Nate Norman of Troy was sentenced Aug. 27 in Montana 19th Judicial District Court to a six-year deferred imposition of sentence for assault with a weapon stemming from an altercation last November at the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak.
If he violates the conditions of his deferment — such as failing to attend anger management treatment — he will face up to 20 years in prison and $50,000 in fines.
Norman is required to receive a chemical dependency evaluation, undergo random urinalysis and is prohibited from consuming alcohol or entering casinos. In addition, he is prohibited from having weaponry such as firearms or pepper spray.
The other party in the altercation, the bar’s owner John Runkle, said he thinks the sentence is too light.
Lincoln County Attorney Marcia Boris said she believes Norman’s sentence would likely have been no different had it gone to trial.
The night of Nov. 26, 2017, Norman followed his ex-girlfriend, Holly Evans, from the Yaak River Tavern to the Dirty Shame and “began to be aggressive,” states an affidavit by Lincoln County Sheriff’s Deputy Boyd White.
According to the affidavit, Runkle repeatedly asked Norman to leave, and Evans stated that Norman had “taken a swing” at a male patron.
After Norman and his brother, Michael Norman, left the bar, Runkle and several others went onto the porch. Runkle told White that Norman threatened him, then both brothers moved toward him. Runkle and another person then used bear spray on the brothers.
Runkle told The Western News Wednesday he believed the brothers may have intended to fight their way into the bar.
According to White’s affidavit, after being sprayed Nate Norman retrieved a pistol from a truck he had arrived in with his brother. Then, according to Deputy Brent Faulkner’s review of video footage, after Runkle and others went inside, Norman aimed the gun toward where they had been standing.
Runkle told The Western News Norman brandished the pistol, even momentarily pointing it at his brother’s head.
The brothers then left in the truck, which was caught on security footage again driving past about half an hour later.
The altercation resulted in the assault charge Norman pleaded to.
For that incident alone, Runkle said he would have been satisfied with the sentence. But during the brothers’ second pass by the Dirty Shame, Nathan Norman exited the truck with what later was determined to be a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol.
For the situation that developed, Runkle said he feels Norman should have received a much harsher sentence.
According to Faulkner’s review of security footage, the Norman brothers’ truck left the Dirty Shame about 5:35 p.m. and briefly returned at about 6:10 p.m.
At 6:45 p.m., the footage shows White arriving on scene. He had come to the Dirty Shame from a traffic stop on Michael Norman — who by then was alone in the truck — to try to find Nate Norman, having left Deputy Steve Short to finish the traffic stop.
According to White’s affidavit, Runkle said he and others had seen someone leave the truck and run up the hill behind the bar. A dispatcher told White that, according to Short, a firearm appeared to be missing from the truck and Nate Norman was likely armed.
Runkle told The Western News that the hill was on Dirty Shame property and provided a clear view of the bar’s entries and exits. He said he gave his staff firearms and kept everyone inside.
Runkle said he was mostly concerned with keeping a level head and preventing the situation from escalating further.
However, he said he still looks back and considers how much worse the situation could have become with an armed man on a hill overlooking his establishment.
In his affidavit, White said he searched the area near the Dirty Shame. After Faulkner arrived, White escorted Evans and Mark Thom to a vehicle for their safety and to de-escalate the situation.
The deputies then drove to an area above and behind the Dirty Shame search for Norman. According to the security footage, they found him about an hour after he was dropped off.
White reported that he found Norman lying on his back in a depression in the ground.
Seeing what appeared to be a rifle barrel beneath Norman’s right leg, White drew his weapon and pointed his flashlight, telling Norman to show his hands.
White said Norman responded, though slowly. He ordered Norman onto his belly, and saw both a semi-automatic rifle and pistol that had been underneath Norman as he lay on his back.
After securing Norman, White noted both firearms were loaded and each had a round in the chamber. He also stated that Norman was about 50 yards from the building, and had “concealment, cover and a view of Mark Thom’s vehicle.”
Norman denied threatening to shoot Runkle. When White asked him why he had the rifle and pistol, Norman said he “wanted to be safe” and that he had returned to the property armed because he wanted to protect himself.
Norman also admitted to being intoxicated.
Rule of Law
Norman received three additional charges from that night, including attempted assault with a weapon from when he went onto the hill armed. That charge alleged intent to harm Runkle. He was also charged with criminal trespass.
The third charge that was dismissed as part of the plea agreement was disorderly conduct, stemming from the original altercation at the Dirty Shame.
Though Runkle later stated in an application for a restraining order against Michael Norman that Nate Norman was charged with attempted murder, Norman faced no additional charges.
Runkle told The Western News that he believed Norman was “playing possum” when the deputies found him, and had only pretended to be passed out.
Boris said that a variety of factors determined the plea agreement. She has to look at what she can prove, and a person’s intent can only be inferred from known facts, she said.
If she had sought harsher charges and the evidence didn’t convince a jury, instead of being placed under supervision, Norman could have walked free with no consequences.
In addition, Norman was evaluated by Lincoln County Adult Probation, including an assessment of the risk he would re-offend. The recommendation from the resulting Pre-Sentencing Investigation concurred with the plea agreement.
Runkle said he thinks Norman’s sentence will make people think they won’t be held responsible for their actions in the Yaak.
Boris said that when she looks at how to charge someone and whether to offer a plea, she looks at that case, what tools the law provides and the likely outcome of a jury trial.
Had Norman’s case gone before a jury, it was doubtful the outcome would have been any harsher than the plea agreement, Boris said.
Boris said there were other facts kept out of the public record because the case didn’t go to trial. Those facts could have made a conviction more difficult to secure, she said.
Boris said she does not try cases to make an example of someone, and follows the law as it applies to each individual and what they have done.
“My job is not to put people into prison,” she said. “My job is to seek justice, and my job is to do the right thing.”
Boris said the sentence is not as light as some might think, and that Norman has the promise of 20 years in prison if he violates his probation.
There are multiple restrictions and checks on the behavior of individuals on probation, said Lincoln County Probation Officer Darrell Vanderhoef.
In addition to regularly checking in, people on probation must disclose information such as contact information for their employers and detailed information on where, when and how they are receiving treatment ordered by the court.
The system also randomly chooses subjects to be tested for drug and alcohol use, which is prohibited.
Under the rules of the program, a subject’s residence can be searched at any time by probation officers or other law enforcement to determine if the probationer is in violation.
In addition, their probation begins with a thorough search of their homes for firearms or other weapons, Vanderhoef said.
Outside of those involved in other illegal activities — such as drugs — it is rare that people violate probation by possessing firearms, and they can face both revocation of parole and additional federal charges if they do.
Norman and his attorney, Ann German, declined to comment for this article.