FARGO — After four years, a heartbreaking chapter in the lives of Amanda Stach Engst’s family came to a close Monday, Oct. 21, when a federal judge ruled that a man involved in her killing will spend the rest of his life in prison.
"We’ve been waiting four years for this day," said Denise Stevenson, Engst’s mother, in a statement she gave in court before Judge Peter Welte handed down his sentence.
Billy Joe Herman, 40, of Warwick, N.D., appeared Monday morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Fargo to continue a sentencing hearing that began Friday, Oct. 18. In April, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in connection with Engst’s death in October 2015.
Engst’s sisters, Kim Storbakken and Brianna Stach, gave victim impact statements along with their mother before the sentencing.
“I was sad and heartbroken,” Storbakken said of the day she learned of Engst's death, adding that her family and friends will never be the same again.
Stach said her “world came crashing down” when she heard about Engst’s death and that she has been in therapy to deal with the grief.
Stach, Storbakken and Stevenson, along with one of Engst’s cousins who also gave a statement, asked Welte to give Herman the life sentence.
“I pray that he receives the maximum penalty,” Stach said. “But in my heart, that’ll never be enough.”
Engst's killing took place on the Spirit Lake Reservation in northeast North Dakota. Prosecutors called it unprovoked and horrific.
They said Herman strangled Engst and assaulted her on Oct. 12, 2015, before putting her in the trunk of her car with the help of his then wife, now known as Crystal Johnson. Herman then drove to a bridge, beat Engst once more with a shovel before wrapping her body in a tarp and tying it with cinder blocks, and then dumping the body in the Sheyenne River, according to the prosecution.
Engst’s body was found on Feb. 4, 2016. Johnson is serving 20 years in prison for her role in the murder.
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The prosecution argued for a life sentence for Herman, asking Welte to depart from the guideline of a maximum of about 30 years in prison.
Prosecutor Nick Chase said in court that Engst did nothing to warrant the attack, which he called unprovoked. “It was extreme, it was horrific, and it was prolonged,” Chase said of the killing, adding that Herman hasn’t shown “true remorse in this case.”
Chase also pointed to Herman’s history of violence, specifically his history of domestic abuse as further reasoning for a life sentence.
Herman’s defense attorney, Christopher Lancaster, acknowledged the case was tragic but pointed to the extensive drug use of all parties involved as part of why the killing occurred. Lancaster said the murder was an “impulsive” act, adding that “this was not a planned killing.”
Lancaster also argued against the credibility of Johnson’s version of events, much of which was the basis for the prosecution’s arguments. “Billy was part of the killing of Amanda Engst, and he wasn’t the only one involved,” Lancaster said.
Johnson did not testify during either Friday or Monday’s proceedings.
Herman spoke prior to sentencing and apologized for his actions. He acknowledged he, Johnson and Engst were using meth a lot during the weeks before and leading up to the incident.
“Drugs and alcohol play a big part, especially meth,” Herman said.
Herman also addressed information from Friday’s hearing that suggested he was not a member of the Sons of Silence, but an enforcer for the outlaw motorcycle gang. He said he "wouldn’t be a member of a group like that."
“She didn’t deserve what happened to her,” Herman said of Engst. “I’m so very sorry from the bottom of my heart.”
As he handed down the sentence, Welte said he agreed with the prosecution and said the killing was “unprovoked” and “a continued attack.” He disagreed with the defense’s notion that the murder was impulsive, pointing to the fact the car was loaded with a shovel, tarp, cords and two cinder blocks.
“This level of preparation ... shows some planning,” Welte said.
After the sentencing, Chase told The Forum that the prosecution was satisfied with the life sentence.
"I'm extremely pleased and relieved for Amanda Engst’s family ... that they have finally gotten a sentence today that reflects the horrific act that was committed," he said.
Chase said the case was prosecuted under federal Indian Country criminal jurisdiction because Herman, who's part of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, identified as a Native American and the crime occurred on a reservation. Chase said under that jurisdiction, the death penalty is not available.