The 29-year-old Billings man who drove through a construction zone on an I-90 off-ramp in Billings last year, killing a construction worker, was sentenced to prison Thursday.
Ethan James Anderson was sentenced to 40 years in the Montana State Prison with 15 years suspended for striking and killing 52-year-old Jeffrey Dyekman on Oct. 24, 2018.
Anderson drove a flatbed truck owned by Big Sky Steel, his employer, into a construction zone on the eastbound off-ramp at South Billings Boulevard.
The state had asked for the maximum of 50 years in prison, while the defense had sought 20 years in prison with 15 years suspended.
Anderson pleaded guilty in June to vehicular homicide while under the influence and to two counts of criminal endangerment, related to injuring and endangering other construction workers who were on site at the time.
Dozens of friends and family for Anderson and Dyekman filled the courtroom, and the sentencing hearing lasted more than four hours.
Dyekman’s family remembered him as a fun-loving dad, uncle, and brother-in-law who rarely missed a kid’s sporting event, tournament, or fundraiser.
“At family functions, you could enjoy him carrying on with adults one minute and find him, literally have to find him, the next because he was wedged behind three boxes in the storage room playing hide-and-seek with the kids,” said nephew, Cody Costello.
Dyekman’s widow, Melissa, said he never missed their two kids’ events.
“Jeff wasn’t much of a theater type, but after every one of (our daughter’s) performances, he was standing and clapping, and cheering the loudest, making sure she knew how proud he was of her,” she said.
Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses heard 19 statements from Dyekman’s family. Several of them asked for the maximum penalty and emphasized that Anderson had made a choice to get high before driving on the interstate that day.
Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Victoria Callender echoed them, saying Anderson was deliberate in his use of Dust-Off.
“He chose to do that while his hands were wrapped around the steering wheel of a 13,000-pound weapon,” she said. “He chose to do that on an interstate highway in a marked construction zone with lots of traffic.”
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But defense attorney Gregory Tomicich pushed back.
“You know, we always use the word 'choice,' your honor,” he said. “I’m not sure a chemically dependent person ever makes a free choice in the same way that you and I might make choices.”
Tomicich described his client's traumatic childhood, which included early exposure to drugs, foster care, and separation from his parents due to incarceration.
While Anderson told police immediately after the fatal wreck that he did not use drugs recreationally, he later said on a recorded call from the jail that he had been huffing earlier in the day.
He turned to the Dust-Off in an attempt to avoid a positive drug test at work due to marijuana use, according to Callender.
Anderson has no criminal history “of any consequence,” his attorney said. He was charged with one partner or family member assault years ago that was deferred and later dismissed, Tomicich said.
Anderson’s family described him as a caring dad — a “human jungle gym” his kids loved to play with, said Jeana McClusky, who was his legal guardian when he was a minor.
"Ethan was a good dad — Ethan is a good dad," said Johnnie McClusky, his other legal guardian and biological brother.
When it was his turn to speak, Anderson turned toward Dyekman's family.
"I don't expect any of you to forgive me at this given time," he said. "I hope that one day you will be able to, but I understand why you can't."
Restitution in the case will be finalized in a separate hearing.
At the end of the hearing, the judge urged Anderson to emulate the man he killed.
"If you will strive to be the person that Mr. Dyekman was," Moses said, "it'll make a huge difference."