WORDEN — Authorities have identified the victim of an apparent homicide in Worden early Friday morning as Erica Yurian, 22, and the man shot by a sheriff’s deputy as Thomas Hilger, 49.
Both died of gunshot wounds, Sheriff Mike Linder said Saturday. The investigation into the incident is ongoing.
It appears that two deputies made contact with Hilger but only one fired, Linder said. Both service weapons have been collected as evidence, and the lab will help determine which weapon fired the fatal round.
Both deputies have been placed on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure pending an inquest into the incident. The deputies are Tony Watson, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for more than eight years, and Martin Stuart, who has worked for the department just over a year. Both men are doing fine, Linder said.
Hilger was owner of The 406 Bar on Main Street. Yurian was known for her athletic prowess, especially on the volleyball court while attending Huntley Project High School. The pair had been dating for about a year, although Yurian’s family members said she had recently ended the relationship.
Hilger was shot in an early-morning confrontation with authorities and was taken to St. Vincent Healthcare, where he died. While investigating that shooting, authorities discovered Yurian’s body in a vehicle. Linder would not say where the vehicle was located.
Mark Yurian, Erica’s father, said his daughter went to see Hilger on the night she died, at the man’s request.
“She was in-cold-blood murdered,” he said. “She was coaxed into that environment.”
Scott Steinbach, 49, of Fort Shaw, a friend of Hilger, said the bar owner was a great person “but something went really wrong that night.” The two cousins talked every week by phone. “He was outgoing. People loved him, loved being around him and were instantly attracted to him. He could walk into a room and talk to complete strangers like they were longtime friends.”
The last time Hilger and Steinbach saw each other was last summer, when they took their Harleys on a road trip across central Montana. Yurian accompanied the cousins on that trip.
“She was a neat girl,” Steinbach said. “She fit in great with Tom.”
Yurian’s family saw the situation differently. Trisha Yurian, 27, Erica Yurian’s only sister, said that the couple had broken up multiple times since last fall, most recently just a few days before Erica Yurian’s death.
“Erica was the one who broke up with him,” Trisha Yurian said, even though the two were still on speaking terms. “Tom was having a hard time letting go of Erica.”
Mark Yurian went even further in his description of Hilger.
“This was a violent man from the beginning,” he said, adding that he was aware of domestic violence in the relationship. “This man was not pleasant.”
Deputies were called to Worden at 2:30 a.m. Friday to investigate suspicious behavior in the alley behind The 406 Bar at 2430 Main St. When they arrived, the suspicious vehicle was gone from behind the bar, but they found it elsewhere in Worden. When they began talking with Hilger, who was driving the vehicle, he got out and displayed a gun. One of the deputies fired at him. The deputy who fired his service weapon has not been identified, but a coroner’s inquest will be conducted, Linder said.
Dixie Miller, owner of the Dark Horse Saloon and Eatery on Main Street, said she did not know Hilger well but found him “neighborly.” Though both held liquor licenses, and he tried diligently not to step on Miller’s toes. When the town held street dances, he always stepped forward to help share the cost. His establishment catered to younger singles in the community; her clientele was primarily older couples.
Trisha Yurian said her sister was definitely well-liked, very popular.
“She was outgoing, optimistic, a free-spirit,” Trisha Yurian said.
Desiree Talkington, 21, graduated from high school with Yurian, whom she considered one of her closest friends. They attended classes and senior parties together.
“She was always happy, very spontaneous, fun and crazy,” Talkington said. “She was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. She definitely did what made her happy and marched to her own drummer. She didn’t care what others thought.”
Yurian was smart and athletic. In fact, she was so athletic that Talkington said she “could jump like a boy.” Her forte was volleyball. She was a standout hitter for the Huntley Project High School Red Devils.
Iona Stookey has coached volleyball at Huntley Project High School for 23 years and had coached Yurian since she was in fourth grade. Yurian was both a role model and big sister to Stookey’s daughter, Keera, a freshman. Keera was so inspired by Yurian’s skills on the volleyball court that she wore a No. 4 jersey just as Yurian had as a player. When Keera’s team won the 2012 state volleyball tournament, Yurian sent Keera a text that read: “Way to wear my number proud.”
“She wasn’t just a player,” Stookey said. “She was my daughter. As a coach, you just loved her. She worked hard, was carefree and absolutely gorgeous. She was one of my favorite kids I ever coached.”
Gazette reporter Susan Olp contributed to this story.