A jury on Tuesday quickly concluded that Cecil Thomas Rice purposely pushed Anthony Walthers to his death from the Old Steel Bridge in Evergreen last April.
The jury came to the unanimous guilty verdict after only an hour and half of deliberation at Flathead District Court in Kalispell.
Rice, 27, pleaded not guilty to the charge of deliberate homicide June 1 before Flathead District Court Judge Dan Wilson. Wilson said Tuesday that a sentence for Rice’s crime will be set at a later date.
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 heard the splash of Walthers’ body as it fell into the frigid Flathead River and watched helplessly as he was swept away.
The handful of witnesses on the shore were the last to see Walthers alive. More than a month later, his body was recovered in Flathead Lake about a mile from the river’s mouth.
State prosecutors called several witnesses to the stand on Tuesday, including the deputy who pulled Walthers’ body out of the lake and a forensic toxicologist who said samples taken from Walthers’ body indicated he had consumed alcohol the day of his death.
The medical examiner who performed an autopsy of Walthers’ body concluded the cause and manner of Walther’s death was “drowning by homicide,” and Flathead County Sheriff’s Office detective Eric Morrison told jurors his investigation led him to the conclusion Walthers’ death was a homicide.
Still, the most damaging accounts to Rice’s not guilty claim came from witnesses.
Testimony was given by Rice’s then-girlfriend Heather Meeker, who is also facing charges in the crime. Cody Robinson also took the stand, who said he left with Rice and Meeker in Rice’s van after Walthers was pushed into the water. Soon after being dropped off, Robinson said he contacted law enforcement.
A Kalispell woman said she was fishing with her grandson when she saw Walthers in the river and rushed to call 911. Her grandson said he almost dove into the river in his haste before he realized he too would be swept away. The teenager rushed downstream along the riverbank, meeting up with another man. Both reported running parallel to Walthers, yelling for him to swim to shore.
Prosecutors used these visuals to show that complete strangers jumped into action when they saw what was happening to Walthers. But instead of sticking around, prosecutors told the jury, Rice’s first reaction was to flee the scene.
Prosecutor Alison Howard said Rice knew if he pushed Walthers into the water he would die.
“The defendant was aware there was a probability of death when he threw Anthony Walthers over the bridge,” Howard said.
Robinson reported hearing Rice threaten Walthers at dinner that night — a threat to push him off a bridge. Robinson said Rice made more comments in the car ride to the bridge — comments he thought were jokes at the time. But they were enough to stir up emotion for Walthers, Meeker said.
When the group arrived at the bridge, reportedly to smoke marijuana, Walthers did not want to go onto the bridge with Rice, Meeker said.
But Rice had allegedly come up and put his arms around Walthers.
“Don’t be a [expletive]. I won’t push you,” he allegedly told Walthers before leading him to the north side of the bridge.
Rice was nearest to Walthers when Walthers reportedly made another comment about Meeker. This comment is what allegedly caused Rice to snap.
“Now again, Anthony’s talking about Cecil’s wife — about her appearance,” prosecuting attorney John Donovan said during his closing argument. “Cecil had already talked to him about this; ‘You say that again I”m going to throw you off a [expletive] bridge,’” he said.
This is when Meeker says she heard the wind knocked out of Walthers — then a splash.
Robinson said he heard the sound of clothing being grabbed. He saw feet up in the air. Then he says he heard a splash.
Walthers is in water and he hollered for help, Donovan said.
“And what does the defendant do?” Donovan asked the jury. “He takes his hood and he puts his hood over his head because he doesn’t want to see what he just did, and he doesn’t want anyone else to see what he just did.”
In his closing argument, Rice’s attorney Steven Scott described an accidental death scenario that he said occurred. Earlier in the day, witnesses had testified there was gravel present in certain areas of the bridge, and the bridge was slightly tilted.
“Based on your experiences, loose gravel can be slippery under your foot,” Scott said.
“So isn’t it reasonable that Anthony attempts to sit down on the guard rail. He is drunk. The bridge is a little tilted — and over he goes into the water,” Scott said.
“The grabbing sound Cody Robinson described was Cecil grabbing Anthony from falling,” he added.
Scott told jurors the accidental death scenario was enough to cause reasonable doubt.
Reporter Breeana Laughlin can be reached at 758-4441 or email@example.com.