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One more person: Crash victims' families allege state didn't do enough to protect public

One more person: Crash victims' families allege state didn't do enough to protect public

As Kari Friedman waited in traffic on Valley Center Spur Road just outside of Bozeman on a cloudy April afternoon, you have to believe she was thinking about Jay Gill.

Maybe she was thinking about her family back in Ohio or perhaps her students at Chief Joseph Middle School. But she’d been looking forward to seeing Jay again, to picking him up at the airport, so her thoughts that day are easy to imagine. After returning from a short business trip, he was there, waiting outside.

She didn’t know this – she never would – but Jay planned to take her fishing someday soon on a favorite stretch of river, and when she caught a trout, he intended to slip his grandmother’s ring on her slimy finger and ask her to be his wife.

If only she had known.

About Jay and the ring and the slimy trout, for sure, but more critically at this moment about the turn she was about to attempt onto Frontage Road.

For starters, she didn’t know that state traffic engineers believed this whole intersection should be closed.

Like most, she didn’t know that simple fixes to improve this snarl of traffic had been identified but not implemented. She didn’t know, then, that the Montana Department of Transportation had – for months – essentially been taking a chance there wouldn’t be more wrecks here.

It was her first time driving to the Bozeman airport – the first time she’d even been on this stretch of road – so she didn’t know that many residents of the area purposefully drove another route whenever possible and instructed their kids to absolutely do the same.

She didn’t know that some, as they approached the intersection, said a quick prayer: “Please, please let it not be my day.”

She didn’t know Ezra Taft Benson, who was on his way to work that afternoon, driving his pickup east on Frontage Road. She didn’t know Caleb Jones, who died from injuries sustained at this exact spot less than two years before.

We’ll never be able to say for certain what she was thinking as she pulled out to make that left turn. You need to know, though, that Kari Friedman, for the briefest of moments, saw the front of Mr. Benson’s oncoming pickup and knew how her life would end.

Fatal Crash scene

Investigators from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and Central Valley Fire inspect the scene of a fatal car accident at the intersection of Valley Center Spur Road and Frontage Road near Bozeman on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

———

Jay Gill was worried. Then he was scared.

“Sweetie?” “Are you OK?” his text messages to Kari read. He tried calling several times, too, but got no response, each of his voice messages more frantic than the last.

The couple spoke shortly after his plane landed. A graduate student at Montana State University, Kari was just leaving Chief Joseph Middle School where she was a student teacher in the counseling department. She needed directions but would be there soon. The accident was reported six minutes later.

Jay waited and waited. Other passengers from his flight were long gone when he called his roommate. Had he heard anything from Kari? Could he come pick him up?

Jay called the hospital. He called the police department and was told the Montana Highway Patrol wanted to speak to him. He called that number, but no one answered.

“So I’m sitting there with a pit in my stomach not knowing what was going on,” Jay recalled.

Then his roommate called back. He’d driven by an accident on the Frontage Road. It looked like Kari’s Subaru Outback.

“Does it look bad?” Jay asked.

“No, it doesn’t look that bad. I’m on my way there. I’m sure she’s fine,” his roommate replied.

About that time, a highway patrol trooper and chaplain pulled up outside the airport and approached Jay.

“I’ll never forget it,” Jay recalled. “He said, ‘Kari has been in an accident and did not survive.’” Jay dropped to his knees on the sidewalk and buried his head in his hands. “Then the worst year of my life started.”

———

The day was April 16, 2014. Five years later, Mark and Jill Friedman remember how the anguish started for them, how a sheriff’s deputy came to their home in suburban Cleveland, knocked on the door, walked into their living room and reported that their daughter was dead. The moment won’t fade.

“I wish it would go away, but it doesn’t,” Mark Friedman said. “The grief came that night and hasn’t left.”

The details of the wreck were initially slim, but as the family and their friends gathered and the hospital in Bozeman called to ask about harvesting Kari’s eyes and organs and then her skin and bones, the Friedmans began to learn about the intersection of Frontage and Valley Center Spur roads.

