Was it an accident or was it murder?
That’s the question posed to a Kalispell jury this week as Cecil Thomas Rice stands trial for the April death of Anthony Walthers. Rice, 26, is accused of shoving Walthers, 34, into the Flathead River east of Kalispell after Walthers allegedly made an inappropriate comment about the defendant’s wife, Heather Meeker.
A jury was selected and attorneys for the state and the defendant made opening remarks on Dec. 4 before Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson. The trial is expected to last three days.
During her opening remarks, Flathead County Deputy Attorney Alison Howard said that just an hour before Walthers drowned in the fast-moving Flathead River, Rice threatened to shove the man off a bridge.
“Anthony was running his mouth about the defendant’s wife and the defendant snapped, shoving him off a bridge into the icy river below,” Howard said.
But during his opening remarks, defense attorney Steven Scott told the jury that Walthers’ death was an accident. According to Scott and witnesses, Walthers was intoxicated the day of his death. Scott said Walthers simply lost his balance and Rice was trying to prevent him from falling off the bridge.
“Cecil Rice tried to grab Anthony and stop him from falling,” Scott said. “This was an accident.”
According to court records and witnesses, Rice, Walthers, Meeker and Cody Robinson were all homeless at the time of the death and had gone to the Holt Stage Road bridge, known to locals as the Old Steel Bridge, on April 26 to smoke marijuana. While there, Rice allegedly shoved Walthers off the bridge and walked back to his car with Robinson and Meeker. As they left the scene, Rice instructed Meeker, his wife for nearly a decade and the woman with whom he has three children, to throw a bag that he thought was Walthers’ out the window.
The following morning, Robinson told police Rice shoved Walthers off the bridge. Rice and Meeker were arrested on April 27. Rice was charged with deliberate homicide and Meeker was charged with tampering with evidence. Rice and Meeker have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
On the first day of the trial, the jury heard from five witnesses, including Meeker and Robinson. Meeker testified that Walthers had been drinking on April 26 and was being flirtatious with her in front of Rice. After eating dinner at a local church, Rice, Walthers, Meeker and Robinson all drove to the river. Robinson testified that he heard Rice threaten to throw Walthers off a bridge at dinner and on the drive over but that he initially thought it was a joke.
Meeker and Robinson both testified that all four people were on the bridge when they heard a scuffle and then a splash. They both said that when they turned around, Walthers was in the river and Rice was briskly walking back to his car. Meeker testified that Rice later joked with others about shoving Walthers off the bridge.
“It seemed like everyone was in a really good mood, laughing and having a good time,” Robinson testified. “And then all the sudden Cecil grabbed Anthony and shoved him off the bridge.”
The trial will resume on Tuesday.