Noting that the arsonist never fully took responsibility for his actions, a Billings judge on Tuesday sentenced Robert Eric Bottenhagen to 60 years in prison for his role in a 2013 Lockwood trailer fire that killed four people.
Bottenhagen, 22, and a co-defendant, Zaccary John Kern, both previously pleaded guilty to charges that their negligent actions in an April 2013 trailer fire resulted in the deaths of Amber-Marie Beyers, 33; Donavon Fogle, 25; Brandi Hansen Moats, 25; and Troy Saylor, 28, who all died of smoke inhalation.
Three of the victims were parents and two of them, Saylor and Fogle, were cousins, according to testimony.
Bottenhagen lit an apron on fire inside the trailer, according to investigators. The apron caught the kitchen counter on fire and then Kern and Bottenhagen, who were drunk, ran out of the house without waking the four victims or ever calling authorities to report the fire.
“Particularly troubling in the nature of this offense is that it so easily could have been avoided,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said as he recommended 60 years of a possible 80 years that could have been imposed for the four counts of negligent homicide against Bottenhagen.
The lead investigator in the case, Detective Frank Fritz of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, testified that a fire extinguisher was found in the trailer’s pantry, and that the victims were sleeping in rooms only feet away from where the fire started.
Twito went on to say that Bottenhagen, who pleaded guilty in April, recently claimed in a pre-sentence report that he stomped out a blaze at the trailer and that there was no fire when he and Kern left.
Judge Todd noted Bottenhagen’s claim and quoted another of Bottenhagen's statement made in the report:
“I believe the court should be pretty lenient on me because I have no prior felonies,” Bottenhagen stated. “I was too drunk to recognize what I was doing and I believe that one drinking accident should not imprison me for the majority of my life. It could happen to anyone.”
“That is insulting,” Twito said of Bottenhagen’s statement. “I’m sorry, but that is insulting to anyone with any sense of decency.”
Todd followed Twito’s recommendation and delivered the 60-year sentence just after 5:30 p.m. at the end of a 3 ½-hour hearing that included testimony from 10 of the victims’ family members.
“I will go to my grave knowing that my first born passed from this earth crying for me to help him and I wasn’t there for him,” Kim Saylor Woodcook said of her son, Troy Saylor, who was a father.
Fritz testified earlier in the hearing that Saylor was found on the trailer floor in the fetal position on a bedroom floor.
“I have nightmares about that all the time,” Woodcock said, sobbing.
As she spoke, many in the room could be heard weeping, and even the judge wiped tears from his eyes.
“I have to cling onto a teddy bear Troy gave me years ago to sleep,” she said, looking straight at Bottenhagen. “I cling onto it because I cry myself to sleep every night because I miss my son. What you have done has destroyed so many lives and hurt so many people.”
She said she prays constantly that God will lessen her hatred for Kern and Bottenhagen. “I want to go to heaven with my son, so it’s a big problem to hate them like I do."
Robyn Moats, the mother of Brandi Moats, spoke about standing outside crime scene tape for hours on April 18, 2013, smelling the charred trailer and waiting roughly eight hours to hear whether her daughter was one of the people found inside.
“To this day we can’t go camping, we can’t light a fire pit,” Moats said.
Around 5 p.m., a detective gathered the family members and announced the names of the victims.
“When he read out Brandi’s name — I felt a part of me die,” Moats said. “This couldn’t be real. The next thing I saw was them carrying out white body bags.”
Later that night, she said, the family got a call reporting the fire was arson.
Det. Fritz testified that investigators learned Kern and Bottenhagen happened to meet up with the four victims at a Billings bar on the night of April 17.
According to court records, it was “an all you can drink night” at the bar. Bottenhagen later admitted he had roughly five mixed drinks and 12 beers, after which he and Kern went to Fogle's mobile home on Hemlock Drive.
Detective Fritz testified that after the fatal fire, both Kern and Bottenhagen initially lied about their involvement, but that Kern later gave a full statement implicating Bottenhagen as the one who lit the apron on fire.
On April 18, 2013, Bottenhagen did a two-hour interview with detectives, who told him they already knew that he and Kern were involved in the fire.
Detective Fritz testified that Bottenhagen lied about burns on his hand and denied roughly 40 times that he had any involvement in the fire.
Bottenhagen's father, Dean Bottenhagen, and several others testified that Bottenhagen would never intentionally harm anyone or knowingly leave people to die in a fire.
"The first thing I would like to say here today is that I take responsibility for my actions and what has happened," Bottenhagen said Tuesday. "To the family of the deceased, I can’t fully understand your loss and I know that nothing I can say or do can ever replace them."
His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Gregory Paskell, pointed out that it was strikingly convenient that Kern got a lighter sentence, 35 years with 10 suspended, that the 60 years the state was seeking for Bottenhagen.
Paskell argued that Kern threw Bottenhagen “under the bus” and that the two were actually equally responsible for the fatal fire and should get the same sentence.
Detective Fritz testified several times that his investigation of the origin of the fire matched Kern's account of what happened.
Bottenhagen also asked that he recieve the same sentence as his co-defendant and be given a chance at rehabilitation and reintegration into the community.
“Rehabilitation first starts with admitting you’re having a problem, whether you’re an alcoholic and hitting bottom or whether it is acknowledging guilt," Judge Todd said, as the defendant stood and faced him. "I did not hear that from Mr. Bottenhagen today."