Man receives probation in Hermantown backhoe assault

Mark Stodghill, Duluth News Tribune
Michael Billman

The co-owner of a Hermantown construction company had a difficult time admitting his guilt on Monday, but in the end conceded that enough evidence had been accumulated to prove that he had assaulted an employee with a backhoe.

Michael Billman, 51, of Saginaw, received a probationary sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree assault in connection with the Nov. 4, 2009, incident at a Hermantown construction site.

Billman entered an Alford/Goulet plea in which he admitted that sufficient evidence exists that a judge or jury could find him guilty of the crime, but maintained his innocence.

Billman, co-owner of Billman’s Construction, addressed the court before Judge Eric Hylden decided whether to accept his plea and continue on to sentencing. He told the judge that he didn’t purposely hit employee Matthew Paul Anderson with an excavator bucket. Billman claimed he had a back problem that caused him to fall into the controls of the excavator bucket, which hit Anderson and knocked him on his back.

Billman was operating a John Deere excavator digging out the footings for an apartment complex near Green Acres and Kari Lane in Hermantown. Anderson was working for him.

Anderson told Hermantown police that Billman pinned him to the ground with the bucket and yelled an expletive at him. Billman told police that he became angry when Anderson threw down an expensive piece of equipment and began mouthing off to him. At that time, police said Billman said he intended to nudge Anderson and admitted it was a stupid thing to do.

On Monday, Billman said he was in shock after the incident and his comments to police had been “misconstrued.’’ He said he wasn’t acting out of anger and he didn’t purposely hit Anderson, who sustained bruises, but no broken bones. Hylden told the defendant he wanted to know if he was pleading guilty to second-degree assault.

“This has been a complete and total nightmare,’’ Billman told the court. “No way can I absorb jail time with my health the way it is … I have to accept this and go on with life.”

Hylden then asked St. Louis County prosecutor Nathaniel Stumme and defense attorney David Keegan to meet with him in the judge’s chambers. The judge and lawyers emerged after five minutes, and Keegan took his client out in the hall for a two-minute meeting.

They re-entered the courtroom, and Hylden again asked Billman if he was accepting responsibility and pleading guilty because there was enough evidence in police reports for a judge or jury to find him guilty of second-degree assault. “Yes, your honor,’’ Billman said.

That satisfied the court and prosecutor Stumme. “Mr. Billman entered a guilty plea to the most serious original count of the complaint,’’ Stumme said outside the courtroom after the hearing. “The state offered sentencing concessions that were wholly appropriate under the circumstances.’’

Stumme told the court that victim Anderson was in accord with the plea deal offered the defendant.

Hylden sentenced Billman to 21 months in prison, but stayed imposition of the sentence for two years of supervised probation. The defendant was fined $1,500 plus court costs and must pay Anderson restitution.

The stay of imposition of sentence means that if Billman follows the conditions of his two-year probation, the case will be discharged and the felony will be removed from his record.

As conditions of probation, Billman must perform 100 hours of community service, abstain from using alcohol or nonprescribed drugs, must take all prescribed drugs at the time and in the dosage prescribed. He can’t operate heavy machinery without consent from his primary physician. He must also be evaluated for anger management issues and depression and follow any recommendations for treatment.

Anderson filed a personal injury lawsuit against Billman that has not been resolved. A trial had been scheduled for next month, but a new date is expected to be set at a scheduling conference on Wednesday, said Duluth attorney John Kelly, who is representing Billman in the civil matter.

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