Did a Ben Affleck Movie Inspire This Montana Murder?

A murder trial in a small Montana town took a Hollywood turn when a 2010 crime thriller starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner was cited as key evidence.Isaac Carrier was in bed, likely asleep, in his apartment in Fallon, Montana, on Jan. 23 when he was shot in the back of the head and left

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A murder trial in a small Montana town took a Hollywood turn when a 2010 crime thriller starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner was cited as key evidence.

Isaac Carrier was in bed, likely asleep, in his apartment in Fallon, Montana, on Jan. 23 when he was shot in the back of the head and left to die in a blazing inferno. And prosecutors say that the two men who allegedly carried out the shooting, and lit his apartment on fire, communicated about the deed beforehand by discussing a video of the movie The Town.

The accused are 21-year-old Jake Burghduff and 30-year-old Sterling Brown of South Dakota. Brown, who prosecutors believe fired the shot that killed Carrier and whose trial is scheduled for March 2024, maintains his innocence. But Burghduff offered up a confession to investigators and a jury convicted him of deliberate homicide in August. He faces a maximum sentence of 100 years, with a minimum of 10 years, and is set to be sentenced on Oct. 17. The two men are being held in the Dawson County Correctional Facility in Glendive, Montana, on bonds of $250,000 and $1 million. They are kept in separate pods to ensure they do not interact.

Carrier, a 30-year-old ranch hand who worked at Dustin Mathiason’s ranch outside of Fallon, favored Western clothing and lived a cowboy lifestyle. He and his ex-wife, Katie Bivens, had a young son with a fitting cowboy name of Stetson. In August 2022, she remarried Brown, but she and Carrier remained embroiled in a bitter child custody dispute. A custody hearing was set for Jan. 25—two days after Carrier was killed. (Bivens has denied any knowledge of the murder of her ex-husband.)

Burghduff told Montana investigators that he’d been aware of the custody battle between the exes. He and Brown were buddies who would hang out drinking beer and would drive around spotlighting deer and raccoons, an illegal and unethical form of hunting. But one night in January, Brown sent him a YouTube video of Affleck and Renner from The Town.

I didn’t know he planned on doing anything like that. I had no idea what was going on.

In the clip, Affleck’s character—a Massachusetts bank robber—asks his lifelong friend and fellow thief (played by Renner) for some assistance in a crime. “I need your help,” Affleck says. “I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re going to hurt some people.” Renner responds by asking what car they are going to take. They put on hockey masks, break into a home with a sledgehammer, and beat and threaten two men. Renner jams a handgun into one man’s face before shooting him in the leg and warning him to leave Boston.

After Brown sent the clip, Burghduff replied in a text, “I’m confused lol.” Brown texted back, “Listen to it again let me know if I can come over.”

Burghduff seemed to get the message then. “I’m still confused, we gotta hurt someone or something?” he responded, noting his father and a female employee were in the living room.

“Something like that,” Brown wrote. “You available for pickup?” Burghduff said he could meet him in Ludlow, an unincorporated community in rural South Dakota. “Alright can’t say much else on here,” Brown replied.

Prosecutors say that scene served as a message from Brown to Burghduff and showed they were willing to turn the movie clip into a horrific reality.

After discussing the movie, Burghduff drove into Ludlow to find Brown at a local bar. Both men admit to driving around and drinking beer that evening. But their stories vary as to what happened as the night went on.

Brown claims they drove around the Dakotas that night. But Burghduff told investigators that they left their cellphones in Ludlow and drove in Brown’s pickup for three hours on back roads to Fallon, Montana. They also stopped in Baker, Montana, to fill up a gas can.

At some point, he said, he realized Brown “was gonna go kill Isaac.” Brown did not say it in those exact words, Burghduff told the agents, but “he said he was gonna take care of him [Isaac Carrier]. The kid wasn’t goin’ back to him.”

A picture of Isaac Carrier holding his son, Stetson, on a bridge

Isaac Carrier doted on his son, Stetson.

Photos courtesy Chuck and Jackie Carrier

When they arrived in Fallon, Brown parked, put a silk scarf over his face, and grabbed his handgun and the gas can, according to Burghduff. However, in a video from the Baker store where he bought gas, lighter fluid and beer, Burghduff is wearing a scarf, and Brown is not.

According to Burghduff’s confession, when they arrived in Fallon, Brown walked through the cold, snowy night toward the small wooden house at 605 Whittier Ave. that had been divided into four apartments.

The door to Carrier’s apartment was unlocked, Sheriff Keifer Lewis told The Daily Beast.

“It is very common practice here in frontier Montana,” Lewis said. “Just not a lot of houses that are locked.”

Once inside, officials say Brown fired a single shot into the back of Carrier’s head from within 6 inches to 2 feet, far enough away to convince investigators this was not suicide, according to Montana Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Brad Tucker’s testimony at Burghduff’s trial.

Investigators said one of the two men—maybe Brown, or possibly Burghduff despite his claim he did not enter the apartment—poured gasoline on Carrier while he was still alive, and around the apartment before setting it on fire. The electric stove had also been tampered with, and a smoke alarm in the hallway had been disabled.

‘I need your help,’ Affleck says. ‘I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re going to hurt some people.’

Burghduff said he remained in Brown’s pickup and did not see his friend enter the building, nor did he hear the single gunshot, since the windows were closed up against the winter weather. Prosecutors, however, believe he was inside the building with Brown. Because of the fire damage to Carrier’s body, it was impossible to tell the caliber of the bullet that shot him. Brown was carrying a 45-caliber ACP semi-automatic handgun, black with a wooden grip, while Burghduff had a Ruger .22-caliber Magnum revolver.

