DRAYTON, N.D. — Answers and resolution are hard to come by for a rural North Dakota community crushed by two tragic deaths and a criminal case that never played out.
Matthew Hilton is the man at the center of it all, charged with the accidental death of his girlfriend May 22, 2019. Three months later, he would be found dead as well after taking his own life. Now, the Hilton family is speaking out, saying they believe both Matthew Hilton and his girlfriend, Kammi Leland, would be alive today if law enforcement had handled the situation differently.
Fateful night in May
On May 22, 2019, Matthew Hilton made three phone calls to the Pembina County Sheriff's Office in less than one hour to inform deputies that cars were harassing him at his rural home on 79th Street near Drayton, N.D., doing "donuts and burnouts" in his yard. After those three calls, he took matters into his own hands.
"He had my grandma's old rifle in his left hand up in the air, and he was leaning over the road saying 'Slow down, slow down' with his right arm," said Janelle Hilton, Matthew's sister, who is relaying his side of the story.
According to the report, the two people in the approaching car told authorities when they saw the gun, they got scared, ducked down and swerved. When they did so, they accidentally struck Kammi Leland, who was standing by the side of the road.
"He (Hilton) found her in the ditch," said Janelle Hilton. "He called 911 ... and he said 'I need an ambulance, my girlfriend's been hit.' And she was still alive because she squeezed his hand," said Hilton. Leland died from her injuries.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol handled the case, and Hilton was charged with felony terrorizing and manslaughter. The driver of the car was not charged.
"He was traumatized, he was in shock and just heartbroken," said Hilton, who says her brother not only lost the love of his life, but he was blamed for it. That pain and trauma proved to be too much, and Hilton took his own life. He was found Monday morning, Aug. 19, in his mother's house in Drayton.
Hilton 911 call audio:
Picking up the pieces
"Sis bear, I know you tried so hard to get me through this tough time in my life, and I thank you with all my heart," read Janelle Hilton, going through notes that her brother left her. The notes, pictures and poems are all she has left of him.
"He was a very sensitive loving brother ... always there for me, always stuck up for me," she said. "If he saw somebody sad or hurting, he would sit down with them and ask them, 'How can I help you, tell me your story', or 'Let me take your hand.' And that was the type of guy he was ... He could make anyone happier with his sense of humor and his genuine care."
Matthew Hilton's family and friends say he died feeling like people thought he was a monster, but they want the world to remember him for who he was.
"Matt couldn't harm a fly. And he would absolutely give you the shirt off his back," said one of those friends, Brandon Patterson. "I want people to know 100%, it was not Matt's fault. It was the wrong place at the wrong time, and may Matt and Kammi rest in peace."
It was a heartbreaking end to a situation that friends and family call 'unfair' and 'tragic'. They believe Hilton was charged because he's the easy one to blame.
"They're going to take this kid's story over this guy's story," said Patterson. "That's just how I feel. It's easier to believe the kid than the guy out on a farm that likes to have a drink."
Hilton says she believes if they'd have gotten his side of the story out sooner, things might be different. "I believe he would have still been here today, and now it's too late," she said, adding that her brother felt like his side of the story would never be told.
Questioning it all
Matthew Hilton's family is now questioning how everything in the case was handled, from the beginning when he first started calling dispatchers about what he described as harassment.
Family is now accusing authorities of mishandling the case. First, they say they believe the Pembina County Sheriff's Office didn't appropriately respond to dispatch calls that night when Hilton called them three times in the span of 51 minutes, saying cars were driving in his yard and harassing him. A deputy was called out after the third call.
Hilton's calls to authorities:
Pembina County Sheriff Terry Meidinger says Hilton didn't specifically demand someone come to his home until the third call, but an attorney for the Hilton family says that shouldn't matter if somebody is asking for immediate help.
"What are people to do when they try to do the right thing ... and the police never come," said Alex Reichert of Reichert Law Office.
The family is also accusing the North Dakota Highway Patrol of not properly handling the crash investigation, saying they let too much time go by before separating and interviewing the driver and passenger. The Highway Patrol has stated it handled the case appropriately. But Reichert believes there are contradictions in what the evidence shows.
According to the report, the driver and passenger claim Hilton was in the middle of the road with a gun, while Hilton told police he was on the side.
"If he would have been in the middle of the road, he would have been hit and the car would have gone in the ditch," said Janelle Hilton, who is also concerned why authorities never tested the driver and passenger for alcohol on scene.
According to the highway patrol, there were no signs of alcohol use by the driver or passenger of the vehicle.
"Why the police decided not to do that ... I would think most people would agree, that that would be in everybody's best interest," said Reichert.
Now, after Hilton's death, the case is closed, and these answers won't be shared in criminal court. But family says by speaking up now, they're giving him his dying wish — to have his story told and to bring dignity to both Hilton and Leland.
The family says it is considering legal action against authorities to "prevent this from happening to others".
If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicide, call the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255.