That night they read news stories and comments on websites and Facebook from people upset that another person had died. They saw a highway patrol trooper comment in a television interview about the many accidents he’d investigated there. For the first time, they heard the name Caleb Jones. They learned about a Bozeman mother starting a petition. Something had to be done.

And for the Friedmans, grief morphed into anger as they pondered the question: Did our daughter die needlessly?

“Why wasn’t anything done?” Mark Friedman asked recently. “What were they waiting for?”

Kari Friedman, Provided Photo

A family photo of Ilana, Jill, Mark and Kari Friedman.

At one point that night, the parents remember looking at each other and making a pledge: “Kari will not die in vain.”

It also struck the parents that Kari was alone in a funeral home on the other side of the country. The Friedmans are Jewish, and in that faith it’s important the body of a deceased person not be left alone. So their family called a rabbi who called another rabbi who knew Chaim Bruk, a rabbi in Bozeman. All of this happened within a few moments.

“It’s two minutes from my house. I’ll be there in five minutes,” Rabbi Bruk remembered saying. On the way out the door, he grabbed the book of Psalms that he read into the night as he sat with Kari Friedman. She was 30 years old.

Back in Ohio, when the house emptied and Jill and their older daughter Ilana finally went to bed, Mark sat at his computer. Sleep was out of the question. Initially, he went back to reading the website comments, but his coming fight with the Montana Department of Transportation would have to wait. Instead, as morning approached, he wrote his daughter’s obituary.

———

There’s a lot going on where the Frontage and Valley Center Spur roads meet. The spur road is two lanes, only about 500 feet long and links Frontage Road to Valley Center Road, essentially connecting the rural north of Gallatin County to the expanding city and the big-box stores, restaurants and chain hotels to the south.

The spur road also runs under an overpass with the traffic of Interstate 90 above, and it’s crossed by railroad tracks that, at the time, served 28 passing trains a day. Now imagine a line of cars backed up at the stop sign, enough of them to take up the entirety of the spur road, each trying to make the turn that killed Kari Friedman.

How did this wreck happen? Perhaps the better question would be how did it not happen more often.

Intersection of Frontage and East Valley Center Rds

The intersection of Frontage and East Valley Center roads under construction last summer, on Aug. 17, 2019.

———

Michael George Frederick Hoffman was about to enter the seventh grade at Belgrade Middle School when he died in September of 2000 in an accident on Frontage Road, about a mile west of its intersection with the spur road. His family was headed to dinner with friends on a Sunday evening when their car was rear-ended and knocked into oncoming traffic. Michael died at the scene. Today, there is a baseball field in Belgrade, “Hoffman Field,” named in his memory.

Had he lived, Michael today would be 31 years old.

His death set off an outcry about the danger of the roughly 7-mile stretch of Frontage Road between Bozeman and Belgrade. The surging population of the two cities – as well as the expanded use of the airport between them – was straining the road, also known as Montana Secondary Highway 205. Petitions circulated. Public meetings were held. In response, the state lowered the speed limit from 65 to 60 mph.

But in 2005, and after 18 collisions in the previous 10 years at the intersection of Frontage and spur roads, the Montana Department of Transportation sought to make improvements there. A flashing overhead light was hung, turning lanes were added and a “stop bar” – a white stripe meant to indicate where drivers should stop while waiting to turn – was painted on the pavement of the spur road’s northbound lane.

Problems with those improvements, however, proved significant, lawsuits filed against the state contend.

The Montana Department of Transportation’s design manual warned that installing a right-turn lane – like the one added for eastbound traffic on Frontage Road – could create what is known to those who study traffic as “a moving sight obstruction.”

Basically, it means that a car slowing to join the right-hand turning lane could hide a car in the adjacent through lane – in this case from drivers trying to turn west off the spur road. With cars in the through lane traveling at 60 mph – the speed limit on the Frontage Road – the issues magnified.

Such a sight obstruction caused the wreck that killed Caleb Jones. It also likely killed Kari Friedman.

