HELENA — A former firearms safety instructor pleaded guilty Wednesday to negligent homicide in his hunting partner’s shooting death last year, making an unexpected change of plea that abruptly ended his two-day trial in Montana.
Gregg Trude of Helena, a longtime lobbyist for conservative causes, acknowledged placing a loaded rifle on the backseat of his truck before it accidentally discharged and killed Eugene “Buzz” Walton after a hunting trip in October.
Walton, 48, a doctor, died from a gunshot wound to his leg caused by the rifle discharging in a parking lot.
Walton worked at Performance Injury Care and Sports Medicine and had previously worked as an athletics physician for Mercer University, Montana State University at Billings and Rocky Mountain College.
Trude initially pleaded not guilty and said he was taking a thermos from the driver’s seat area when the gun went off.
He changed his plea after prosecutors finished presenting their case and a judge rejected Trude’s request to dismiss the charges, the Independent Record reported .
“I know one thing for certain … if that gun was not loaded with a live round in the chamber, we would not be here today,” District Judge Michael McMahon said.
The judge found Trude not guilty of tampering with evidence involving the removal of the shell casing from the rifle after Walton was shot.
Trude said he cleared the chamber for safety reasons, but prosecutors accused him of trying to prevent the casing from being used at trial.
“We do not know where that spent casing was or is,” Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said in his closing argument. “He knew that removing that spent casing was significant to the investigation,”
McMahon said prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trude tried to hurt the investigation, though the judge said he acted in an “illogical way.”
“That weapon, for God’s sakes, should have been cleared before it went back in that case, before you got in that truck and left,” McMahon said.
Trude unsuccessfully ran for House District 75 in 2018 as a Republican. He was also an instructor for the NRA, according to his written responses to a candidate survey administered by the Independent Record at the time.
Sentencing was set for Oct. 16.
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