Three sentenced for 2021 Gibson Flats fire

Updated 4 p.m. March 12

The three men charged in connection with the Dec. 1, 2021 Gibson Flats fire were sentenced in district court on March 10.

After hours of victim testimony, Judge John Kutzman accepted the plea agreement for the men who had changed their pleas to guilty in September 2022.

Galvinn Munson was sentenced to 20 years in the Montana State Prison with no time suspended and no eligibility of parole for one count of arson. He was also sentenced to two years per 44 counts of criminal endangerment, or 88 years, to run consecutively with none suspended. He may become eligible for parole after serving a portion of that sentence.

He was credited for 458 days served.

Brandon Bennett was sentenced to 10 years at the Montana State Prison, all suspended, for negligent arson.

He was also sentenced to 400 hours of community service, with a preference for performing those hours with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes and 180 days in the pre-release center.

Bennett was also sentenced a year at Montana State Prison, all suspended, and 180 days in the Cascade County jail and was credited for 168 days served for a count of evidence tampering.

Jevin McLean was sentenced to 10 years in the Montana State Prison for negligent arson, all suspended, 400 hours of community service, 180 days at the pre-release with 63 days credited for time served and a chemical dependency evaluation.

At the time of the fire, Munson was 19, McLean was 19 and Bennett was 18.

Kutzman ordered the trio to pay a total restitution of $1,760,172.65 to the victims.

The state dismissed criminal mischief charges for the first fire in the incident since the men entered guilty pleas for the charges related to the second fire which destroyed and damaged homes, outbuildings, vehicles and pets and caused emergency evacuations.

To the defendants, Kutzman said “you’re each responsible for what you’ve done.”

He said his first case after law school was for three farmers near Great Falls whose ranches burned when a power line blew down.

He said that he “learned the wind blows like hell around here in November and December” and during that time, when grass was dry, the three used marijuana, got fireworks and a lighter, drove around and intentionally started fires.

Kutzman said he watched the SnapChat video from the men that showed them pointing a Roman candle at the grass for the first fire. He said that it made him mad the first time he watched it, and when he watched it again during a break in the hearing on March 10, “it didn’t make me any less mad.”

“It’s amazing to me that you can live in Amercia, obey the law and just have it all taken away by idiots,” Kutzman said.

Before Kutzman issued the sentences, Munson told the court, “I’m terribly sorry” and that he wakes up every day with a mindset to be a better person.

McLean said,” I am sorry for everything that’s happened” and that he hopes he can help do something to make it better.

Some of the victims said they had suffered, but were also trying to find forgiveness for Munson, McLean and Bennett.

Justin Hickman lost vehicles, welding business equipment and chests his children had of mementos of their late mother.

He said that he has children close in age to the defendants and has “forgiveness in my heart.”

To the defendants he said they have a lot of life ahead of them and told them to do something to better themselves.

Greg Mackenstadt said that he lost two homes and vehicles in the fire.

He said it was hard to “walk out the door and leave, come home and all you have is what’s on your back.”

His family lost generations of photos and belongings.

“It’s just stuff, but it’s stuff that took 61 years to get,” he said. “Losing your house and all your stuff in it is like losing someone in your family.”

He said he was done grieving and was angry, but during a court break, he spoke to Brandon Bennett.

“I healed a lot in the 20 minutes that I talked to him,” Mackenstadt said.

He said Bennett is the same age as his son and everybody makes mistakes and that they bore different levels of responsibility.

Mackenstadt said the defendants should pay restitution, but doesn’t expect to see much.

“You can’t put a price on the things that were lost,” he said. “You erased a part of my life. I’ll never be whole again, but I’m going to try.

Elizabeth Mackenstadt wasn’t at their Gibson Flats home the night the fire started, but her husband called her in the middle of the night to tell her about the fire and to get to the house to try to get things and she went to the area and started knocking on doors to get neighbors out to safety.

One of their neighbors, Barney Cooper, is in his 80s and didn’t respond to her knocking. The door was open so she went in, continuing to call out to wake him and get him to safety.

“What were Galvinn, Jevin and Brandon doing while I was saving the lives of those they could have killed,” Elizabeth Mackenstadt told the court. “I am forever changed because of your actions.”

Lynn Chmiel thanked Greg Mackenstadt for calling her at 2:30 a.m. to tell her about the fire. She didn’t understand at first, she said, but opened the window “and I’m in hell because there’s an inferno of flames all around me.”

The fire touched her home and though she didn’t lose her house, she lost other property and vehicles.

She said that she lives in fear and knowing “that I am nothing, that my life means nothing” to the defendants who started the fire. “I say shame on you.”

Michael Hryszko said they lost a pole barn he was planning to use to work on cars, and other property.

“Through no fault of our own did any of this happen,” he said.

Hryszko said he served 24 years in the Air Force and had come out of retirement to work as a public health nurse during COVID at the Cascade City-County Health Department.

He and his wife were planning on retiring soon, but instead are working to rebuild their home and lives.

During the fire, he sent his wife to their son’s house in another area of Great Falls and stayed to help get water to fight the fire, when the flames came dangerously close.

It took him an hour and a half to get to his son’s house.

“They thought I died,” Hryszko said.

He said they lost items they’d collected from world travels while he served in the military and family heirlooms.

“They may be things, but it’s gone. It’s things that we worked for that got taken away,” he said.

To the defendants, Hryzko said, “we don’t hate you. We hate your actions. We feel sorry for you. I may not forgive you but I hope you do get better.”

Tim Hides, with Montana Probation and Parole handled the pre-sentencing investigations for the defendants.

He said that in the case of Munson, he had theft and burglary charges and was out on bond on a sexual intercourse without consent charge at the time of the fire. That case is pending.

Hides said that Munson said he was at the fire but couldn’t understand why he was getting all the charges. Hides said Munson scores as high risk for reoffending using their assessment tool.

Hides told the court that Munson had admitted using ecstasy before the fire, but it wasn’t clear if he was on it at the time of the fire.

Hides said that Munson has severe chemical dependency and he has concerns about Munson being out unsupervised.

Det. Jacob Tri with the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office was the primary investigator on the fire and said they used surveillance video of the area, as well as SnapChat video the defendants shared of them setting the fire. None of the defendants called for help once the fire started.

They had started a smaller fire with a Roman candle that was quickly extinguished and didn’t spread, but started a second one with a lighter, which was the one that spread and destroyed the Gibson Flats properties. Pets were also killed in the fire and multiple agencies responded.

According to the investigation, Munson started the fire. McLean and Bennett took videos and drove.

Kutzman said the type of plea deal used by lawyers was unique in that if accepts the deal, he must accept it in full. If he didn’t accept it, the cases would go to three separate trials, Kutzman said.

Under the law, Kutzman said those were his only two options. Prosecutors said the trials would require victims and emergency responders to testify and that three separate trials would be lengthy and costly to the taxpayer.

Since the judge accepted the plea agreements, the prosecution dismissed charges of criminal mischief against all three for the first fire.

Kutzman said that because Munson was on probation at the time of the fire, it signaled that he probably wouldn’t abide by any new probation conditions.

He said that McLean had juvenile record but was assessed as a low risk and had a reasonable prospect to be rehabilitated. The prosecution said that he was working in a restaurant and they wanted him to be able to work to be able to pay restitution.

Kutzman said that Bennett also had a juvenile record and was assessed as a moderate risk with a reasonable prospect of rehabilitation.