Sheriff Lewis testified that Carrier’s body was laying on the bed at an angle, on his stomach, head turned toward the wall. The mattress under him had entirely burned away.

When they headed back to South Dakota, Burghduff said he was struck by what had happened.

“Jake said, ‘I’m an accessory to this shit. And I just wanted to get drunk,’” according to court filings. “When asked if he was sorry about what occurred, Jake said, ‘I understand why Sterling did it, but it’s pretty fucked up what… that it did happen, so. Yeah, I am sorry that I was part of that, and there’s probably… there’s better ways to go about that than killin’ a guy.’”

For his part, Brown has denied killing Carrier or even being in Fallon on Jan. 23. During a Jan. 31 interview with Montana investigators, he said while he had a strained relationship with his wife’s ex-husband, he did not enter his apartment, shoot him or set the four-apartment building on fire.

Two residents of neighboring apartments heard loud noises between 11-11:30 p.m. and after a fire alarm sounded, they learned the four-unit building was on fire, with the blaze starting in Carrier’s apartment.

Del Linda Frost, who lived in one of the three other apartments, said she heard a gunshot.

Another neighbor, Matt Dziurdzik, reported hearing cowboy boots in the hallway. Brown had been wearing muck boots, commonly worn while doing outdoor chores, and Burghduff says he had texted to ask him to bring some tennis shoes, between sizes 9-10. Burghduff, who told authorities he did not leave the pickup during the shooting, was wearing cowboy boots.

According to Burghduff, the two men quickly left Fallon and headed back to South Dakota. Burghduff said he saw flames rising from the building as they drove away.

Burghduff said his friend acted “nervous as hell” when he returned to the pickup that night. “He just jumped back in and he goes, ‘Holy shit, holy shit,’ and huffin’ and puffin’ and hit the gas and we took off.’”

“I knew he was pissed off,” Burghduff told Tucker, as the agent testified at trial. “But I didn’t know he planned on doing anything like that. I had no idea what was going on.”

A picture of Isaac Carrier’s apartment after the fire.

A picture of Isaac Carrier’s apartment after the fire.

Photos courtesy Montana Attorney General’s Office

Still, when Tucker asked Burghduff if he would have made the journey even if he had known Brown’s alleged intentions, Burghduff admitted he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know,” he told him. “I couldn’t tell you if I wouldn’t or not, if I knew.” (Burghduff’s defense attorneys, who declined to comment to The Daily Beast, claimed at trial that Burghduff was detained against his will and threatened with the death penalty to get him to talk. They also claimed his cellphone was searched without his consent. Tucker denied any improper conduct during the interrogation.)

Tucker testified that he believed both men knew they were setting out to kill Carrier, pointing to the fact that they both left their cellphones in Ludlow. “To me, that’s a significant fact that they intentionally left their phones when they left to do this,” he said. After they stopped to buy gas, the agent added, Burghduff must have known they weren’t going to merely assault Carrier.

Tucker also pointed to inconsistencies in Burghduff ’s testimony and video evidence from that night. Burghduff claimed that Brown purchased and pumped the gasoline that was used to start the fire at Carrier’s apartment. But a security tape from the store shows that Burghduff himself pumped the gas into a container and placed it in the back of the pickup driven by Brown. Burghduff also paid for the engine starting fluid, a gas can with two gallons of fuel, and an 18-pack of Coors beer (even though he was a few days short of his 21st birthday, the legal age to purchase alcohol in Montana). The total came to $50.87, and he paid with a $100 bill.

“You know you’re going to fuck someone up?” Tucker asked Burghduff in an interrogation on Feb. 7, which took place without lawyers present. Tucker said Burghduff replied in the affirmative. “He clearly said yes.”

“I knew where the road led, so I guess this is where we are going,” Burghduff told the agent.

I’m an accessory to this shit. And I just wanted to get drunk.

Tucker testified that after interviewing Burghduff, he came to see Brown as a “pretty cocky son of a bitch” who apparently thought he was literally getting away with murder. He said he saw the younger man as someone who was dragged into a serious crime without fully realizing the consequences.

Montana State Medical Examiner Dr. Walter Kemp, who also testified at Burghduff’s trial, said Carrier did not die immediately when he was shot. The autopsy showed the presence of smoke in Carrier’s lungs, proof he was still alive when the fire was set.

Neighbors who lived in the same small apartment building also testified about the fire; they all lost their homes in the blaze. One man said he still felt the health effects of the smoke.

The Ben Affleck crime thriller was shown twice in the courtroom and mentioned numerous times as prosecutors made their case. Carrier’s mother, Jackie Carrier, also testified, talking about her son, his two siblings and his devotion to his child.

While Burghduff never took the stand at his trial, his words were at the center of the case. Fourteen jurors—including two alternates—were selected for the jury panel, and 12 of them, six women and six men, voted guilty on Aug. 23. They were out less than three hours when they revealed they had reached a verdict.

Carrier’s parents, who live in southwest Missouri, plan to view Burghduff’s sentencing in October via Zoom, but said they will return to Montana for Brown’s trial. The couple met with the County Attorney and Sheriff Lewis the day after the trial ended to thank them. They had mint chocolate chip ice cream—Isaac Carrier’s favorite. It would have been his 31st birthday.

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