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Hungry Horse artist Oberling gets suspended sentence, time served, in electrocution case

by DERRICK PERKINS
Hagadone News Network | January 26, 2023 4:50 AM

Hungry Horse artist and convicted felon Nicholas H. Oberling painted himself as the victim at his Wednesday sentencing in Flathead County District Court, even as his former partner accused him of continuing to harass her from behind bars.

Oberling, 60, of Hungry Horse earned a suspended five-year sentence with the state Department of Corrections on a felony criminal endangerment charge for running wires into her bathroom shower over the summer. Still in an inmate’s orange uniform — he has remained in the county jail since his arrest — Oberling received credit for 186 days of time served.

“The sole purpose of the defendant’s [actions] was truly to electrocute me in my shower and not get caught,” said his former partner, who is identified in court documents as B.B., while delivering a statement to the court.

She described his efforts as “an ugly, depraved and completely premeditated attempt” to kill her, and criticized the Flathead County Attorney’s Office for pursuing a criminal endangerment charge over attempted deliberate homicide.

The victim phoned authorities, according to court documents, after receiving several shocks while taking a shower on July 23. Arriving deputies with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office found a stripped wire running from her soap dish through a drywall patch and toward an outlet on the other side, court documents said.

She told the court that the land the couple lived on had a survivorship clause. Had she died, he would inherit the property, she said. Revealing she suffered from hypertension and had a family history of cardiac arrest, the victim said she believed her death via electrocution would have appeared easily explainable to medical officials.

“With the property windfall … he needed my death to seem natural,” she said, alternating between dabbing her face with a tissue and staring down her one-time significant other.

She also accused Oberling of continuing to harass and threaten her from jail. As evidence, she offered a letter written by Oberling and sent to her via her attorney in their separation proceedings, a civil matter, regarding disbursement of the couple’s assets. She also shared photographs, including one of a list of codewords that she deemed likely connected to the contraption he rigged up.

Though she acknowledged securing a protective order against Oberling, she beseeched Judge Robert Allison for further protection.

“Please hold this defendant accountable for blatant, sophisticated and inhumane conduct,” she said.

OBERLING OBJECTED, occasionally in a short outburst from the defendant’s table and other times through defense attorney Sean Hinchey, to his victim’s new allegations.

Oberling pleaded guilty to the felony charge Nov. 28, 2022 after striking a plea deal with prosecutors earlier that month. In exchange, they agreed to recommend the suspended sentence.

During his change of plea hearing, Oberling admitted to wiring the soap dish, acknowledged it could have caused serious injury and said he hoped to scare her enough to end their relationship. He described it then as the act of a desperate man.

During his Jan. 25 sentencing, Oberling again spoke of his desperation, telling the court he suffered years of abuse from his victim. Oberling said she changed after he invested most of his money into their gallery and described her as growing controlling and manipulative.

He tried to break up with her, he said, but lacked the money to leave. She refused to buy him out of the gallery or settle on a way to split up their assets as their relationship devolved, Oberling said.

He told the court he had no interest in the property.

“I just wanted to get out,” he said. “So I put the wire in the shower to scare her. I knew that would get me out.”

He said he welcomed authorities when they arrived to arrest him.

Though denying ever plugging the contraption in, he again admitted to trying to frighten her before apologizing.

“I am very sorry,” Oberling said. “This is so uncharacteristic of me.”

Endorsing the suspended sentence recommendation, Hinchey pointed to his client’s lack of criminal history and described Oberling’s act as an isolated incident.

“I think Oberling saw himself deep down as a cornered animal and lashed out and did something he shouldn’t,” he told the court.

PRIOR TO handing down the sentence, Allison scrutinized Oberling’s account of the events leading up to his arrest.

During the ensuing back-and-forth, Oberling admitted to using a baby monitor to eavesdrop on his victim during that period. While the artist described his former partner as banishing him to an old bus on their property during cold winter months, he later admitted to sleeping in the pair’s gallery when the nights grew too cold.

As for the list of codewords, Oberling said it was shorthand he used to track their arguments after turning to social media for help coping with the relationship.

Satisfied, Allison ran through the conditions wherein he might break with the terms of a plea deal: compelling testimony from a victim or witness; too lenient of a recommended sentence; and bad behavior from the defendant prior to sentencing. Those circumstances did not apply to Oberling, Allison said.

“I don’t see any compelling causes, based on my kind of tortured analysis, to deviate from the plea agreement,” he said, handing down the suspended sentence.

He also ordered Oberling to pay $6,400 in restitution to his victim. At the behest of Oberling’s attorney, Allison left mandatory anger management at the discretion of the painter’s probation officer.

The judge urged Oberling to take the order of protection seriously and recommended he retain a good lawyer for his civil proceedings with the victim. He referenced the exchange over the letter as an example.

“Good luck and follow that order of protection,” Allison said. “That could get you in trouble.”

County Attorney Travis Ahner, who observed the sentencing, described the case as “very appropriately charged and handled.” Deputy County Attorney Alison Howard prosecuted the case.

He also praised the Sheriff’s Office for its investigative work and acknowledged the victim’s criticisms of the prosecution’s approach.

“We appreciate the victims who are impacted by cases, but we are forced to view things through an objective lens,” Ahner said.

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