A Bigfork man previously convicted of sexual assault withdrew an Alford plea on March 28 after a misunderstanding about his punishment, but the judge overseeing the case rejected a new plea deal, meaning a jury will most likely determine the defendant’s fate.
George Wilcoxen, 73, appeared before Flathead County District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht less than a month after his attorney, Peter Leander, filed an unopposed motion to withdraw his plea and vacate his sentencing. 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 Claus 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.
Both prosecutors and the defense expected Wilcoxen to be released into the community under DOC supervision after serving 30 days in jail. Instead, Wilcoxen was transferred to the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center for further evaluation, a process that could take up to six months and result in a different sentence, including prison time. Leander said in court documents that he believes his client was misled because a local committee that determines eligibility for community supervision had previously approved Wilcoxen for probation.
In court documents, Leander wrote that the DOC had apparently changed its policy and was reviewing the sentence of all convicted sexual offenders. The DOC denied that allegation and stated its policy has not changed.
At a hearing on March 28, Judge Ulbricht allowed Wilcoxen to withdraw his plea. Leander filed a new plea agreement – the third such agreement that has been crafted in the case – that called for a 20-year suspended sentence to the Department of Corrections. The prosecutor and an attorney representing the victim’s family all signed off on the deal. But Ulbricht rejected the new deal and decided that Wilcoxen should stand trial instead. He is currently scheduled to face a jury in September.
The March 28 hearing was 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.
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