Crime

Man Pleads Guilty to Killing ‘Friend’ Behind Whitefish Bar

Xavier Chenault was emotional during change of plea hearing Thursday; agreement with prosecutors calls for five-year prison term

By Andy Viano
Xavier Chenault appears in Flathead County District Court on April 15, 2021. Chenault pleaded guilty to one count of negligent homicide, after slapping a man in an alley behind a Whitefish bar on July 30, 2020, a blow that knocked the victim to the ground and led to a fatal head injury. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A 22-year-old man choked back tears in Flathead County District Court on Thursday as he admitted to slapping his roommate and friend outside the Whitefish VFW last summer, a blow that sent an intoxicated Steven Speer to the ground where he struck his head and suffered a fatal brain injury.

Xavier Jayvon Chenault appeared in front of Judge Robert Allison and entered a guilty plea to one count of negligent homicide. Chenault reached an agreement with the Flathead County Attorney’s Office earlier this month, and per the terms of that agreement prosecutors will recommend a 15-year sentence with 10 of those years suspended at a sentencing hearing next month.

Thursday, Chenault’s court-appointed attorney Daniel Wood walked through the events leading up to the incident in the early morning hours of July 30. Chenault and some friends, Wood said, were at the VFW bar after a work shift and had spent the night drinking before going outside to look for a dog. In the alley behind the bar, Chenault and some of the others began “roughhousing” and “slap boxing,” and at one point Chenault engaged Speer, slapping him one time.

According to Wood, Chenault believed the slap knocked Speer unconscious before he hit the ground, and that it was the contact between Speer’s head and the ground that killed him. An autopsy report listed “blunt force injuries to the head” as Speer’s cause of death.

During Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner’s questioning, he confirmed with Chenault that he didn’t intend to kill Speer but that Chenault knew the victim was “incredibly intoxicated” at the time. A test revealed Speer’s blood-alcohol content was .268 when he was initially treated, more than three times the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle. Speer was hospitalized for several days before he died on Aug. 2.

Judge Allison also took the opportunity to question Chenault and specifically addressed the moments leading up to the slap and the intent behind it.

“It all just happened so fast,” Chenault said in response. “There were some words exchanged but I wouldn’t call it antagonistic.”

Chenault became emotional when he described his relationship with Speer, calling him a “friend” and saying the pair lived and worked together.

Charging documents filed by prosecutors in November paint a more confrontational picture of the encounter, however, describing the incident as a “fight” and alleging that security camera footage showed Chenault walking toward Speer as a female friend tried to stop him. One witness told an officer from the Whitefish Police Department that Chenault and Speer were “arguing” prior to the slap, and another witness said the two were “talking crap” before Speer was struck.

Chenault, whose home address on an arrest warrant is listed in Sacramento, California, was extradited to Flathead County in January from Arlington, Texas, where he was being held on local charges.

Judge Allison is not required to abide by the terms of the plea agreement at Chenault’s sentencing, which is scheduled for May 20 at 1:30 p.m. Negligent homicide is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

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