A 27-year-old man in Nebraska will spend at least a decade behind bars for helping to kidnap and torture a man over stolen drugs. The victim was beaten nearly to death and had the word “thief” branded on his skin with a blowtorch before being tied up to a tree and left to die in a rural country area.
Lancaster County District Judge Susan I. Strong on Thursday ordered Austin Widhalm to serve a sentence of 16 to 22 years in a state correctional facility over the gruesome attack, authorities confirmed to Law&Crime.
Widhalm pleaded no contest last month to one count of second-degree assault and one count of first-degree false imprisonment. Strong sentenced Widhalm to 14 to 19 years on the assault charge and two to three years on the false imprisonment charge, to be served consecutively, meaning one after the other.
Widhalm’s co-defendant in the case, Tanner Danielson, pleaded no contest in June to one count of attempted kidnapping and one count of first-degree sexual assault. Strong sentenced Danielson last week to 40 to 50 years on the first count and 30 to 40 years on the second count, with the two sentences running concurrently.
As reflected in the sentencing disparity between the two co-defendants, prosecutors on Thursday conceded that Widhalm was not the primary culprit in the “horrific” attack but said he “participated in a major way,” according to a report from the Lincoln Journal Star.
“Frankly, had he not done so, I doubt that, at least on that night, these events would have gone down as they did,” Deputy Lancaster County Attorney Jeff Mathers said.
Judge Strong reportedly also scolded Widhalm from the bench before formally handing down the sentence.
“There’s no doubt you did have a substantial role in the event,” Strong said.
At about 8:30 a.m. on July 29, Lincolc Police said the Gage County Sheriff’s Office contacted the department regarding a man found “bound and walking down a rural road with obvious injuries.”
The man — later identified as the 26-year-old torture victim — told investigators he had been kidnapped in Lincoln, Nebraska, and taken to an unknown location in Gage County. Investigators said they also learned that a woman with the man had also been kidnapped, beaten, and sexually assaulted.
“The man reported Danielson and Widhalm took him to an area he was unfamiliar with and tied him to a tree while still bound,” police wrote in a press release. “He was eventually able to free himself and left the area walking until finding a Gage County Sheriff’s deputy. He was taken to a local hospital where he was treated for his injuries.”
Widhalm was taken into custody later that day at his home. Danielson was arrested in Rapid City, South Dakota, three days after the victim contacted authorities.
The man, who had two black eyes, was taken to Beatrice Hospital, where he was treated for severe burn marks on his face, arms, and legs. He told police he had been “beaten, burned with a blowtorch, and branded,” with the latter referring to Danielson, a former welder, burning the word “thief” onto his skin. He also said the men force-fed him acid.
Widhalm reportedly beat the victim, kicking and punching him while holding him in place, while Danielson used the blow torch to brand and torture him.
Widhalm reportedly refused to assist the victim after Danielson left the scene. Instead, he did meth and actively prevented the victim from leaving the scene by helping tie him to the tree, the Journal Star reported.
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