SHERIDAN — To Randy Rowland, a secondary tragedy to losing his daughter was not being notified — as a victim of a crime — of court proceedings in Big Horn County.
Rowland lives in Banner and had initial contact with law enforcement and emergency response teams at Sheridan Memorial Hospital the night his daughter died. Tyler Dahlin was initially charged with one count of vehicular homicide, a felony offense.
After the accident, Rowland and his wife — the step-mother of Anna Rowland — traveled to Hardin, Montana, to visit with Big Horn County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Randon Schoeppe, who had been assigned the case. The couple gave the attorney their phone numbers and were assured they would be notified about further court proceedings.
As the case progressed, though, Rowland failed to receive notification from anyone in the Big Horn County Attorney’s Office of additional proceedings, including the change of plea and sentencing hearings. Rowland’s ex-wife (Anna Rowland’s mother), though, was kept apprised of court hearings and attended the sentencing hearing.
“We were in contact with (the attorney’s office) multiple times,” Rowland said. “They never contacted us. Ever. Every time we would call up there, Mr. Schoppe would say, ‘Oh, yeah, we kind of had a development, we were thinking we should call you but just hadn’t gotten around to it,’ or ‘I couldn’t find your phone number so I haven’t gotten you called, but here’s the deal,’ kind of thing. It was frustrating and irritating to say the least.”
Out of extreme frustration, Rowland wrote letters to several news publications in August 2018, three months before Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris was re-elected into his position.
Harris responded to the letter and protesting by Rowland and his wife, Teri, on the front steps of the Big Horn County Courthouse in Hardin with an apology letter to the editor published in the Big Horn County News out of Hardin shortly after.
“The lack of notification to Randy Rowland was an unfortunate complication to the extraordinary grief and loss the family of Anna Rowland must live with the rest of their lives,” Harris said in the letter. “…Nothing can be said to defend the failure to notify Randy Rowland.”
Montana Statute 46-24-104 states, “As soon as possible prior to disposition of the case, the prosecuting attorney in a criminal case shall consult with the victim of a felony offense or a misdemeanor offense involving actual, threatened or potential bodily injury to the victim or, in the case of a minor child victim or homicide victim, with the family of the victim in order to obtain the views of the victim or the victim’s family regarding the disposition of the case, including dismissal of the case, release of the accused pending judicial proceedings, plea negotiations and pretrial diversion in the case from the judicial process.”
After prodding from Rowland to the Montana Assistant Attorney General Ole Olson, Harris drafted an email to Rowland and Olson with an attached apology letter from Schoppe.
“I wish to apologize for not informing you of the date of the change of plea in State v. Dahlin,” Schoppe said in the letter. “The last time we spoke on the phone, we parted in anger. Because of that I was not diligent in keeping you informed of what was happening in the case.”
Schoppe continued to explain why the charges changed from vehicular homicide to two misdemeanor charges, and finalized the letter with another apology and condolences for the family’s loss.
The Big Horn County Attorney’s Office sees eight to 10 felony cases per month on average and around 100 per year. That does not include probation revocations, misdemeanor charges or appeals from the lower courts. With only two full-time attorneys — Harris and Schoppe — and a contract part-time attorney, the workload can pile up quickly.
Harris said interagency relationships help to identify, notify and aid victims of crimes before they even reach the county attorney’s office for notification. Law enforcement officers are required by state statute to give victims of ongoing crimes information notification pamphlets that detail available resources.
“At the very threshold, it’s the officer’s duty, but then moving forward, once the case is charged, it becomes the prosecuting attorney,” Harris said.
Rhonda Weber, assistant director of Sheridan’s Advocacy and Resource Center, said it is unrealistic for law enforcement and prosecutors to have to notify all of those people in the thousands of cases they handle each year.
“That’s why programs like ours step in and that’s our responsibility to do that,” Weber said of the agency’s work in victim advocacy and notifying victims of upcoming hearings. “And we’re happy to do that, and I think law enforcement and definitely the prosecutor’s office appreciate that they don’t have to.”
Officials have continued working on communication efforts, not only for the county attorney’s office but also in facets of law enforcement and victim aid.
“We rely heavily on law enforcement in order to serve the population that we do,” Weber said. “Secondly…the access that we have at the county attorney’s office allows us to get those people that have fallen through the cracks.”
ARC is able to access records at the county attorney’s office and help victims without needing to disclose everything the victims say, which is the result of ARC being victim advocates through a private, nonprofit company. Law enforcement also makes victim referrals to ARC with no obligation for victim advocates to follow up with law enforcement on action taken. Advocate privilege works in contrast to agencies connected with law enforcement or county attorney’s offices like many in Montana.
A recent addition to Big Horn County is a similar partnership with Devaney Buffalo, victim-witness specialist for the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office. Because Buffalo is technically law enforcement, she must disclose victim information if presented to her, and she can testify as a witness in a case if subpoenaed.
“I do not have advocate privilege, which they do in Sheridan,” Buffalo said. “But they also work with the county attorneys and have a pretty incredible relationship.”
If victims approach Buffalo, but do not want to report to law enforcement yet, she directs them to a trained victim advocate available through the YWCA in Hardin. The benefit of being law enforcement, though, is having access to documents that are otherwise inaccessible to the general public or those outside of the county attorney’s or sheriff’s offices. Another benefit is responding to incidents.
“What’s unique about my position is when a major crime occurs, I’m able to respond on-call to the scene and work with the victims immediately, so there’s no delay in them knowing their resources and knowing, having a friendly face through the entire process,” Buffalo said. “I’m there from right when it happens; I follow them through the investigative process, through the court process.”
Buffalo often works with other agencies to handle cases. Although she has not completed a “warm hand-off” for a victim from her agency to Sheridan ARC, Buffalo appreciates the close resource.
“So far, I haven’t worked with them because a lot of victims I’m working with would prefer to go to Billings,” Buffalo said. “But to know that Sheridan is an option is pretty incredible, and it sounds like they have a lot of resources.”
Buffalo’s largest focus is creating positive interagency relationships and working well within her jurisdiction and all it entails, whether that means she works collaboratively with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI or neighboring counties and states to provide the best services for each victim of a crime.
For Rowland, his family will never fill the hole left by the death of Anna Rowland in 2016, nor will he or his family ever likely feel restored because of the lack of victim advocacy.
“That’s the real outcome of no programs that support victims or having programs that don’t have good partnerships within the community,” Weber said.
Rowland struggled with what he would have said or asked for if given the opportunity. Weber said the restoration process for many victims, regardless of outcome, is being able to be present for the court proceedings.
“To not even be able to be there? To not even be able to get those comments? That’s a one-time deal; I don’t get to get that back,” Rowland said. “There ain’t no going back into the courtroom and resentencing this young man; it’s over and done, and they took that away from us.”
Note: Although not mentioned in police reports obtained by The Sheridan Press, Randy Rowland said Anna Rowland was wearing a seatbelt, but improperly, as the chest strap was behind her back and the lap belt was in place, at the time of the accident.