6/27/2019 7:27:00 AM Man convicted of negligent homicide sentenced to one year incarceration
Abigail Bostwick of the Lakeland Times
For what the presiding judge called an "unspeakable tragedy," a 21-year-old Hazelhurst man was issued an imposed prison sentence Monday afternoon in Vilas County Circuit Court following a conviction on a charge of negligent homicide.
Jeremiah Solis pled no contest earlier this year to the felony charge of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon. Dismissed was a felony count of homicide by firearm with use of a controlled substance and a separate case of felony bail jumping for violating bond terms.
Before an emotional gallery in a packed courtroom, district attorney Martha Milanowski recounted the crime.
Solis, she said, was at a gathering of friends - including victim Connor Stephens, 20, Three Lakes - in Eagle River in September 2017. Solis had purchased a handgun not 48 hours earlier and, according to police reports, at one point was "playing" with it while under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the gathering.
"The defendant chose to put the clip in the gun. He chose to pop the gun ... he chose to put it up. He chose to pull the trigger. It fired. The bullet hit Connor Stephens," Milanowski said. Solis allegedly immediately attempted to hold pressure to the wound, emergency responders and police were called. "He later died due to his injuries," Milanowski said.
Solis told investigators he thought the gun was an empty weapon.
"It really doesn't matter either way. Always treat a gun as if it's loaded," Milanowski said.
The gun itself was stamped with a warning: "Gun can fire even if not loaded," the district attorney added.
"There was no intent to show harm. This is a senseless and tragic crime," Milanowski observed, recommending an eight year prison term (three years incarcerated and five years on extended supervision) as an imposed and stayed sentence. As part of that imposed sentence, Solis would serve five years of probation and one year in jail.
The maximum sentence available was 10 years in prison (five confined, five extended supervision) and up to $25,000 in fines.
"Incarceration is absolutely necessary in this case," Milanowski concluded, indicating many in support of Solis had pointed out he had exceptional character and recently become a father. She added he has shown remorse for his actions. However, she noted "Connor Stephens will never become a father ... the defendant has family and friends waiting for him. The defendant should have to experience some absence from his family."
"This should never have happened ... we can't fail to look at his actions," Milanowski continued. "The defendant chose to bring a loaded gun into an apartment with alcohol and drugs. He chose to pull the trigger and show the weapon off. All of those choices, in the state's opinion, do shed light on his character."
Stephens was a Three Lakes resident attending college.
Mother Tara Stephens read to the court from her son's journal, relaying his love for life in the Northwoods, and the future he looked forward to.
"This kind of negligence has filled our family with such tremendous sorrow," Tara Stephens observed through tears. "It is only because of our faith that we can carry on ... there is no such thing as getting over the grief of losing a child ... we don't see this as an accident. We see it as a series of bad choices. His choices, cost our son his life."
Dan Stephens, Conner's father, also relayed testimony to the court.
"I want you to picture yourself preparing your son's eulogy on your birthday," he said. "I still break down everyday. He was my only son, and my best friend ... I used to look forward ... now I simply exist."
'There's no good answer'
In Solis' defense, attorney Al Moustakis began, "There is no good answer in this case. There isn't a positive note anyone can take away today."
His client, Moustakis said, accepted fault in the death of Stephens, and was there to accept his punishment.
"How Jeremiah lived his life wasn't just how he lived September 3 when he made a series of bad choices ... he's a role model to his friends," Moustakis said. "An emotional young man, sensitive, compassionate, hard-working."
Based on the pre-sentence investigation, Solis grew up in a chaotic home without a father. He was moved around often and in the family, was considered to be the main "protector." Despite those and other challenges, Moustakis said, Solis developed a strong work ethic and character, graduating from high school early and with high honors.
"There is no punishment this court can impose on him worse than the one Jeremiah has imposed upon himself and will the rest of his life," Moustakis said. "He takes full responsibility for his actions here ... Jeremiah does believe he should go to jail."
Moustakis also pointed out Solis had no criminal history prior to the incident and had purchased the gun from a non-licensed, private sales firearm dealer at a gun show.
"Had legislation been in effect, we probably wouldn't be here," the defense attorney said of the ease of Solis' purchase that day.
Speaking to his character, Solis' girlfriend and mother of their child, told the court he "... cared more about his family than others."
"My careless and irresponsible actions led to the loss of Connor Stephens," Solis said, speaking on his own behalf, wiping away tears. "I do accept responsibility for my actions ... there has not been a day that has passed I don't think of you and of Connor," he told the Stephens family.
Judge Neal A. Nielsen noted the court sees hard days in the justice system - and one "does not get harder than this."
"I'm so sorry for you and your family," Nielsen said to the Stephens family. "The loss of Connor Stephens is an unspeakable tragedy. The outcome is so permanent."
The judge noted each day more than 300 people are shot with a firearm - 100 of whom will die.
Many of those statistics include suicide with lesser numbers being homicide and legitimate use in legal force. Others, he said, are accidents.
"Tragic accidents, like the one we experienced here ... these are terrible statistics," Nielsen said. "This was a preventable accident."
While the death was not intentional, it did constitute criminal negligence, Nielsen said.
"(Solis) was a young man who came from a rough background and did an extraordinary job of moving past that," Nielsen observed. "He is someone of good character who exhibited terrible judgement on this occasion, that took the life of a 19-year- old male. The consequences are simply something that cannot be taken back ... in short, this is a tragedy."
Solis was sentenced to an 8-year prison term (four years confined, four years extended supervision) imposed and stayed. He will serve one year in jail with work privileges and five years of probation as part of the stayed sentence, meaning if he violates probation he will be sent straight to prison without a court hearing. Solis must write a letter of apology to the Stephens family, have no contact with them unless they would like to have it, not consume alcohol or drugs, undergo alcohol and drug and psychological treatment and perform 50 hours community service. He may not own firearms.
"If we do find some honor in this situation, it's not that Mr. Solis is damaged forever," Nielsen concluded. "It's that he can become a productive member of society ... and be a good father and role model."
Posted: Friday, June 28, 2019
Article comment by:
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce