in Hutzenbiler’s lane. Hutzenbiler’s car was stopped.
Hutzenbiler was pronounced dead on the scene, while her best friend and passenger, Mattea Staples, was hospitalized with multiple broken bones in her ribs and arms. The women were driving to a convenience store for late-night snacks before watching a movie.
Dispatchers received a call reporting the fatal crash just minutes after getting a 911 call from a friend of Standing Elk, saying she believed he was suicidal.
Standing Elk had his BAC tested the day after the crash and it showed an alcohol level of 0.206, or more than twice the legal limit.
Standing Elk was involved in two crashes that night, having struck another vehicle on Wicks Lane, blocks away from the fatal crash and moments earlier. In that wreck, Standing Elk was accused of driving directly into oncoming traffic before a 17-year-old driver swerved out of the way. Standing Elk then “made a sharp turn” into the rear of the 17-year-old’s truck and hit it.
Hutzenbiler was pursuing a teaching degree at Montana State University Billings and dreamed of having her own classroom, friends and family testified. She worked in the after-school program at YMCA and her eyes “would light up” when she saw one of the kids from the program out in public, her sister, Taylor Hutzenbiler said. Taylor Hutzenbiler said her younger sister gave her purpose.
She was remembered for stopping by her grandparents’ with ice cream in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter. She wrote gratitude lists in her journal. She liked to go shopping and she “always made sure her eyebrows were perfect,” Taylor Hutzenbiler said. She was even voted “best eyebrows” in the Skyview High School yearbook, Staples noted, to chuckles from the audience.
Seven-hundred people attended Hutzenbiler’s funeral, her dad said.
Jeff Hutzenbiler, Haley’s dad, spoke about opening his front door that night in 2018 to see someone in a county coroner’s jacket. He said holidays now were “wrecked, done.” Not only did he lose his daughter, but he lost out on the children she may have had some day. He said he rereads old text messages from Haley. Sometimes at work, he has to step outside “and cry like a baby.”
“My misery owns me,” he said.
Jeff Hutzenbiler addressed Standing Elk, reminding him that his family would still get to see him and talk to him.
“Think about that,” he said.
Terri Hutzenbiler, Haley’s mom, said Standing Elk had “every right to take his own life,” but not to take her daughter’s. She and other family of the victim called Standing Elk’s act “selfish.”
Skyview High School teacher Tamra Kenny spoke, saying she hadn’t planned to speak, and had considered not attending the hearing, but decided to. She said Hutzenbiler’s death “shook our community to the core,” but that the school staff also grieved for Standing Elk. Hutzenbiler graduated from Skyview in 2016. Standing Elk also attended the school.
Kenny said she was “tired of losing students of all walks of life to suicide,” and said more needed to be done to prevent suicide “so that we don’t end up here.”
Standing Elk’s mom, Autumn, said on the day of the fatal crash in 2018, her son had been with her and the rest of the family at Saturday Live and that she said goodnight to him at 11 p.m. She said she saw no signs her son was feeling suicidal.
“If I had seen something, I would have intervened,” she said, wiping away tears.
Standing Elk’s dad, Jason, told Hutzenbiler’s family he had tried to reach out earlier to express sympathies. He said that he has lost family, including a brother, but did not know what it felt like to lose a son or daughter.
Standing Elk spoke briefly, saying he read all of the letters by Hutzenbiler’s family in advance of sentencing and understood the hate they felt toward him.
“There is no one to blame, not even alcohol,” he said. “Just myself.”
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito asked for 40 years in prison, emphasizing that because of Standing Elk’s age, state law requires that the judge review her sentence in a little more than two years and can reduce it if she feels he is rehabilitating himself.
Twito said prison was necessary to keep the community safe and to hold Standing Elk accountable. He noted testimony from a private crash expert the state hired that said Standing Elk had 12 seconds between the first, non-fatal crash and the second, fatal crash to “come to his senses” and choose not to hurt another person.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Twito said. “This was an intentional act.”
Defense attorney Lisa Bazant said sending her client to prison would only expose him to further criminalization.
“He’s a kid,” she said. “He was a kid then,” when he killed Hutzenbiler.
Bazant said the defense did not agree that Standing Elk was “headlight hunting” that night, or that he was intending to kill other people. She quoted from an evaluation done on Standing Elk that said it didn’t appear he intended to harm anyone other than himself. She stressed that his suicidal messages that prompted friends to call 911 did not mention harming other people.
Standing Elk was taken to the hospital that morning with multiple broken bones, a torn aorta, a collapsed lung and liver damage.
Before handing down her sentence, Davies acknowledged both the victim’s and defendant’s families.
“There is palpable pain in this room, and it sits on both sides of the aisle,” the judge said.
Davies said prison was necessary, in part because she did not have enough assurance that the community would be safe if Standing Elk experienced another period of mental health problems.
Prosecutors originally charged Standing Elk with deliberate homicide but reduced the charge to mitigated deliberate homicide under a plea agreement. In February, he pleaded no contest to mitigated deliberate homicide and assault with a weapon.
The mandatory minimum of two years in prison for mitigated deliberate homicide did not apply to Standing Elk because he was younger than 18 at the time of the crime, Twito said.
Standing Elk was ordered to pay $46,747.53 in restitution, in part to cover funeral expenses.
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