Chaotic chase preceded fatal collision on Grand

Court documents detail young driver's movements; 17-year-old charged as adult

Published on Friday, April 25, 2008

By GREG TUTTLE
Of The Gazette Staff

Shortly before a Billings nurse driving to work was killed when a motorist fleeing a sheriff's deputy sped through a stop sign onto Grand Avenue, another Billings man was jolted by the actions of the same motorist.

The man later told police that he was driving on Eighth Street West early last Friday morning when his pickup truck was hit by a trash bin that came flying from a nearby alley.

Several other people told police of loud crashes in that neighborhood at about the same time.

Moments later, prosecutors allege, the driver of a white GMC ran the stop sign and smashed into a car driven by 27-year-old Lillian Stahl. Prosecutors say the driver had a blood-alcohol level of .178 percent, more than twice the state legal limit.

Those details and others emerged Thursday in court records and from testimony at the arraignment of Brian James Houston, 17. The teenager was charged as an adult in District Court with negligent homicide for the death of Stahl, and with felony counts of eluding and criminal endangerment.

Houston pleaded not guilty to the charges. Judge Susan Watters set bond at $150,000 after rejecting a request by defense attorney Brian Kohn and Houston's mother to set a lower bond so he could be released to his mother's supervision.

Also Thursday, Yellowstone County officials released a letter from a Billings attorney representing Stahl's family. The attorney, A. Christopher Edwards, asks in the letter to Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath that all evidence in the case be preserved.

"This letter puts the Billings Police Department, the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department, the City of Billings, Yellowstone County and the State of Montana on notice that they are to preserve ALL documents and/or communications, in any medium, that may relate to the incident that occurred on April 18, 2008, and that may be discoverable under Montana law during litigation," Edwards wrote in the letter.

In charging documents filed Thursday, prosecutors describe in detail the events they say happened before the wreck that killed Stahl, an operating-room nurse at Billings Clinic. Here's what prosecutors said happened:

Just before 6:38 a.m., Aaron May was driving his pickup truck north on Eighth Street West between Yellowstone and Clark avenues when the truck was hit by a trash bin. The bin came flying at the truck from the direction of an alley west of Eighth Street West.

A woman who lives on Clark Avenue later reported what she thought was an explosion in her neighborhood. Another resident in the area told police she saw a white SUV speeding down an alley Friday morning. She heard what she believed were two collisions.

Billings Police Lt. Mark Kirkpatrick was also driving north on Eighth Street West, about two blocks behind May's truck, in an unmarked patrol car. Kirkpatrick saw a cloud of dust, thought there had been an accident and drove up.

When Kirkpatrick pulled up, he saw May's pickup and a white GMC stopped at the scene. But the GMC quickly drove away, heading east in an alley between Clark and Yellowstone avenues.

Kirkpatrick began to follow the GMC and made a radio report of a hit-and-run accident. Kirkpatrick lost the GMC for a short time, then found it parked on Clark Avenue, just west of Fifth Street West. The officer called in the license plate of the GMC, then watched as the driver stepped out. The driver saw Kirkpatrick talking on his radio and immediately got back in the GMC and drove off.

Kirkpatrick again tried to follow the GMC as it traveled at high speed. On Division Street, Kirkpatrick saw that a Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office patrol car was behind the fleeing GMC. The patrol car's overhead emergency lights came on as it followed the GMC onto Broadwater Avenue.

Sheriff's Capt. Bill Michaelis was driving the patrol car. Michaelis heard Kirkpatrick's radio report of a hit-and-run accident and was responding when he saw the GMC turn onto Division Street from Clark Avenue. He got behind the GMC and, after being cleared by Billings Police dispatch to stop the vehicle, turned on his emergency lights. He also asked other officers to attempt to put tire spike strips down in front of the fleeing GMC.

Michaelis said the GMC accelerated to 40 or 50 mph on Broadwater Avenue. The driver then tried to turn north onto Sixth Street West but hit a light pole. Michaelis pulled in behind the GMC in an attempt to block it, but the driver backed into the patrol car and drove up on a sidewalk before continuing to flee north on Sixth Street West.

Michaelis continued the chase for one block, then turned off his lights and siren and pulled to the side of the road between Wyoming and Yellowstone avenues. He and other officers who arrived in the area watched the GMC speed through at least one stop sign as it fled north.

Stahl's car was hit at the intersection of Sixth Street West and Grand Avenue. The force of the collision crushed the passenger side of the car into the center console and driver's area. Stahl's car was pushed across all five lanes of traffic and into a retaining wall. The GMC hit a tree.

A deputy in the area said the GMC did not slow down before speeding into Grand Avenue.

Stahl died at the scene. An autopsy determined that she suffered numerous internal injuries, including a skull fracture and a torn aorta.

Houston was found slumped in the driver's seat of the GMC, his head on the lap of a passenger identified in court records only as a 17-year-old with the initials M.M. Houston and M.M. were taken to St. Vincent Healthcare. Brian Houston was arrested Sunday morning when he was released from the hospital.

In the hours and days that followed the fatal crash, city officers investigating the incident spoke to several witnesses, including Houston's mother, Melody Houston. In a taped statement to an officer at the hospital, the woman said she found her son and M.M. on the patio of the house at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the crash. She and her boyfriend got into an argument with Brian, she said, and tried to put him to bed because he was drunk. Her boyfriend carried Houston to his room, she said.

Melody Houston said she prepared for work and then found that her son had left the house.

In court Thursday, Melody Houston testified briefly and told Deputy County Attorney David Carter that she knew her son had been drinking alcohol in the hours before the crash. She also said she knew he had recently been driving his grandfather's GMC without a license.

According to court records, M.M. told police that he and Brian Houston were at a party the night before the crash. They and another person had finished two 1-liter bottles of vodka in the hours before the crash, he said.