On March 24, 2012, a drunken driver upended 49-year-old Michael Gilmer’s life.
He was riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle — a gift from his girlfriend for being sober for 10 years — on Highway 3 near Billings Logan International Airport when a drunken 23-year-old Julius James Big Lake rear-ended him and then tried to run away from the crash on foot.
The wreck sent the bike and Gilmer, who was wearing a helmet and protective clothing, skidding about 250 feet.
He suffered multiple broken bones in his arms and legs and other injuries “too long to list.”
Before the crash, Gilmer rode his motorcycle daily from Roundup, where he lives with and takes care of his disabled mother, to Billings, where he worked an $8-an-hour manual labor job.
Although he had Type 2 diabetes, Gilmer says he prided himself on being able to outwork co-workers half his age. After spending years in federal prison, he was "proud of the changes he had made" in his life.
That pride was subdued after the crash. Gilmer spent 10 weeks in a hospital. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills later, he is able to walk, but deals with chronic pain and is fully disabled.
"The stress was unbelievable. How was I going to support myself? I only knew physical labor," he wrote in a letter to the judge in the case describing the impact the crash has had on his life.
While he was in the hospital, he and his girlfriend, Karen Baucke, found out she was pregnant. Gilmer said the stress caused her to miscarry.
“We buried our son on Father’s Day,” he said.
The letter was read Tuesday in court, where District Judge Gregory R. Todd sentenced Big Lake, who has no prior felonies or DUIs, to six years with the state Department of Corrections, with three years suspended. Big Lake must also pay $2,000 in fines and $25,000 in restitution.
As he was taken into custody, members of Big Lake's family wept in the courtroom.
Gilmer wasn’t there for the sentencing. In his absence, Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Chris Morris read Gilmer’s letter aloud.
In addition to the other difficulties he’s faced, Gilmer wrote that he’s had a heart attack since the crash, suffers memory loss and his diabetes is "now out of control.”
“I still have horrible pain,” he said.
In the letter, Gilmer listed the things he’s lost since the crash: His motorcycle, his job, his sobriety, his mobility, his son, his health, his self-confidence and his pride.
“All this because someone got into a car with no regard for my life, drove over 100 mph and ran over me in broad daylight, then wasn’t man enough to stay at the scene of the accident. Oh, and he did it (without) insurance!”
With the help of witnesses, Big Lake was arrested soon after the wreck. In February, he took a plea deal, admitting he drove drunk causing serious injury to Gilmer, and then left the scene without reporting the accident.
Big Lake apologized before the sentence was issued Tuesday. “I’d give him a hug if he was here,” he said of Gilmer.
Gilmer laughed when he heard that.
“Well, you can quote me — that wouldn’t be a very good idea,” Gilmer told The Gazette Tuesday from his home in Roundup.
“Part of me wanted to see the kid get 20 years,” he said. But, he said, that wouldn’t help Big Lake deal with alcoholism.
“I hate to see the young man’s life ruined and I don’t see prison as something that’s conducive to changing your life.”
Gilmer ought to know.
“I had kind of a wild youth and I ended up having to go to prison,” he said. “I was a drug addict. I was doing drugs, selling drugs to feed my own habit.”
In October 2001, Gilmer was involved in an altercation in Helena and that ended with him firing a handgun and another man being roughed up, which all led to Gilmer being convicted of multiple state and federal charges and serving time on a 97-month federal sentence.
While in prison, Gilmer said he had time to reflect — and to get sober.
“I would tell Mr. Big Lake this is an opportunity for him,” Gilmer said. “I think that, you know, he’s young. He has an opportunity to set an example … to make a difference in his own family’s life.”
“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Gilmer said. "Everything has consequences. I want my consequences to be good ones.”
Gilmer explained that, after the crash, he learned a vehicle nearly involved in the crash had a baby in it.
“I’m glad I could take the hit for that,” he said. “Maybe I saved somebody’s life. And, you know, I was never able to think like that (before).”
Despite the devastating impact of the crash, Gilmer says he's doing "OK."
“You know," he said. "My beautiful girlfriend bought me another Harley to replace the one that was broken, and I’m walking and I’m riding.”