The 17-year-old suspected of shooting two other juveniles at Sentinel High School in June said Monday in extensive court testimony that he had aimed his stolen firearm in self defense when the gun went off, hitting both teens.
Dylan Conat was charged with assault with the weapon in August, after he had eluded law enforcement for about a month and a half following the shooting. On Monday his defense counsel laid out the case for Conat to be tried as a juvenile, rather than an adult, which could mean the case could be wiped from his criminal history if he abides by probationary measures following a conviction.
That effort included Conat testifying about the shooting, an unorthodox move for a case ahead of trial and before a determination of whether he will be tried as an adult or juvenile.
Most of the details Conat provided lined up with reports from police, while some deviated from official reports.
He said he had walked up to two boys he did not know at the Southgate Mall in Missoula that day, setting off the chain of events that led to a drug deal gone awry.
"I asked if they knew where I could purchase any drugs and if they wanted to purchase any marijuana I had," he said.
Conat mentioned the names of the two teens in testimony, and the Missoulian confirmed their names as part of the police record of the incident. They were not charged with a crime following the shooting and both are still under 18 years old, so the Missoulian is not identifying them.
The two teens initially told Conat they didn't want to buy his marijuana, he said, but re-approached him after Conat left the mall to say someone else was interested in a purchase, and they were waiting at Sentinel High School.
Conat felt uneasy, he said, because they were acting "sketchy," meaning one of them was trying to stay behind him as they walked to the school. No one was at the school when they arrived. Instead, Conat said he heard the first teen say, "Now," right before the second punched him in the head and knocked him down.
As the first teen kicked his head, the second rifled through his pockets, Conat said. He felt overwhelmed, so he reached for a stolen pistol in his pocket.
"There were two against one, so I didn't think they would necessarily stop when I told them to stop," Conat said. "I retrieved the firearm from my pocket and aimed it in the vicinity of (the second teen)."
Conat said he said "stop" as he pulled the firearm out. The second teen reached out to wrestle the pistol away from Conat, he said. That's when Conat said two shots rang out.
His version diverged from investigators' findings. Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jennifer Clark said the prosecution had evidence that four shots were fired from the gun. Conat pushed back, saying it was "unlikely" investigators found four shots.
After the pistol fired, Conat said he dropped it and the second teen picked it up and aimed it back at his face.
"At that point, I thought I was going to die," he said.
Conat said he pleaded with the teen not to kill him — the first boy had fallen to the ground, looking injured, Conat said — and pushed his backpack toward them. Then he got up and ran, he said. Both teens were taken to the hospital for gunshot wounds, and the incident drew dozens of officers from the Missoula Police Department, Sheriff's Office and University of Montana police to the scene.
On June 28, about four days after the shooting, law enforcement named Conat as a suspect in the case, alerting the public that he may be armed and dangerous. He was eventually arrested on Aug. 8.
In between the shooting and his arrest, Conat was picked up and convicted on gun-related charges in Washington, where he was found to be in possession of two other guns, also stolen. Conat testified Monday that the guns in each case were stolen, although he had purchased or traded marijuana for them.
Conat said he fled authorities in Missoula in order to piece together his self defense case. Specifically, he wanted to document his facial injuries, and print off copies of the photo to show police.
"I wanted to have the right evidence to prove that I was … in the right and the other two boys were in the wrong," he said.
Since his arrest, Conat has been implicated in two other criminal cases. In one, he is accused of stealing $1,500 worth of bongs from a car. In the other case, Conat is a "person of interest" in an open residential burglary investigation. A woman reported her cell phone was stolen from her home, and police traced that phone's activity to a call to Conat's grandmother. That case has not yet been referred to the county attorney's office for charges.
Clark also asked Conat about several online searches he made in the weeks before his arrest, including "how to rob a drug dealer" and "how to set people up to steal their drugs." Another was "how to rob a chump."
"Who is a chump?" Clark asked him.
"In this case, that would be myself," Conat said, explaining he was researching ways to protect himself and his stash from being robbed.
Additional testimony on Monday included comments from social workers at a boy's home Conat once attended, as well as his mother. Each talked about Conat's difficult upbringing, when his parents were often in and out of jail or prison. They each asked Judge John Larson to allow Conat's case to be transferred to youth court, where he could move forward with school and housing applications without the stain of a violent criminal record.
"He's a kid still," said Molly Wilkins, a former social worker from the boy's home. "From what we know about the human brain, he's still developing."
Prosecutors and Conat's defense will submit their arguments by Oct. 26 before Larson issues a decision on whether Conat will be tried as an adult or juvenile.