To limit the potential for sight obstructions, the MDOT manual calls for a stop bar. It’s “imperative,” the manual states, that the stop bar be placed as close to the intersection as practical. At the spur road, the stop bar was set some 15 feet back.

The MDOT manual also calls for a “medial separator,” additional striping meant to create space between the new right-turn lane and the lane for through traffic on Frontage Road. The idea was that the additional space would afford northbound drivers on the spur road a better chance at seeing the oncoming, eastbound traffic.

Using its own manuals and formulas, the MDOT subsequently concluded the separator in this case should be 10 feet wide. In 2005, however, the state agency designed and installed a 4-foot separator. Later, while being questioned as part of a lawsuit, the MDOT employee who designed the improvements in 2005 could not explain why.

“Are you familiar with what a moving sight obstruction is?” the employee was asked.

“Not specifically.”

“Are you aware that decelerating vehicles in a right-turn lane can cause a moving sight obstruction?”

“I suppose they could.”

“Was that something you took into account when you designed this intersection?”

“Probably not.”

And, regarding the location of the stop bar:

“You put a stop bar in your design?” the attorney asked.

“Yes.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“And do you know why you placed it where you did?”

“No.”

Sometime during the next year, the stop bar faded away, probably due to traffic or weather of a combination of the two. At the time of Kari Friedman’s death – at least eight years later – the stop bar had not been replaced.

In the eight years after the improvements were made in 2005, 25 accidents occurred where the Frontage Road intersects with the spur road, according to agency documents. Eighteen of those accidents were “right-angle” accidents, including the one that killed Caleb Jones in June of 2012.

The following year, in June of 2013, another MDOT engineer went to the intersection and – over four hours – observed four “close calls” between drivers eastbound on Frontage Road and those turning west from the spur road. The following month, a Montana Highway Patrol sergeant sent an email asking the MDOT to study the intersection. In his email, the officer noted that he had responded to “multiple” crashes at the intersection “and almost all of them involve the same scenario” of a “vision obstruction obscuring people going straight eastbound on Frontage.” According to court records, patrol officers made similar requests for “site surveys” on four occasions during the previous 13 months.

And by then, according to an internal MDOT email uncovered as part of a lawsuit against the agency, closing the spur road was being considered.

A few months later, during the fall of 2013, a traffic design supervisor studied the site – specifically the size of the medial separator between the through lane and the right-turn lane on Frontage Road – and concluded the striping should be 10 feet wide, rather than its current width of 4 feet.

The cost of making that change, though, was estimated at more than $120,000, mostly to widen Frontage Road. Problem was, the MDOT at some point had mistakenly measured or recorded the width of the road, according to court records. As it stood, the road was more than wide enough to accommodate the recommended changes.

The MDOT finally made the fixes in July of 2015 — more than a year after Kari Friedman’s death. The cost to widen the separator and replace the stop bar: $3,589.06.

———

Kari Friedman, Provided Photo

Kari Friedman and her dog, Pilsner.

Ask those who loved Kari Friedman to describe her, and you hear a lot of similar stories. They all talk about her big smile and a laugh that sounded more like a thunderous cackle.

They tell you how, after her high school counselor told her she wasn’t college material, she mailed that same counselor a report card filled with the A’s she had earned during her first semester at the University of Montana.

They tell you that when she visited her family back in Ohio, she liked to take the train so she could see the countryside, or that when she went camping, she liked to sleep without a tent under the stars.

They tell you that she loved to fish and to row a boat and that she loved rooting for the fabulously horrid Cleveland Browns football club. They tell you she enjoyed a cocktail and going to concerts and dancing with friends.

They tell you that when she had a radio show in high school, she ended each broadcast by playing Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a wonderful world.” They tell you that when she walked into a crowded room, she often tried to join someone who was sitting alone.

They tell you about the time after college, at 4-feet, 10-inches tall, she wore a child’s Yoda costume to a Halloween party and that her group of friends in Montana had become a second family.

They tell you that she loved her dog, a black Lab she named Pilsner. And that she loved Jay Gill.

