The first of three defendants charged in the 2017 beating death and burial of a Billings man was sentenced to prison on Monday.
District Court Judge Gregory Todd sentenced Michael Scott Leclair, 36, to the maximum of 10 years in the Montana State Prison for his role in covering up the death of Rory Wanner.
Wanner’s body was found in July 2017 in a shallow grave on private land near Roundup, 42 miles from the Heights home where he had died five weeks earlier. Witnesses told police Wanner died after a fight inside the home but gave differing accounts on what exactly led up to the victim collapsing and dying.
On Monday, two dozen friends and family members filled one side of the courtroom, many wearing T-shirts that said “Justice for Rory.” Five addressed the court.
“Every day is grief,” said the victim's mother, Lavonne Wanner.
"Rory got so many people to believe in themselves," said his cousin, Nicki Kehr.
Other family members spoke of Wanner's struggles to overcome drug addiction, and of the loved ones he left behind, including a twin brother. Some said they feared there would not be a just resolution to the case.
“Why? Why can we give up his life for a 10-year sentence and potential probation, rather than a conviction for murder?” asked Wanner’s aunt, Jeanne Stecher.
Prosecutor Ed Zink said autopsy results were inconclusive, in part because of the tampering.
“We’re at a loss for answers to some of the most basic questions,” he said. “How did he die? Who did it?”
Leclair’s attorney, Brad Arndorfer, had asked for a sentence of five years to the Department of Corrections, which allows for a community placement.
Arndorfer said that only one person — Joe Streitz — struck Wanner on the night of his death, and that no one present that night had wanted to kill Wanner. Streitz has not been charged in the case.
“We have pretty overwhelming evidence that Rory died accidentally, naturally, not sure why,” Arndorfer said, as the family groaned. “And that’s on Michael.”
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The defense attorney and the judge both noted that Leclair's was a tampering case and not a homicide case.
Arndorfer said Leclair wanted to take responsibility for his role in covering up Rory's death.
He said Leclair did not know Wanner had been called to Tyler Crawford’s home, where they were gathered on June 28, 2017. Leclair’s and others’ phones were taken from them when they arrived, the attorney said.
There had been a scuffle between Leclair and Wanner, the defense attorney said, and Wanner apologized to Leclair for it before collapsing.
Leclair had at one point urged Wanner to leave the home, saying others wanted to hurt him, Arndorfer said.
When Wanner collapsed and everyone realized he had died, they became afraid that police would be called and they would get in trouble for their drug use, the defense attorney said.
“And that’s how the decision was made. Billy Hoffert said, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and directed everybody as to what to do,” Arndorfer said.
Arndorfer said that after the death, Crawford and other witnesses appeared to have agreed to “lay the blame” on Leclair. Crawford told police it was Leclair who attacked Wanner, but Leclair never did, his attorney said.
Leclair was sentenced on a single count of evidence tampering. The state asked for 10 years and agreed to dismiss a second tampering charge in exchange for Leclair’s guilty plea.
In December Leclair filed notice that he intended to argue he believed he was in danger of death or serious injury if he resisted removing Wanner’s body or cleaning up the scene of his death.
William James Hoffert III, 38, pleaded guilty in June to two counts of evidence tampering for his role in removing Wanner’s body. Under a plea deal, prosecutors will recommend the maximum of 20 years in the Montana State Prison.
Tyler Nathaniel Crawford, 29, pleaded not guilty in May to two counts of evidence tampering. Prosecutors believe he used bleach to clean up blood from the fight and threw Wanner’s phone into a garbage bin after he died.