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Durango man gets prison for arm cast ‘clubbing’

Victim suffered traumatic brain injury, broken jaw
William “Billy” Edward Novak

A Durango man who used an orthopedic cast on his right forearm to beat another man, causing a traumatic brain injury, was sentenced Wednesday to eight years in prison.

William “Billy” Edward Novak, 27, was led out of 6th Judicial District Court to immediately begin serving his prison sentence.

Novak pleaded guilty to second-degree assault with a deadly weapon in a plea agreement with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. He was facing anything from probation to eight years in prison. District Judge Suzanne Carlson handed down the maximum allowed under the plea agreement.

The assault occurred about 12:15 a.m. Aug. 25, 2021, in a parking area near Jiffy Lube in the 21500 block of U.S. Highway 160, in west Durango. Several people gathered earlier in the evening to party and mark the closing of Mountain Waters Rafting.

According to court records and testimony, Novak and John William Dunn, 41, began exchanging words and tugging on each other’s shirts when Novak raised his right arm and struck Dunn on the head using the cast on his forearm as a weapon.

The two men did not know each other before that evening.

At least one witness said Novak struck Dunn twice in the head, knocking him unconscious. Dunn possibly was struck a third time as he fell to the ground, and a fourth time as he lay unconscious on the ground.

As a result of the attack, Dunn suffered a traumatic brain injury and a broken jaw. He has undergone eight brain surgeries, was given a tracheostomy and feeding tube, and has suffered three seizures. He has only recently begun to recover his ability to walk, swallow and chew his own food, said his sister, Karen Dunn Pritchard.

He spent nearly two years hospitalized and now lives with his parents, who offer round-the-clock care.

Before the attack, Dunn was a raft guide and avid outdoor enthusiast. His recovery is “nothing short of a miracle,” said his other sister, Amy Dehne, “but it is unlikely he will ever make a full recovery.”

In court, the family showed pictures of Dunn on life-support systems and videos of him relearning how to walk and play the ukulele.

“My brother is gone; I have a new brother now,” Dehne told the court. “The brother I grew up with was killed.”

Assistant District Attorney Sean Murray said anything less than eight years would be an injustice to Dunn and his family. A prison sentence pales in comparison to what Dunn and his family will go through for the rest of their lives, he said.

Murray reminded Carlson that Dunn lay unconscious when Novak delivered a blow to his head.

According to witnesses, Dunn tugged at Novak’s shirt and possibly pulled a clump of hair from his head during the melee. But he never struck Novak before the “clubbing,” Murray said.

He said the escalation of force was unjustified.

“When the District Attorney’s Office sees violent assault cases with severe injuries and trauma to victims, we are compelled to send a message that the consequences for perpetrators of these violent acts will be significant,” Murray said during a phone interview after the sentencing.

He added: “The suffering that everyone experienced in the courtroom on both sides was palpable. We hoped that the Dunn family received some small measure of closure from the just sentence handed down by Judge Carlson today. John Dunn’s daily fight to recover from his injuries is inspiring and a testament of the human spirit.”

Defense lawyer Dru Nielsen said Novak has no history of violence and no criminal history. He didn’t go to the party looking for a fight, she said, and it was not a one-sided, unprovoked attack.

She said alcohol changes people’s behavior. Novak, with one hand in a cast, felt fearful and threatened by Dunn. He instinctively used his right hand to deliver a blow, but he didn’t intend to hit Dunn on the weakest part of his skull, she said.

Since the attack, Novak has committed to making positive changes in his life, Nielsen said. He has not consumed alcohol since that night, he attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and he recently served as a dorm residence assistant at Fort Lewis College.

“It’s pretty easy to say the words ‘I’m sorry,’ but a person’s actions speak louder than words,” Nielsen told the court.

She asked that Novak be given community corrections, which allows offenders to work and live in the community under close supervision.

“He is very meaningfully giving back to this community,” she said.

Novak, wearing a tie, white shirt and dark slacks, apologized to the Dunn family.

“I want you to know every day I wake up and my first thought is of John,” he said.

He said no one deserves the degree of pain and suffering he inflicted on Dunn and his family.

“Today, much like that night, my heart is full of fear,” he said.

Carlson said Novak is lucky he wasn’t facing second-degree murder charges. She said it is important for people to be on notice that actions like Novak’s, causing serious bodily injury, have consequences.

Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not excused under the law, she said. She compared it to drunken driving causing death, saying defendants who do that are sentenced to prison.

In addition to prison time, Novak must pay $1.6 million in restitution, which defense lawyers can challenge in future court proceedings.


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