This is how they choose to remember her when they gather and inevitably talk about Kari. They try to forget the pain and the twisted metal and the way she died.

Mostly, though, they talk about how she’d found joy and her life’s work in helping kids.

———

Kari Friedman envisioned a life in Montana after a class trip to Glacier National Park in the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school. The group drove through Missoula; she was struck by the beauty of the Clark Fork River meandering through the city.

“That’s when she fell in love with Montana,” her mother Jill said.

Her parents were adamant that she stay close to home in Ohio for college, but Kari wasn’t interested. In the fall of 2002, she enrolled at the University of Montana to study photojournalism. She worked some for newspapers after graduating, had a show of her work at a gallery in downtown Missoula and eventually got a job photographing concerts for a local venue that doubled as a brewery. At some point, though, she decided she wanted to work with at-risk kids. She started at the Head Start preschool in Missoula and ultimately landed a job working with troubled students and their families at Big Sky High School in that city.

“She could not understand why parents weren’t working hard enough for their kids,” recalled her friend, Briana Burge. “She was trying to fill that gap.”

Kari was quick to smile and didn’t judge those students or parents who had past issues with the school, said Vanessa Gibson, a counselor at Big Sky High. She was earning trust from those who didn’t always consider educators as trustworthy.

“She loved those kids,” Gibson said. “Some people just show up and do their jobs. Some people have a passion for it. That was Kari.”

Jay Gill remembered being on phone calls with Kari and occasionally hearing her passing conversations with students. “Do you need a ride? Did you eat today? Things like that,” Jay said. “She was having an impact. It was neat to see.”

Kari was interested in continuing her education and applied to the counseling program at Montana State in Bozeman. When the principal of Big Sky High wrote a letter of recommendation to the program, he credited her as “a major reason” the school had the lowest dropout rate of any of the larger high schools in the state.

“She is an individual who is going to be successful at whatever she puts her mind to,” the principal wrote. “Thankfully for us, she has chosen to help those most in need.”

MSU accepted Kari into its masters program, and she was nearing the end of her first year when the accident happened. At the time, she was living in a basement apartment near campus, across town from Jay. They’d been dating for about two years.

A week before her death, there was a statewide counseling conference in Bozeman. Vanessa Gibson drove from Missoula, and one evening she and Kari met for drinks.

“She wanted to know how her kids were doing,” Gibson recalled. “What about this kid? What about that kid? She was a star, the kind of person who could affect an entire school. This took an amazing person who would have done amazing things, all because of a bad intersection.”

While at Big Sky High, Kari started soliciting donations for kids who might need things like a winter coat or a bike or a gas card so they could get to school. At the time, it was called a “crisis” account. Today, they just call it Kari’s Fund.

———

On the morning of June 4, 2012, Caleb Jones was on his motorcycle, headed to a clinic in Bozeman for people trying to overcome drug and alcohol addictions. He’d cleaned himself up, his father said recently, and was doing what he could to help at the clinic, a voice of experience offering support.

It wasn’t always that way, though.

His father Dan Jones remembers his son as a rebel who dropped out of high school in Belgrade just two credits short of graduation and who struggled with addiction that perhaps stemmed from the pain left over from back surgery he required as a teenager. More than once, Dan Jones bailed his son out of jail.

Caleb Jones, Provided Photo

Caleb Jones, in the baseball cap, at a family wedding, just days before he was killed.

But by 2012, Caleb had earned his GED, learned to be a welder and was working alongside his father and brother in the family’s construction business. He had survived a lot, his father said.

As Caleb headed east on the Frontage Road, a mini-van attempted to turn west from the spur road. A vehicle in the right-turn lane blocked the driver from seeing Caleb’s motorcycle in the through lane, and the two collided. There were no skid marks left by the motorcycle, a used Harley-Davidson given to Caleb by his father when he graduated welding school.

Caleb wasn’t wearing a helmet; he never did.

