Zaccary John Kern was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in prison, with 10 years suspended, for his role in a Lockwood trailer home fire that killed four people — three of them parents of young children — in April 2013
His voice trembling and hands shaking, 22-year-old Kern turned and addressed the dozens of victims' family members who were packed into a Yellowstone County courtroom for the sentencing.
“I know that me panicking and my lack of judgment that night has changed your lives forever, and I’m extremely sorry,” Kern said. “I’m not going to ask for your forgiveness because I don’t expect that from you.”
Kern, who has said he was “drinking and being stupid” the night of the fatal blaze, previously admitted that he and another 22-year-old, Robert Eric Bottenhagen, set fires in a trailer at 206 Hemlock Drive in Lockwood on April 18, 2013.
Both men have admitted they made no attempt to contact firefighters or to wake the people sleeping in the trailer after Bottenhagen set fire to an apron in the kitchen. The fire resulted in the death of Amber-Marie Beyers, 33; Brandi Hansen Moats, 25; Donavon Fogle, 25; and Fogle’s cousin, 28-year-old Troy Saylor.
“I couldn’t imagine what you’re going through,” a weeping Kern told the family members. “It hurts real bad.”
“Like burning alive?” a woman interjected from the back of the courtroom.
Before the sentence was issued, multiple people — several of them mothers of the victims — gave gut-wrenching tributes to the four killed in the fire, saying the victims were good parents, decent people, hard workers, well-loved and loving.
“The impact of this crime is devastating. It will never end,” said Betty Beyers, the mother of Amber-Marie Beyers, who was a mother of three young children.
Some also expressed outrage — saying the fire was intentional and wishing Kern and Bottenhagen would die.
“It was all caused by two foolish murderers. That’s what they are — murderers,” said Jesse Saylor, the younger brother of Troy Saylor and cousin of Fogle.
One person testified on Kern's behalf, his mother, Tennyson Gabel. She apologized for her son's actions, but explained that the fire has devastated her family as well.
"I know that our family tragedy in no way compares to your family tragedy," Gabel said, going on to say her son didn't intend to hurt anyone.
She said Kern's son will also now grow up without his father around.
"But I know the victims also had children and, again, we're not trying to compare the loss to yours," Gabel said.
After all the testimony, presiding Judge Russell C. Fagg addressed Kern, acknowledging that the man pleaded guilty to the charges, but going on to say the suffering Kern has caused is “unaccountable.”
“Of course, probably the worst part of it is you orphaned eight children,” Fagg said.
The judge said negligent homicide is the most difficult crime to sentence "because in this case four people lost their lives, and it was unintentional," he said.
The judge followed prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation, which was part of a plea deal with Kern.
“I hope this just gives the family members some closure, that one of the offenders has been sentenced,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said after the hearing.
He said that in making the sentencing recommendation, his office looked at sentences in comparable cases and took into consideration Kern’s cooperation with authorities.
“Obviously, on a personal level I can’t imagine what the families are going through, and I certainly appreciate their right to express their wishes to the court today,” he said.
As part of his plea deal, Kern agreed to give a full account of what happened the night of the fire and to testify against Bottenhagen, who was scheduled to go on trial April 30, but pleaded guilty to charges on April 15, just short of a year after the fatal fire.
In his plea agreement, Kern stated he and Bottenhagen had been at bar with the four victims prior to the fatal fire.
According to testimony, they had attended a $5-all-you-can-drink-beer-night at the Wild West bar, which has since closed, and then went to an after-party at Fogle’s home in Lockwood.
The four victims went to bed, leaving Kern and Bottenhagen in the living room.
While Bottenhagen was in another room, Kern lit a napkin on fire and then put it out or let it burn out.
Bottenhagen returned and asked what the smell was. Kern said he told Bottenhagen about the fire, and that Bottenhagen then lit an apron in the kitchen on fire.
Bottenhagen then started flicking the apron up and down, Kern said. Part of the burning apron landed on the kitchen counter, almost immediately igniting an area of several square feet, Kern said.
The two men said they attempted to put the fire out but couldn't and then ran outside. Kern said he told Bottenhagen they needed to go back inside, but neither did so. They also didn't attempt to wake anyone in the house. Neither of them called authorities to report the fire.
Frank Fritz, one of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s detectives who investigated the fire, testified Wednesday that had Kern and Bottenhagen taken the time to wake the four victims, there would have been time for everyone to get out safely.
The detective confirmed the results of the investigation of the fire lined up with Kern’s account of how the blaze started.
Kern also previously admitted he told people not to say anything to police about his involvement with the incident.
Fritz said Kern and Bottenhagen both initially lied to investigators, saying they left the trailer before the fire started.
Bottenhagen pleaded guilty April 15 to four counts of negligent homicide and is scheduled to be sentenced on July 1. He could face up to 80 years prison.
Bottenhagen's plea agreement indicates the state will seek a sentence totaling 60 years with the state Department of Corrections. However, Bottenhagen will be able to argue for a shorter sentence.