Montana man gets 18 months in federal prison for repeated racist phone calls made to a church

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Montana man has been sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for making repeated threatening and racist phone calls to a Billings church for two years after he went there seeking help and received a gift card from a Black employee, prosecutors said.

Joshua Leon Hiestand, 41, was sentenced Friday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montana. Hiestand pleaded guilty in June to making harassing telephone calls. A stalking charge was dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

“When Hiestand, a white man, went to a Billings church looking for help, an elderly African American woman who worked there responded with kindness and assistance," U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said in a statement. "In return and for nearly two years, Hiestand launched a barrage of harassing, hateful and racist calls and voicemails at her and the church. His racist conduct isn't just abhorrent, it is illegal.”

Prosecutors alleged Hiestand went to the Presbyterian church in November 2020 seeking help. Five days later, the church received a voicemail in which someone, using a racially derogatory term, said he would give more money to the church if the church did not employ an African American. After three similar calls, the woman called Billings police.

A detective called the number used to leave the messages and spoke to Hiestand, who admitted making the calls and apologized for his behavior, prosecutors said. He was told to have no further contact with the church. Three days later, he left a voicemail with the church in which he apologized, court records said.

However, over the next 19 months Hiestand called and left a series of voicemails at the church that were at times threatening and racially hostile, prosecutors said. Investigators determined that after January 2021, Hiestand was placing the calls from outside the state of Montana.

Hiestand was arrested in November 2022 in Indiana and has remained in custody since then.

Hiestand’s public defender Gillian Gosch asked for a sentence of time served, arguing her client's actions were affected by his mental health issues, which have resulted in psychiatric hospitalizations and which appear to be worsened by his use of illegal substances.

The Bureau of Prisons will decide whether Hiestand will receive credit for the 11 months he has already been in custody, officials said.

Hiestand remained in custody in the Yellowstone County jail on Monday.