By noon, the crowd was already pushing 300.
Once the rally began 15 minutes later, nearly 400 people — neighbors and friends, activists, members of the national media and the mother of rape victim Cherice Moralez — watched, cheered, shouted, waved protest signs and called for the resignation of District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh.
"My goal is to make Billings the catalyst in change in how we talk about rape victims," said rally organizer Sheena Rice.
On Monday Baugh sentenced former Senior High teacher Stacey Rambold — who pleaded guilty to raping Cherice Moralez, one of his 14-year-old students — to serve a 15-year prison sentence with all but 31 days suspended. Rambold got credit for one day he previously served in jail. Baugh explained the sentence by saying the victim was "older than her chronological age" and said she had some control over her relationship with the teacher.
The comments and the sentence sparked national criticism, which led to Thursday's rally on the park lawn next to the Yellowstone County Courthouse.
Friends and acquaintances told Rice earlier in the week they were embarrassed by Baugh and how his actions reflect on Montana. But that’s not how Rice sees it.
She welcomes the response that the ruling has created. To her, it shows the true Montana.
"This is the Montana I want to the nation to see," she said pointing to the crowd gathering in the park.
Crews from major broadcast networks, including a team from "Good Morning America," attended. Camera crews from CNN and Fox News were there.
Many at the rally talked about bad judgments they felt Baugh had handed down in the past. And organizers, addressing the crowd, encouraged the public to file formal complaints with the state’s judicial review committee.
Auliea Hanlon, Moralez's mother, made a brief appearance, stepping to the microphone in front of the cheering crowd. She waved and then stepped down, declining to speak.
Moralez was 14 when she was raped by Rambold. The girl killed herself weeks before her 17th birthday as her sexual relationship with Rambold became a criminal case. Under state law, children younger than 16 cannot consent to sexual intercourse, which makes Rambold’s crime felony rape.
Christy Rouse, 28, and Sonja Peterson, 32, came to the rally on their lunch break because they wanted to add their voices to the call for Baugh’s resignation. They talked about the frustration they felt as women that victims still take blame for sexual assaults.
"I don’t know if we can change things today," Rouse said. "But if we keep at it, (some day) we can."
The day before the protest, Baugh issued an apology. "I don't know what I was thinking or trying to say," Baugh told The Billings Gazette. "It was just stupid and wrong."
It wasn’t enough for the crowd gathered Thursday. Many said they didn't believe the apology was sincere.
"It really points to a larger problem of victim blaming in rape cases across the country," Rice said. "To see it happen in Billings, it's time we as a community take a stand against victim blaming."
Doug Oltrogge, 32, visited the park wanting to add his name to the petition demanding Baugh's removal from the bench.
"Ideally, rallies like this shouldn't happen," he said.
But Baugh's ruling and subsequent comments have forced the community to protest, he said.
Then there's the original crime, where a teacher took advantage of a young, vulnerable student, Oltrogge added.
"It's like a double breach of the public trust," he said. "It's like the system failed us twice."