A jury this week is deciding whether a Flathead Valley man committed homicide by pushing another man off a bridge earlier this year.
During the first day of a three-day trial in Flathead District Court on Monday, prosecuting attorneys alleged Cecil Thomas Rice snapped and followed through with his threats when he pushed Anthony Andrew Walthers off the Old Steel Bridge in Evergreen into the Flathead River last April.
Rice, 26, pleaded not guilty to charges of deliberate homicide June 1 before Flathead District Court Judge Dan Wilson.
According to court documents and witness statements, Rice was seen fleeing the scene with two other people on the night of April 26 after witnesses claim to have seen Walthers go over the bridge and into the river below.
In court Monday, prosecuting attorneys John Donovan and Alison Howard allege Walthers spurred an argument with Rice at dinner about an hour before he went into the river. Walthers was making comments about Rice’s girlfriend, Heather Meeker, according to prosecutors, and Rice didn’t want to hear it.
The prosecutors alleged Rice threatened Walthers, saying, “You say that one more time I’m going to throw you off the [expletive] bridge.”
Defense attorney Steven Scott, however, told the jury Walthers was drunk, and his drunken state led him to losing his balance and falling off the bridge.
Scott argued that witnesses didn’t report any arguing or fighting between Rice and Walthers, and that they had just been joking around with each other.
“I expect the evidence to show you that this was an accident,” Scott told the jury.
Several witnesses were called to the stand Monday, including a 17-year old boy and his grandmother who were fishing at the river during the time of the incident. They said they heard a splash and saw Walthers struggling as he was being swept away by the rapidly flowing river.
The teen said he chased Walthers along the shoreline as he was being swept away, but he and other witnesses said the river was too fast and dangerous to jump in.
Two key witnesses, Cody Robinson and Meeker also testified before the jury. Both said they were on the bridge when Walthers went over the railing. Both witnesses also allege they never actually saw Rice throw Walthers from the bridge.
Meeker said she was looking down into the water when the incident happened.
Robinson said his back was turned when Walthers went over the railing — but during his testimony Robinson said he could hear Rice grabbing Walthers.
“By the time I looked over I could see his feet were in the air,” Walthers said.
When prosecuting attorneys asked Robinson if he believed Rice threw Walthers into the river, he stated, “It’s not my belief. It’s what happened.”
Defense attorney Scott attempted to cast doubt into the minds of jurors by bringing up inconsistencies with Robinson’s original statements. During an interview with a detective shortly after the incident, Robinson allegedly said everything had seemed “perfect” that day, and that the group had been laughing and joking together.
Scott had also reminded Robinson that he allegedly told a detective, “All [Walthers] does is drink every day.”
Meeker, who is currently incarcerated on charges of bail jumping and tampering with evidence in the same incident, said she believes Rice pushed Walthers off the bridge.
Meeker said she threw a backpack believed to be Walthers’ out of the Rice’s van, but she did it only because Rice told her to and she was scared what would happen if she didn’t.
Meeker told prosecutors she was in an on-again, off-again relationship with Rice for 10 years, and that he is the father of their three children. Because of this, she said she originally made a pact with Rice that she would tell law enforcement Walthers fell of the bridge.
Meeker avoided eye contact with Rice as she told the jury she didn’t think Walthers death was an accident.
Meeker said she didn’t report the incident to police because she didn’t want Rice to get in trouble.
“I was scared. I froze up,” she said.
Meeker also admitted lying to law enforcement originally to protect Rice.
“I didn’t want him to get into trouble because he is the father of my kids,” Meeker said.
Meeker said she decided to stop protecting Rice when police told her she was being charged with homicide, and after she knew Robinson had talked to law enforcement.
Prosecuting attorneys said they plan to call five additional witnesses to the stand Tuesday. The trial is scheduled to conclude Wednesday.
Reporter Breeana Laughlin can be reached at 758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.