Initially, the hospital in Bozeman reported to Dan Jones that his son had suffered a broken leg and a severe cut to the back of his head. He was unconscious, “but he was breathing and he was alive,” Dan Jones recalled. Still, doctors determined Caleb should be flown to Billings for treatment there. As Caleb was loaded into a helicopter, a nurse encouraged Dan Jones to talk to his son: He might be able to hear you.

“Hang in there, Caleb,” the father remembers saying. “I need you.”

Dan Jones and others made the hurried drive down Interstate 90 and were about 10 miles outside of Billings when the hospital called: Get here as fast as you can. By the time they arrived, Caleb was dead. He was 28.

That night, back in Bozeman, Dan Jones couldn’t sleep. Instead, he drove to the intersection of the Frontage and spur roads. Some debris from the wreck remained; Dan could see paint on the asphalt, apparently marking evidence from the crash. There was no traffic.

Alone, he stood in the middle of the intersection, looked up into the night sky and screamed as loud as he could.

———

In the months after Caleb’s death, Dan Jones often drove to the intersection, sat in his pickup and watched. He figured he went on at least a dozen occasions. Time and again, he said, he saw near misses of wrecks like the one that killed his son. He built and placed there a wooden cross and decorated it with Caleb’s name, flowers, small American flags and a Harley-Davidson keychain. He talked, too, with emergency medical workers and highway patrol troopers. They knew how dangerous the intersection could be.

“I’m thinking this is absolutely crazy,” Dan Jones said recently. “My son lost his life because the state didn’t think it was important enough to deal with this, and you could just tell: Someone else was going to get hurt.”

So, on behalf of his son, Dan Jones filed a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Transportation.

He insists the case was never about money. What he really wanted, he said, was for the intersection to be fixed. So, when the state of Montana paid $150,000 to settle the lawsuit, he was more interested in the promise he said was made during negotiations that substantial changes would be made to the intersection within the year.

The paperwork on that settlement was filed with the Gallatin County District Court in July of 2014, three months after Kari Friedman’s death.

Try as he might, Dan Jones remains bitter about how his son died. Not a day goes by, he said, that he doesn’t think of Caleb and wonder what his son’s life might have been like. Would he have married? Would he have had children of his own? And he dreams about Caleb.

“I wake up at night from the dreams,” Dan Jones said. “Caleb is in trouble, and I want to help him, but I can’t.

“The state needs to know the effect this has on people. This was something that could have been fixed. My boy didn’t have to die.”

This wasn’t part of the settlement, but Dan Jones also hoped that someday, someone representing the state of Montana would call to apologize. Seven years have passed. He wants you to know he is still waiting.

———

About a month after Kari Friedman’s death, a Montana Department of Transportation memorandum concluded the spur road should be closed. Because of a high volume of traffic, the memo said, the intersection had been “operating with a failing level of service.”

“Closure of the spur road would address the crash trend,” the memo said.

So, on Sept. 14, 2014, MDOT officials held a public meeting in Bozeman. Mark and Jill Friedman decided they needed to attend.

When their flight from Ohio landed in Bozeman, the Friedmans rented a car. Their route into town took them down Frontage Road, past the intersection with the spur road. They remember yellow blinking lights and a large, electronic sign that read, “Caution, dangerous intersection ahead.”

“It was like a dagger in your heart,” Jill Friedman said recently.

Lots of people spoke at the meeting. Most demanded something be done; none advocated for the recommended closure. A local fire department official said closing the spur road would slow response times to emergencies. Area businesses worried about inconveniencing customers. Without the road, many said moving farm equipment around the valley would become even more troublesome. Other options were discussed. Slowing the speed limit, maybe installing stop lights at both ends of the spur road.

Many wore buttons that included a photograph of Kari and the words, “Who’s next? Fix it now!” Jill Friedman, to this day, carries one of those buttons in her purse.

Mark Friedman spoke at the meeting and pleaded with the Montana Department of Transportation.

“We want something done to change this terribly designed, profoundly unsafe intersection,” he read from a prepared statement.

Along the margins of his statement, Mark wrote himself notes. “Breathe. Slow down. Deep breaths.”

