He pleaded guilty to sexually molesting two girls whom he watched for a neighbor.
Public defender Bryan Leary had never considered how strongly he should stand in the way of a client making what Leary deemed a bad decision. Enter Curtis Hillstrom, charged with sexually molesting two young sisters.
On the day his trial was to start, Hillstrom rejected a prosecution offer of 15 years in prison, less than half the recommended sentence. Then he said he wanted to plead guilty and take whatever penalty the judge imposed.
Leary refused to go along. So Hillstrom became his own attorney, and Anoka County District Judge Barry Sullivan gave him the 30-year maximum -- as he had said he would.
At last week's sentencing, Hillstrom offered no explanation for the decision that baffled the defense and the prosecution. "I've never seen anything like it," Leary said later. "People were a little dismayed at Hillstrom jumping off a cliff, knowing sharp rocks were down there. It's perplexing why he chose to proceed."
In a phone interview from jail several days later, Hillstrom opened up. He said he wanted the longer prison term because he didn't have any reason to be part of society anymore.
"I didn't commit the crimes I pleaded guilty to, and I lied to the judge when I accepted the plea," he said. "But now the girl's family won't have to wait for me to come out of prison. I did this so those girls wouldn't have to testify in trial."
He also said that his attorneys weren't giving their best effort to plan his defense and that they kept saying, "You are guilty, you are guilty. Take the plea, take the plea."
"I wasn't going to take the plea and let those attorneys take credit for it," said Hillstrom. "I was just tired of the whole system."
Hillstrom was charged with two counts of engaging in first-degree criminal sexual conduct while living in Hilltop in 2010. He was asked by the grandfather of two girls, both under age 7, to baby-sit them, according to the complaint against him. The charges alleged that assaults went on for several months before the girls told their grandmother.
Hillstrom was arrested last October and when police searched his home in Mounds View, they found thousands of child pornography pictures, they said. He was charged with felony possession of child pornography in Ramsey County.
'Not letting you do that'
Until the start of the Anoka County trial, Hillstrom, 48, tried to negotiate a plea agreement with a sentence as low as seven years, Leary said. Prosecutor Amy Reed-Hall offered the 15-year deal, which Leary said was very reasonable. Hillstrom gave mixed responses about why he didn't want the offer, according to the public defender.
The jury had already been picked when Hillstrom turned down the prosecution's plea deal May 22. When he said he wanted to plead guilty, Leary told him "we are not letting you do that," Leary recalled. Hillstrom insisted, and Leary told him he'd have to fire both him and colleague Jennifer Pradt.
"We weren't going to be a party to this," Leary said. "The judge could have stopped the proceeding if he believed Hillstrom wasn't competent, but he was very clear what he wanted to do with his plea. He kept saying he wanted 40 years."
Sullivan let Hillstrom know that "he would give him every minute of time he could" when he sentenced him on Monday, Leary said. The judge put everything on the record so there was no confusion for Hillstrom, and offered him standby counsel. Prosecutor Reed-Hall also said she would be seeking the maximum sentence.
"We have two little girls as victims," she said. "We are going to do our jobs, and the plea agreement he wanted was so unreasonable."
Although they were fired, Leary and Pradt attended the sentencing. When asked about his offenses, Hillstrom said he couldn't recall the exact number of times he abused the girls, but that it was "more than five and less than 20." Reed-Hall read impact statements from the girls' grandmother.
Sullivan called the case a tragedy and issued his sentence of two consecutive 15-year terms. As he was led out of the courtroom, Hillstrom turned to the judge and said, "Think how much money I'm going to save on car insurance."
Several of Hillstrom's relatives attended the hearing. Reed-Hall said she was glad a trial was avoided and the girls didn't have to testify. She is still puzzled and miffed why Hillstrom willingly settled for a much longer sentence.
"I've had people fall on the sword and then be remorseful and try to sway the court for a lower sentence," she said. "But we didn't know what to expect with Hillstrom. Was he being manipulative or would he consider withdrawing his plea?"
Paul Young, head of the violent crime division for the Anoka County attorney's office, said Hillstrom's case is highly unusual, but "you just never know what to expect on any given day."
In some cases with offenders, there might be a level of mental impairment, but not enough to compromise the person's ability to proceed and make a knowing and intelligent decision, he said. When a plea agreement is accepted by a judge, many checks and balances have to happen, he said.
Hillstrom said he has no mental illnesses.
He said he was disappointed that he didn't receive any support from relatives or church during the nine months he was in jail before his trial date. He said he's found more Christian brotherhood from hardened criminals.
"I've reconnected with my faith," he said. "Society won't forgive me, but God will whether I did or didn't do these crimes."
Asked in the interview if he had, he said, "No."
Hillstrom had no prior criminal history. He could be released from prison in 20 years with time off for good behavior, but said he wants to serve the whole sentence. If convicted on the child pornography charges, he said, that sentence should be served after that.
Hillstrom had intended to read a long statement before Sullivan handed down his sentence, but changed his mind, he said, because he didn't want any leniency from the judge.
"I will die or be killed in prison," he said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465