17-year-old Wyatt Bear Cloud was sentenced in 4th Judicial District Court Wednesday afternoon. Pleading guilty to three charges last September 10th – Felony Murder in the 1st Degree; Felony Conspiracy to Commit Aggravated Burglary; and Felony Aggravated Burglary – Bear Cloud is the only defendant of three not to go to trial for the robbery and shooting death of Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst on August 26, 2009. Bear Cloud's guilty plea was NOT the result of a plea agreement with the State.
On the murder charge, Judge John Fenn sentenced Bear Cloud to Life in the Wyoming State Penitentiary. On Count 2, he sentenced Bear Cloud to 20 to 25 years, to run concurrently to Count 1, but consecutively to Count 3, which was also a sentence of 20 – 25 years, and will run consecutively to Count 1.
In a proceeding lasting about ninety minutes, family and friends on both sides were present, including Robert Ernst's daughter Ann Ernst, and Bear Cloud's father Frank, as well as his brothers.
Bear Cloud's appearance was noticeably different – gone was the slicked-back shoulder-length pony tail. Instead, his hair was cut short, giving him an appearance much closer to his actual age.
Only one witness was called. Prosecutor for the State, Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle, asked Department of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Chad Quarterman to take the stand. Quarterman had been the co-lead investigator, along with Sheridan police Sgt. Tom Henry, then a detective, in interviewing Bear Cloud two different times on August 26, 2009.
Quarterman told the Court that during the first interview, Bear Cloud did not admit to knowing about the events of the burglaries and the shooting, and did not admit to participating in the crime. He told Quarterman that he learned of it the following morning. He also said he'd not been part of the theft of the 9 mm handgun, taken from his neighbor's truck a few days prior to the shooting.
Later, however, law enforcement received a call from Ann Hartman, saying that Bear Cloud had been at her home visiting her daughter and was talking about the event with details indicating that he'd been there. She said he'd been laughing and when she'd asked him why he hadn't shared the information with police, he told her, “'Why would I tell them that? It was not big deal.'”
On cross, Bear Cloud's attorney, Carrie Johnson from Casper, asked Quarterman if the co-defendants had ever said Bear Cloud handled the gun. She then said that Jr. had testified during Sen's trial that only he and Sen had handled the gun, but that Bear Cloud had not.
Frank Bear Cloud was given an opportunity to address the Court. He said, “Wyatt is my son.” Then he told the Ernst family that he was truly sorry for what happened to Mr. Ernst, saying that he, too, had been the victim of a shooting crime several years ago. A bullet meant for him, he told them, took the life of his friend. He told the Court that he “could stand here to say that I have perfect kids, but I don't...”
He went on to say to Judge Fenn that “in all the hearings we've had, I don't think justice has been done. I've had to hire an attorney just to explain to me what everything has meant; how can the Court think a 16-year-old can understand?” He also implied that the Court was only seeing “an Indian.” Later, before adjourning the Court, Judge Fenn said that “in no way, shape or form has this sentence been decided by any prejudice to the defendant's ethnic background, and the Court takes great exception to Mr. Bear Cloud's comment.”
When Wyatt Bear Cloud was given the opportunity to address the Court, he asked permission to turn to face the Ernst family. In a powerful moment, he contritely told the Ernst family members and friends present that he was truly sorry for his “ignorant actions.” He said that what he, Dharminder Sen and Dennis Poitra, Jr. had done was “horrific” and that because of their actions, “your family is suffering and so is mine..."
"I also want to apologize for the things that I said on my interview tape. I'm horrified that those words came out of my mouth – that's not me." [During a hearing during the summer of 2010, video was played of Bear Cloud's interrogation interview at the Sheridan Police Department. On it, he smugly had said that he was not much of a person who really cares... the “craziest son of a b**** was me. Trust me, if I'd had the gun, I probably would have shot the wife, too, picked up the rounds and burned down the house."]
Bear Cloud said to the Ernsts, “I don't blame you if you can't accept my apology. I'm ready to take responsibility for my actions and I accept that I'll be going to prison for what I've done.”
Bear Cloud also told them that in the over 500 days he's been incarcerated in the Sheridan County Detention Center, he's heard a lot about what a good man Bob Ernst was, and reiterated his apology.
Then he turned to his family and completely broke down. He looked at his father and said, “Dad, it's been a hell of a year, and I'd like to apologize. I've disgraced this family by my ignorant choice...”
In arguing for a life without parole sentence, Redle reminded Judge Fenn of Bear Cloud's involvement in planning the burglaries in his garage, joining in going from house to house, breaking into the Ernst's and joining in the search of the Ernst's basement. Redle said that Bear Cloud never made any effort to stop Sen from going to the bedroom with the gun, nor did he ever withdraw himself from the scene.
Redle also asked why Bear Cloud's age should sway the sentence from Life Without Parole to Life. He asked, “Is this defendant's age significant from the others to warrant a different sentence?”
And he said the while Bear Cloud didn't pull the trigger, Wyoming criminal law provides for co-conspirators under the Felony Murder Law to be held equally accountable.
Johnson countered, saying that while Bear Cloud went along with the plan, it was Sen and Poitra, Jr. who had hatched it. She pointed out to the Court that even though Bear Cloud had been 16 at the time of the shooting, mentally and emotionally he was considered on the emotional level of a 5th or 6th grader.
Judge Fenn jumped on that statement, saying, “I bet that if I walked into an elementary school and asked the 5th graders if it was right or wrong to dress in dark clothing, gather a loaded gun, a knife and a club, break into a house to steal, and end up shooting a man to death, they would all answer that it was wrong.”
Johnson responded, “I'm not arguing right from wrong, I'm arguing Wyatt's intent. He did not enter the Ernst's home intending for anyone to get hurt. Justice is shown in individualized sentencing by looking at each person, their history, and character." She told Judge Fenn that Bear Cloud was genuinely sorry, he accepted responsibility and knew where he was going to go. She said, “But I don't think we should throw him away.”
Before handing down the sentence, Judge Fenn told Bear Cloud that he has often said that actions speak louder than words. He told Bear Cloud, “you have made an effort to accept responsibility for your actions. Your criminal history is small – a truancy charge – but you chose not to complete treatment under probation for that charge. You did, however, get your GED while in jail.”
Judge Fenn went on to say that “one could argue that you are less culpable because you were not immediately present when Mr. Ernst was shot and you were not the trigger man, but that is not a compelling argument. I find it incredible that you couldn't foresee that something terrible would happen when the three of you entered the home armed with a loaded gun, a knife and a club, wearing dark clothing.”
He said that regarding sentencing juveniles for serious felony crimes, the U.S. Supreme Court and legislatures have drawn the line at removing the death penalty off the table, but that Life sentences, or Life Without Parole sentences are still allowed.
Fenn continued, “I have structured your sentence so that there is a very remote possibility for decades'-worth of additional information to evolve as you exhibit your behavior [in prison]. I hope you prove the Court made the right decision in giving you a slightly different sentence than your co-defendants.”
To the Ernsts, Judge Fenn said, “I hope this provides you some form of closure so you can move on. I know it wasn't exactly the sentence you wanted; I did seriously consider your letter submitted as part of the pre-sentence investigation report.”
We have learned that Dennis Poitra, Jr. has already begun the appeal process on his case. He was sentenced to Life Without Parole last October. Dharminder Sen was also sentenced to Life Without Parole on January 27th.