Jury hears testimony in homicide case
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POLSON — In a courtroom filled with many of John Pierre Jr.’s relatives and friends, the trial for Makueeyapee Whitford, 32, Browning, who allegedly stabbed Pierre, began on Dec. 15.
Pierre was stabbed to death in the early morning hours of March 15, 2013, in the yard at 1605 First Street East, Polson, at a late night party. The knife pierced Pierre’s aorta, caused internal bleeding and eventually death, according to court documents. Flathead Tribal Law Enforcement Officers Ben Asencio and Don Bell responded to the call of a stabbing at approximately 4 a.m. The party was large, anywhere from 50 to 80 people had gathered to drink, talk and listen to music.
Whitford was arrested less than an hour later at the Bayview Inn in Polson and charged with deliberate homicide, a felony. His bail was set at $1 million, and Whitford has since remained in the Lake County Detention Center.
The investigation also involved deputies from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and Polson Police, and all the departments worked cooperatively.
Judge James Manley presided over the trial.
Attorney Jennifer Streano, office of Montana Public Defender, Missoula, and attorney Peter Leander, Bigfork, represented Whitford while the State of Montana’s case was presented by Lake County Attorney Mitch Young and Assistant County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson.
During opening statements on Monday, Streano said Whitford could have either defended himself or been the victim, and he had to decide in a split second. Whitford was afraid he was going to be “piled,” or jumped, by a group of young men at the after-hours party, Streano said and Whitford’s testimony corroborated.
Streano also had problems with the crime investigation because partygoers were not separated so they couldn’t talk about the incident, continued to drink, walked through the crime scene and nobody was searched for knives or other weapons.
Young said the state would prove that Whitford stabbed Pierre and that the stabbing was not in self-defense.
According to court records and testimony, Whitford and his friend Adrian Afterbuffalo came from Browning to Polson to look for Afterbuffalo’s wife. The pair were driven by Whitford’s common-law wife Deseree Aguilar and accompanied by Aguilar and Whitford’s two children, ages 4 and 3.
After settling Aguilar and the children into the Bayview Inn, the two men went to bars in Ronan, Pablo and also the South Shore Lounge and Town Pump in Polson before hearing about the party from a friend of Afterbuffalo’s.
At the party, Afterbuffalo and a friend, Cami Kenmille, were sitting in the front of the car talking and listening to music. Whitford, who knew no one at the party, went into the house and attempted to make a joke, asking “Where’s all the Blackfeet at?”
The joke fell flat, Whitford said, and someone in the group of young men in the room said people could get jumped for that, which scared him.
After this, Whitford showed the group his knife, “my peacemaker,” Whitford called it.
“He just pulled it out of his pocket, opened it and showed us,” eyewitness Derek Hewankorn said during his testimony, describing Whitford’s knife as a silver knife with a two-inch blade.
Hewankorn told Whitford his knife was “cute” and showed Whitford his own knife. Whitford said all the men said they had knives.
“I don’t know why he showed us the knife,” Hewankorn added.
Whitford said he went outside and headed for the car because he wanted to leave the party before he got jumped, that he was afraid he would get f—— ed up.
Hewankorn said Whitford asked him if he wanted a beer. They went to Whitford’s car, and Hewankorn leaned in the driver’s window to talk with Afterbuffalo and Kenmille, who had turned down the music so they could talk. Hewankorn testified he thought Whitford was digging in the trunk for a beer when he heard Pierre say, “Where the f—- did the music go?”
Although it was dark, there were parking lights, the trunk light and the house’s outside light, Hewankorn said, and he was approximately five feet away from Whitford.
Whitford’s version is that a group of guys, with John Pierre in the middle – whom Whitford had never met – approached him. Pierre asked, “So you’re that f——— Blackfeet?” and wanted to fight. Pierre and the other guys were approaching him as he tried to shut the trunk. One man punched him from the side.
“I got my knife out,” Whitford said. “They were trying to pile me, man.”
Eye witness Hewankorn said, “I saw (Whitford) turn around and stab (Pierre) in the chest. Then Whitford jumped in the back seat, closing his knife, and told Afterbuffalo, ‘We gotta go. I just stabbed him.’”
Kenmille had exited the car already, and Afterbuffalo floored the vehicle. As it headed by, Hewankorn used his own knife, which can be opened with a flick of the wrist, to stab the left driver’s side tire.
“Everybody started gathering around John,” Hewankorn said. “Somebody turned on a flashlight, and there was a puddle of blood around him.”
Afterbuffalo and Whitford continued back to the hotel, with Whitford throwing the knife out of the window during the trip. Whitford asked Afterbuffalo to not tell his wife.
“I just wanted to close my eyes, go to sleep. I didn’t think the guy was gonna die. I thought I might just have winged him. It was just a little knife. I didn’t think it killed him,” Whitford said, repeating himself and sobbing.
When Young questioned Whitford, he asked why Whitford had not told Detective Dan Yonkin he stabbed Pierre when he was interviewed at 2 p.m. on the day of the murder.
“I’m trying to just tell them as much as I can, everything I told them was true except my part around the car,” Whitford said.
Young asked Whitford if he saw any weapons as the group approached him.
“I didn’t see any, but I couldn’t really see … These guys all had a weapon. Why wouldn’t they come at me with a weapon?” Whitford testified, adding that the group of men were the same ones he saw in the house.
When Young asked why Whitford lashed out at John Pierre, Whitford said, “Just to stop him.”
“You moved your knife into John Pierre?” Young asked.
“I guess, I stabbed him is what I did. I did it out of pure instinct,” Whitford said.
Young also brought up the fact that Whitford hadn’t told Yonkin he had been hit or that he stabbed Pierre, even though Yonkin asked.
“… I didn’t want to tell him I stabbed someone. I don’t know what you want me to say. At that time I said it was like there was a mini brawl. Basically, I just didn’t want to tell them that I stabbed this guy,” Whitford said.
Judge Manley recessed the trial until 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 22, when the defense will call their final two witnesses.