Updated: March 8, 1 p.m.
A Bigfork man convicted of sexual assault has filed a motion to withdraw an Alford plea and vacate the sentence after a misunderstanding about his punishment.
George Wilcoxen, 73, was sentenced to 20 years with the Department of Corrections with 15 years suspended and 30 days in the county jail in January after entering an Alford plea to felony sexual assault. Wilcoxen, a prominent member of the Bigfork community who had played Santa Clause in the past, was accused of sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl in 2013.
An Alford plea occurs when a defendant maintains and asserts his or her innocence but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence that, if presented to a jury, could result in a conviction.
Wilcoxen remains incarcerated in Missoula while the Department of Corrections determines how he will serve his probation, but his attorney, Peter Leander, believes he and his client were misled about how the Bigfork man would be sentenced. According to court documents, Wilcoxen was approved for intensive supervised probation prior to sentencing and accepted a plea deal because he believed he would automatically be released after serving time in the county jail.
In December, prior to his January change-of-plea and sentencing hearing, Wilcoxen met with a local committee that determines eligibility for community supervision. Leander and Wilcoxen said they were led to believe that if the local committee approved the supervised release, it would be granted by the Department of Corrections. According to court records, the family of the victim in the case supported the idea of supervised release.
But Leander alleges that during the course of Wilcoxen’s case, the Department of Corrections changed its policy and began to review all community supervision applications from sexual offenders. That review process can take up to six months and it is possible that the Department of Corrections could still send Wilcoxen to prison. Wilcoxen is currently behind bars at the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center. According to the facility’s website, the “Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center’s purpose is to determine the most appropriate placement for offenders through clear, accurate and impartial assessments.”
“The (Department of Corrections) director, despite all other approvals, deemed that Mr. Wilcoxen be held in custody and transferred to the (Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center) program for later determination of Department of Corrections placement,” Leander wrote in his motion to withdraw and vacate.
But a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the agency’s polices have not changed and that it is normal for the director or deputy director to review cases involving people accused of sex crimes.
“The process has not changed and it has been in place since 2003,” said spokesperson Judy Beck.
Leander also notes in his motion that it is unopposed by the state and that prosecutors also believed that Wilcoxen would be placed on supervised release. Leander included a number of affidavits from friends and family saying they all believed Wilcoxen would be able to return home after serving time in the county jail. Leander argues in his conclusion that Wilcoxen must be able to withdraw his plea because “he did not understand the consequences of his plea and because his plea was induced by misapprehension of the law, misinformation, (and) misrepresentation.”
Leander has requested an expedited ruling on the matter from Judge Heidi Ulbricht.
However, an attorney for the victim filed a response urging the judge not to allow Wilcoxen to withdraw his plea. Attorney Tom Esch notes that while the family of the victim agrees with the idea of placing Wilcoxen in intensive supervised probation, it is best to let the Department of Corrections have the final say and to let the process play out per state policy. Esch also noted that the court could only “recommend” intensive supervised probation and that Judge Ulbricht did just that.
The motion to withdraw is the latest in a long saga surrounding Wilcoxen’s sexual assault case.
According to court documents, a woman called the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office in July 2015 to report that Wilcoxen had sexually assaulted her daughter in 2013. Detectives with the Flathead County Children’s Advocacy Center conducted a forensic interview with the girl who said she stayed at Wilcoxen’s home in the summer of 2013. During that visit, Wilcoxen allegedly took the girl into his bedroom, held her down and sexually assaulted her. Wilcoxen was arrested and charged in August 2016. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment later that month.
Wilcoxen had previously pleaded Alford to felony sexual assault in April 2017 after prosecutors and his attorney crafted a non-binding plea agreement where the defendant would receive a 10-year suspended DOC sentence. But in August, Judge Ulbricht rejected the binding plea agreement and allowed Wilcoxen to withdraw his plea and go to trial. Wilcoxen was set to stand trial in January until another plea agreement was crafted.
Wilcoxen has maintained his innocence. On Jan. 3, Wilcoxen said he took a plea deal because he wanted to avoid the risk of going to prison if the case went to trial. The punishment for felony sexual assault involving a minor is a minimum of 25 years in prison and up to a life sentence.
Editors Note: This story has been updated to include information from the Department of Corrections.