BILLINGS -- A man who helped his family escape their war-torn homeland in Africa was sentenced Friday to 25 years at Montana State Prison.
Robert Zlahn, 27, was sentenced by District Judge Mary Jane Knisely at the conclusion of a two-hour hearing that included accounts from his mother and brother of how they escaped civil war in Liberia and came to the United States as refugees.
While Knisely said she was impressed with the story of Zlahn's family and how they have "embraced" their new life, she was not moved by Zlahn's conduct since he arrived in this country in 2003.
Zlahn's criminal record includes several misdemeanor convictions, repeated brushes with the law and the near-miss shooting in Billings on July 1, 2011, for which he was sentenced Friday.
Knisely ordered Zlahn to spend 20 years at Montana State Prison, with five years suspended, for felony assault with a weapon.
Zlahn was ordered to serve a consecutive sentence of 10 years at the state prison for felony criminal endangerment, and the judge imposed a concurrent suspended sentence of five years in state custody for felony tampering.
Zlahn was convicted of the three felony charges at the conclusion of a seven-day trial in July. The jury acquitted Zlahn of the most serious charge, attempted deliberate homicide.
Zlahn has remained in the county jail since his arrest on the day of the shooting, which happened at 3 p.m. at the intersection of Main Street and Pemberton Lane.
Zlahn was convicted of shooting three times across several lanes of traffic at former football star and bodybuilder Ryan Grosulak, who testified at trial that he heard the first shot from a .45-caliber pistol whiz past his head.
The shooting happened after Grosulak confronted the men who had been harassing his girlfriend outside the couple's apartment.
Christopher Abbott, Zlahn's public defender, told the judge Friday that Zlahn maintains his innocence. He suggested the judge impose a 15-year suspended sentence, arguing that the "high cost of incarceration" and Zlahn's potential to be a good citizen should be considered.
There is "no concrete evidence" that there was any intent to kill the victim, Abbott said, and "no one was actually hurt."
Chief Deputy County Attorney Rod Souza described Zlahn as a "violent thug" who is a danger to the community with little chance of being rehabilitated.
Souza recommended a total sentence of 30 years at the state prison for the three felony charges.
Zlahn told the judge that he does not have a violent criminal history and has held several jobs since arriving in the United States.
"You honor, I started with nothing," Zlahn said in a heavy accent. "I came far."
Zlahn told the judge that his plans include returning to Liberia to open an orphanage. He also said he helped put his girlfriend, Tiffanie Malecha, who attended the hearing with the couple's young daughter, through nursing school so she could take care of the children at the orphanage.
Zlahn's younger brother, Abraham K'Pahn, and his mother, Nancy Sangah, also testified at the sentencing. K'Pahn translated for his mother, who spoke in her native language.
K'Pahn and Sangah said the family became separated during a brutal civil war in Liberia when Sangah's children were young. K'Pahn compared his childhood in Liberia to the movie "Blood Diamond," a film about the illegal diamond trade in the African nation.
Zlahn made it to the neighboring country of Ivory Coast, where he lived in a city and worked, sending money to his family living in a remote village, K'Pahn said.
Eventually the family was reunited in a refugee camp, and Zlahn's connections with several United Nations workers helped them immigrate to the United States in 2003.
The family settled first in Michigan, with some of Zlahn's four siblings and eventually his mother moving to Iowa. Zlahn said he came to Billings in February 2011 looking for a warmer climate.
K'Pahn said his brother's troubles are due to his easygoing nature.
"I really believe he should be given a second chance to become a good citizen," K'Pahn said.
Malecha, Zlahn's girlfriend, spoke briefly and described Zlahn as a "caring and understanding" person whom she credited with helping her become a certified nursing assistant.
Zlahn was also sentenced Friday for an unrelated drug charge involving the possession of heroin and marijuana. Knisely ordered Zlahn to serve a concurrent term of five years in state prison.