“These accidents, including Kari’s, should not have happened,” he continued that night. “And you folks know this too. You know … that this is a dangerous intersection. In fact, it is a killer intersection.”

“Without acting, there will surely be another Kari or another Caleb Jones…”

Dan Jones was also there that night, and, after the meeting, he approached the Friedmans. He told them how sorry he was for their loss and how he wished change had come in time for their daughter.

By then, the Friedmans had filed their own lawsuit. They’d decided they wouldn’t wait for another accident. Looking back, they now realize they didn’t want to mourn with some other family at some other public meeting.

“The folks at MDOT failed in their number-one priority: that is to protect public safety,” Mark Friedman said. “And we just didn’t want anyone else to go through what we went through.”

The month following the public meeting in Bozeman, the Montana Department of Transportation indeed lowered the speed limit on the Frontage Road from 60 to 50 mph. And the following summer, it made changes to the striping at the intersection to reduce the sight obstructions that were causing so many wrecks.

Making the fixes, the MDOT essentially conceded the intersection had issues, and, although the lawsuit drug on for nearly another two years, the state paid the Friedmans $675,000 to settle the case. It paid an additional $175,000 to Ezra Benson, the driver who had collided with Kari. He broke his hand and was hospitalized with back injuries. For years, Mr. Benson drove Frontage Road back and forth from his home in Belgrade to his job in Bozeman. Since the accident, he can’t bring himself to pass that way again.

For its part, the Montana Department of Transportation disputes the allegations that it had failed to protect the public in its design and operation of the intersection of Frontage and spur roads. During litigation, the MDOT said recently in response to questions posed by the Chronicle, “well-respected experts in different areas of traffic design and crash analysis found that the design of the intersection involved was neither improper nor operationally deficient.”

The department also maintained that, “throughout the process of determining the appropriate solution for this intersection, it has at no time been deemed unsafe.”

During the lawsuit brought by Ezra Benson and the estate of Kari Friedman, the MDOT also contended the accident was not caused by a sight obstruction, but by Kari failing to yield to the oncoming traffic. Mr. Benson, too, should have done more to avoid the wreck.

Still, between the accident that killed Caleb Jones and the accident that killed Kari Friedman, the state of Montana eventually paid $1 million to settle the lawsuits. The Friedmans wanted to hold accountable those at the Montana Department of Transportation – and the financial settlement helped some to do that – but mostly they wanted changes made to the intersection.

“I don’t think there was any amount of money that Mark and Jill would have let me accept as a settlement without that taking place,” said their attorney, Justin Stalpes, of Bozeman. “I know that they wanted their daughter’s death to mean something. They worked very hard to make sure she didn’t die in vain.”

And while he understands the Friedmans’ frustration and anger, Stalpes said some of the blame must land with the state for not allocating enough money for its department of transportation to properly do its job. After all, Montana is a big state with lots of roads.

“This intersection wasn’t unsafe because the people at MDOT didn’t care,” he said. “But I do believe they didn’t have the resources to keep up with the demands. That’s not an excuse, but as our county continues to evolve, we need to understand that there will be intersections where the traffic needs outweigh the capabilities of those intersections.

“We need to provide our government with the resources to act and act fast. Kari’s death should resonate past this particular intersection.”

For his part, Jay Gill wasn’t interested in the lawsuit. He said he was just trying to get out of bed every morning and make it through each day. And, as years passed, he tried not to be angry with state workers he never met, although that hasn’t always been easy.

“One more person had to die,” he said. “And that was my Kari.”

———

The settlement from the lawsuit presented Mark and Jill Friedman with a problem: What do you do with money you don’t want? How do you find a silver lining in something so painful? So they decided to give it away.

They funded a scholarship for journalism students at the University of Montana and donated to a science program at Kari’s old high school that takes students on trips to national parks. They gave money to the crisis fund at Big Sky High School and to support Rabbi Bruk’s hopes to build a Jewish Community Center in Bozeman. The center will include “Kari’s Playworld,” an outdoor playground dedicated to her memory. In his office, the rabbi keeps a photograph taken of Kari in Jerusalem, a gift from the Friedmans. It reminds him to appreciate time with his own kids.

