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California man sentenced to prison in Whitefish man's death

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | June 10, 2021 10:20 AM

A California man who pleaded guilty in the death of a Whitefish man was sentenced to the Montana State Prison Thursday morning in Flathead County District Court.

Xavier J. Chenault, 22, of Sacramento, California, received a 15-year sentence to Montana State Prison with 10 years suspended from District Court Judge Robert Allison.

“You have an assaultive record and I’m troubled because you seem to have a record of trying to solve problems by hitting people,” Allison said.

Chenault signed a binding plea agreement April 6 that was negotiated by his public defender Daniel Wood and Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner.

According to previous information from Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial, 25-year-old Steven Speer died Aug. 2, 2020, from head injuries he suffered during an altercation shortly after midnight July 30, in the parking lot of the VFW Bar and Grill on Baker Avenue.

Speer’s mother, Sheila Manchester, spoke of her relationship with her son, her feelings toward Chenault and the plea deal.

“We were very close and for the last 20 years, it was just the two of us, but you took everything from me,” Manchester said. “He was my only son and now there’s no possibility of grandchildren, no more ‘I love yous,’ no more watching Devils games together.”

Manchester and Chenault met briefly in the days leading up to his sentencing and the mother shared the exchange.

“We sat and talked and you showed no remorse. You were like ‘It just happened,’” Manchester said. “I’ll never forgive you and you did it on my birthday.”

Allison shared his condolences with Manchester and explained how a binding plea deal works.

“If I deviate from it, he’d have a chance at a trial and that’s no sure thing,” Allison said.

He asked Manchester her feelings about the plea deal.

“I don’t agree with it, but I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “I’ve been told his past record can’t be presented at a trial.

“My son was a good kid who worked hard and had two jobs,” Manchester added.

Daniel Wood, Chenault’s public defender, described him as a “good and decent person.

“He’s got some felonies on his record when he was 17 and 19 years old in another state, but he does feel terrible and he does have remorse,” Wood said. “Mr. Chenault has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter and he understands the pain of what he did. After his meeting with Ms. Manchester, he sat and cried with me for 30 minutes.”

Chenault also addressed the court.

“I can’t change what happened, but if I could trade places with him (Speer), I would,” he said.

Chenault received credit for the 144 days he has spent in the Flathead County Detention Center Jan. 3 after being arrested in Texas in November for resisting arrest. The actual homicide charge was filed Nov. 18 in Flathead County District Court.

Whitefish Police officers responded to the scene after receiving a report of an unconscious man at the facility.

The department conducted an extensive investigation, which indicated Speer had been in an altercation with a man, later identified as Chenault, and that Speer had struck his head on the ground after being knocked down. Authorities say Speer suffered severe head trauma.

He was transported to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where he later died.

Charging documents indicate witnesses at the scene initially said there had been no altercation and Speer, in a heavily intoxicated state, had fallen to the ground.

But after a Whitefish detective watched video footage, it revealed a man matching Chenault’s description approached another man while a woman had tried to stop the accused.

The detective then spoke with witnesses and one individual said Chenault and Speer were arguing outside the VFW and walked toward each other.

Another witness said Chenault slapped Speer and he fell to the ground. That person also reported that Speer said he didn’t want to fight.

The autopsy report indicated Speer died as a result of blunt force injuries of the head.

Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.