Murder in the first degree carries a mandatory life sentence and that is the sentence Trent Esch received today today (Aug. 19, 2021) in Custer County District Court. For two additional counts, Judge Karin Noakes sentenced Esch to 45-50 years each with all three sentences to be served consecutively.
On June 18, 2021, a jury found Esch, 45, of Broken Bow guilty of murdering his step-mother, Cris Esch, on July 11, 2020. He was pronounced guilty of three counts: Murder in the first degree; Felon in possession of a firearm; and Using a weapon to commit felony.
Belinda Chaplin, Cris Esch’s daughter, spoke with media after the sentencing, saying there is now a sense of relief. “The past year has been hard,” she said. “And before that, years of harassment. My mom got the brunt of that. This won’t bring Mom back but it puts us at peace.” She described her mother as an amazing person and added, "Even with all the harassment, she always loved him and she prayed for him. He was still part of her family."
Both Chaplin and Jayden Esch, Trent Esch’s grown daughter, read statements in court prior to sentencing. Speaking directly to Trent Esch, Chaplin said, “You show no remorse…You blame her for your murdering her.”
Jayden Esch told Trent Esch that she no longer recognizes him as her father because of the choices he has made, telling him, “You chose to take my grandmother’s life away. She cared for you and she loved you like a son”
Prosecuting attorney Michael Guinan asked the court to give Esch the maximum sentence allowable on Counts II and III and asked they be consecutive, not concurrent, with the life sentence, saying “He’s earned it.”
Guinan said Esch is rooted in selfishness and entitlement. “Not everyone will contribute (to life),” Guinan said. “There is a subset that takes. Trent Esch took and took and took.” He added that Esch is the poster child for “lock him up and throw away the key.”
Defense attorney James Davis told the court that adding time for Counts II and III on top of the mandatory life sentence would be redundant and would “add insult to injury." He further stated it would be done only to placate the crowd and have no purpose.
“The jury has done justice. He’s going away for life, life without parole,” Davis said to Judge Noakes. “You know full well my client is going to die in prison. Do your duty. Sentence him to life but don’t pile it on.”
In delivering the sentence, Judge Noakes said is no surprise that Esch scored high on the Pro-Criminal scale of the presentence investigation.
“It’s clear over the past decade, that a large part of your time has been consuming alcohol and terrorizing other people - your family, the community and law enforcement,” Noakes said. She told him she sees a total lack of empathy for the victim and the victim’s family, who, she noted, is also his family.
“It’s obvious as to Count I, the only sentence is life and I sentence you to life in prison for Count I, Murder in the first degree,” the judge stated.
Noakes took issue with the idea that adding consecutive sentences for Counts II and III would have no purpose. “The purpose is to hold you accountable,” she said.
On using a firearm to commit a felony, Noakes said to him, “You discharged that firearm into the face of your step-mother several times. On Count II, I sentence you to 45 to 50 years.”
As to Count III, Felon in possession of a firearm, Noakes said, “You had an arsenal of firearms. You weren’t supposed to have any of that. You are definitely the type of person that law was created for and you disrespected that as well. You didn’t care. On Count III, I sentence you to 45-50 years.”
The sentence were pronounced as consecutive, that is, to be served one after the other.
Noakes gave credit for 406 days already served and ordered Esch to pay court costs.
A crowd of nearly 50 people were in the gallery to hear the sentence. They remained quiet in the court room, however, upon gathering in the lobby outside, they exchanged hugs, smiles and quiet laughter amid tears. About two dozen of them, family and friends of Cris Esch, wore blue t-shirts with angel wings and halo on the front and the words “Justice for Cris” on the back. A single feather was printed above the words.
Barb Pellor, Cris Esch’s sister, explained the feather was in memory of their mother who suffered from dementia but became attached to feathers during her last years and was overjoyed when their father replaced some that she had lost.