The Friedmans also give money to a group called Citizens for a Safer Bozeman. Marilee Brown leads that group; her daughter Jesse was a student at Chief Joseph Middle School in 2014 and among the last people to see Kari alive. Kari, Jesse and other students were making “friendship bracelets” and talking about how to reduce bullying at the school. Moments later, Kari left to get Jay at the airport.

Marilee Brown uses her platform with Citizens for a Safer Bozeman to, among other things, encourage citizens to be activists, to demand more from their government. When she meets with students or civic groups, she holds up a photograph of Kari. She talks about Caleb Jones.

“Kari Friedman died because I didn’t write a letter,” Brown said. “Kari Friedman is dead because I didn’t make a phone call. Complaining doesn’t matter if you don’t do anything.”

“I don’t cry for Kari anymore,” she continued. “I feel like she is living and making a difference in other people’s lives.”

Those friendship bracelets that Kari made with her students? Jesse Brown gave one to Kari’s mom. She wears it every day.

———

In December of 2015, the Montana Department of Transportation concluded – according to an agency memorandum – that closing the spur road remained “the preferred option.” Because of public opposition, however, the Montana Transportation Commission rejected that proposal. MDOT, then, decided it would instead put up traffic signals at both ends of the spur road. Those signals were installed this fall and began operating last week, more than five years after Kari Friedman’s death.

Sometime during that work, the wooden cross that Dan Jones fashioned in his son’s memory was destroyed, its pieces left to scatter in the tall grass along Frontage Road.

———

Jay Gill admits he is torn by his happiness today. He married a woman named Lisa, a friend of Kari’s, and she wears his grandmother’s ring. They bought a home on a tree-lined street not far from downtown Bozeman, just across from Bogert Park, and Kari’s dog Pilsner used to lounge in the front yard until he died about a year ago.

The couple has a baby girl named June. She is 18 months old. Another baby is due in March.

“I couldn’t ask for more than I have now,” Jay said.

Jay Gill

Jay Gill poses for a photo with his wife, Lisa Gill, 18-month-year-old daughter, June Gill, and their 3-year-old dog, Larry, on Sept. 3, 2019, in front of their Bozeman home.

There was a time when Jay saw this life with Kari. And while he knows what he has now wouldn’t be possible without her death, he tries not to think about it like that, even when his work necessitates he drive past the intersection of Frontage and spur roads.

Instead, he tries to remember all the things he loved about Kari, “the tiny Jewish girl finding her way in Montana.” He is thankful for the people who helped him escape his immense sorrow. He knows Kari would be happy for him and Lisa. She’d be happy they are raising a family.

“The world is a dimmer place without her,” Jay said. “We need more people like Kari, not less.”

He keeps in touch with the Friedmans. He calls on the days he knows will be difficult for them: Kari’s birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and each April 16, the day she died.

Kari Friedman Marker

A Star of David sits next to an American Legion cross at Frontage and East Valley Center Roads, both marking the intersection where Kari Friedman was killed on April 16, 2014. Her parents, Mark and Jill Friedman, regularly ask Langohr's Flowerland to deliver and decorate the Star of David marker with fresh flowers and a laminated note.

Those days are definitely tough for Mark and Jill Friedman; most other days are, too. On a typical afternoon, Mark notes when the time hits 1:30, about the time that Kari died. On the 16th of each month, family and friends gather at a bar someplace and raise a glass to her memory.

And the Friedmans often send flowers to decorate the Star of David placed to mark the scene of the accident. Wild flowers or sunflowers mostly, things Kari would have enjoyed. They send a note, too, and the delivery driver for Langohr’s floral in Bozeman texts them a quick photograph to let them know the site is being kept up.

Sometimes their note is long; sometimes it’s short. The message, though, is always the same: We love you, Kari, and we miss you.

Nick Ehli is the Chronicle’s editor. He can be reached at nehli@dailychronicle.com.

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