Parents testify to horrific bonfire aftermath

Armstrong gets jail time, probation — but also forgiveness
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Samuel Armstrong, the Pulaski High School student found guilty of 13 counts of injury by negligent use of an explosive, listened to about an hour of testimony from one of his victims and two families, along with evidence presented by the Shawano-Menominee County district attorney, before he was sentenced to one year in jail and five years’ probation for his role in a homecoming bonfire gone horribly wrong.

Armstrong, who turns 19 in May, sat quietly in the Branch I courtroom April 11, at times moved to tears, as parents described the horrible sights and smells as they saw their children in the hospital, burned over much of their bodies. They also described the pain of having to care for them over multiple surgeries in the last 18 months, and the continued anguish they face with more surgeries and care with dim possibilities that their lives will ever reach a sense of normalcy.

Armstrong was charged by the district attorney’s office on Aug. 3, 2023, nearly 10 months after Shawano County sheriff’s deputies responded to the site of the bonfire in the Town of Maple Grove. Armstrong, who was drunk at the time and said he’d consumed six beers, has admitted that he helped to throw a blue plastic 55-gallon barrel with a diesel/gasoline mixture into the fire with the help of someone identified as “TJF” in the criminal complaint.

Among the conditions of the probation were absolute sobriety, no use of prescription drugs or cannabinoids of any kind, no handling of flammables or explosives, 200 hours of community service and restitution to be determined within 60 days. Shawano-Menominee County Circuit Court Judge Katherine Sloma gave credit for the one day Armstrong spent in the Shawano County Jail, and he will be required to report there by the end of May.

During the testimony at the sentencing, parents testified that the case could have been a murder trial if any of the victims had died from their injuries, that they felt so helpless about the agony and pain their sons were in — and that, in spite of everything that happened, they forgive him.

Relentless cycle of heartbreak

Tammy Brzeczkowski testified that, even though her family is moving past what happened to her son, Brandon, and getting back to an altered sense of normalcy, no one has forgotten what happened on the night of Oct. 14, 2022. Brzeczkowski said she was recovering at the time from a broken leg and that her family members, including Brandon, were caring for her.

She did not realize that soon she would be providing full-time care for her son’s injuries in the coming months.

Brzeczkowski said that Brandon was excited about going to the homecoming dance — it was going to be the first in which he participated — and that night, she received texts from her son making sure she was all right and comfortable. An hour after that final text, she was witnessing her son in a hospital emergency room.

“It marked the end of his innocence and the beginning of a nightmare,” Brzeczkowski said. “His once vibrant skin was now marred by burns. I remember his hands were peeled. His skin peeled like a banana, and that’s an image that will forever be on my soul — the pain in his eyes, the anguish in his voice when he whispered to me, ‘I’m never going to be able to work again.’

“These are the wounds that no amount of time,” Brzeczkowski added before testifying that she saw a video showing what had happened and described it as resembling a war zone.

The mother described the hardship the family endured having to care for Brandon over the next few months, with her and her husband trying to operate their family business remotely as most of their attention turned to caring for their son. Brzeczkowski said that Brandon couldn’t eat, bathe or even use the bathroom without help.

Brandon has been able to resume his construction job, despite his fears in the ER, but it has been a long road, according to Brzeczkowski, who noted her family has found a way to forgive Armstrong.

“We watched helplessly as our son, at times, fought for his life — countless surgeries, infections, endless nights of worry and despair,” Brzeczkowski said. “The relentless cycle of hope and heartbreak, all at the hands of Samuel Armstrong’s thoughtless act.”

A door knock late at night

Julie Van Asten, whose son, Benjamin, was another victim of Armstrong’s action, also described how the memory of the night of Oct. 14, 2022, will always haunt her.

“Each family’s story is different, but the common denominator is you,” Van Asten said as she spoke directly to Armstrong from the witness stand. “A knock on the front door in the middle of the night is something that I can never forget.”

Van Asten noted that Benjamin’s phone was still in his pocket, so she was able to track it to a hospital in Green Bay. She recounted how burns covered 55.5% of her son’s body, how he lost 50 pounds during his time in the hospital, and how the survival rate from his level of burning was only 26%. She said bluntly that Armstrong’s case could easily have been “a murder trial.”

Like Brzeczkowski, Van Asten said she has found a way to forgive Armstrong for his actions, even though he was not present for the agonizing screams when bandages had to be changed at home or at the hospital. Van Asten recalled how Armstrong tried to put out the flames on Benjamin right after the explosion occurred.

“I willingly admit I still get angry sometimes that something like this happened and ruined so many lives,” Van Asten said. “I believe what happened that night is something that you, too, will never forget — seeing your friends on fire and screaming in pain must be something you, too, see every day in your mind.”

Attorneys make their case

District Attorney Greg Parker read additional statements from victims, some forgiving while others claiming they don’t believe Armstrong should get a second chance to be part of society. He also showed photos of the crime scene, pointing out the blue barrels that had the gas mixture in a couple of them and recalled how others at the bonfire had warned Armstrong not to throw the barrel on the fire.

“I don’t know how somebody that was that intoxicated got the wherewithal to do this knowing other people were around,” Parker said. “Youth, I guess youth has something to do with it.”

He read from a pre-sentencing investigation where Armstrong admitted he has drank beer since age 16, and that he minimized his actions to the investigator and claimed that he would not benefit from entering treatment programs. Despite the pre-sentencing report, Parker said he still believed the agreed-upon plea deal was fitting for what Armstrong had done.

Greg Petit, Armstrong’s attorney, painted a different picture than what the pre-sentencing investigation portrayed. He recounted how Armstrong was in full cooperation with law enforcement from the very beginning, never tried to shirk his actions on others and how he had been saving up the money he earned from working in preparation for providing restitution.

Petit also questioned why Armstrong, who was under 18 at the time of the incident but turned 18 before the district attorney filed charges, was charged in an adult court while his co-conspirator went through the juvenile court system. Petit added that Armstrong had no criminal record prior to being charged in the bonfire explosion.

“The result is that the pain is there, but the intent wasn’t,” Petit said. “That’s very important when you take into account what to do here. Sam has taken complete responsibility for this.”

Judge: Forgiveness rare

Sloma, while delivering the sentence, said she heard the word “forgiveness” five times during the hearing.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say they forgive you,” Sloma said. “I think you’re a lucky person for that. I’ve had cases where people have apologized (for their actions), but I almost never hear people say they forgive someone.”

Sloma noted that Armstrong doesn’t seem like a problem child, but she added that, whether sober or intoxicated, it was his choice to put the barrel in the fire. She recommended Armstrong find a way to apologize to his victims through the probation office, whether agents would facilitate written letters or supervised in-person apologies.

“I know one of the victims said you shouldn’t drink until your 21st birthday,” Sloma said. “Frankly, I think you should never drink again.”

The normal sentence for the 13 counts could have been 19½ years in prison total with 26 years of probation, which Sloma urged Armstrong to remember as he spends the next chapter of his life under the close scrutiny of the law.

“If you don’t do well, you have a hammer hanging over your head with this sentence,” Sloma said.