An escapee from Montana State Prison was shot to death by a Yellowstone County sheriff's deputy in Billings on Friday.
The unidentified deputy shot 42-year-old Dean Randolph Jess shortly before 1 p.m. on King Avenue West less than 20 yards from a crowded Wal-Mart parking lot.
Jess escaped from the prison in Deer Lodge on Monday, using a state vehicle to drive about a mile and a half from prison property. The ground search for Jess was called off Wednesday.
Witnesses to the shooting said sheriff's deputies surrounded a green Jeep Rubicon driven by Jess as he attempted to leave the Wal-Mart shopping center. Sheriff Mike Linder said an autopsy will be conducted to confirm that Jess was the man killed.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Linder said Jess was reported to be in the Billings area by a man who came into the sheriff's office Friday morning to report having received a phone call from the escapee.
"He just wanted to do the right thing," Linder said of the unidentified man.
It was first reported that Jess was near the Wal-Mart store in Laurel, but deputies, backed up by officers from the Laurel Police Department, found no sign of Jess there.
Two more important pieces of information subsequently became available, Linder said.
First, his office was notified by officials in Powell County, where the prison is located, that Jess had reportedly stolen a green Jeep Rubicon. Second, the sheriff's office was able to use the number on the phone of the man who had received a call from Jess to determine that that call had been made from a pay phone at the Wal-Mart on Billings' West End.
A sheriff's deputy driving back from Laurel swung past the West End Wal-Mart and saw a green Jeep Rubicon leaving the parking lot. Linder said that officer and two others who quickly joined him positioned their vehicles to block the Rubicon.
Linder arrived on the scene shortly thereafter and said he could see the man in the Rubicon holding a pistol in front of his chest. Linder said the deputies shouted at the man repeatedly to put the gun down and get out of the vehicle.
At one point, Linder said, one deputy shouted "Don't do it!"
"At that time, shots were fired," Linder said.
Just one deputy fired multiple rounds from his Glock 21 .45-caliber handgun, striking Jess an unknown number of times, Linder said. Deputies then broke into the Jeep and pulled Jess from the vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Linder said the deputy, who was placed on leave pending an investigation of the shooting, evidently thought Jess was raising the gun in his direction. Linder said he was behind the deputy when the shooting happened and couldn't see where Jess's gun was at that point.
"The deputy felt that his life was in danger," Linder said.
King Avenue West was shut down for several hours during and after the standoff.
Witnesses at the scene said at least six deputies surrounded the Jeep, and after several minutes of shouting at Jess to drop his gun they tried to smash out the Rubicon's windows with their batons, without success.
Witnesses thought they heard four shots.
“Everyone was pointing guns at the car and then I heard ‘Get out of the car. Get out of the car. Get out of the car,’" said one bystander who was stopped at the intersection right behind the sheriff’s vehicle that pulled Jess over. "But the guy didn’t move. Then they started breaking the glass and then pop, pop, pop, pop."
Immediately after the shots were fired, Jess was pulled from the vehicle and set on the ground, where he was motionless. The hatchback of the Rubicon was opened to reveal camping equipment and what appeared to be fishing waders. On the door of the Rubicon was the name “Montana Big Horn Ranch,” a property roughly eight miles northeast of Anaconda on Modesty Creek, about 32 miles from the Montana State Prison.
Jess was described by prison officials as "not a problem inmate" and had worked with the prison motor vehicle maintenance program since 2006.
Jess was serving a 55-year prison sentence for a felony sex offense in Park County.