A Lockwood man who earlier told police he shot his girlfriend accidentally pleaded guilty Thursday in District Court to deliberate homicide in her death.
Dwane Chegwidden, 37, entered the plea three days before his trial for murder was to begin. Prosecutors said they would ask that Chegwidden be sentenced to 75 years in prison. Sentencing was set for May 21.
Yellowstone County sheriff's deputies arrested Chegwidden on Feb. 19, 2001, for the death of 33-year-old Bonnie Williams, who was found in her Lockwood trailer home with a single gunshot wound to the head.
Chegwidden told police the couple got into an argument when Chegwidden returned home after being arrested in Billings for drunken driving.
Williams had Chegwidden's gun, a Ruger Black Hawk .357-caliber revolver, in her hand, Chegwidden said, when he entered the residence at a mobile home park at 1385 Highway 87 East.
Chegwidden said he took the gun away from Williams, and she died when it discharged by accident. Chegwidden was arrested several hours later when his friend called police to report the shooting. Williams was found slumped over on a bench near the front door of the home.
Chief Public Defender Sandy Selvey said Chegwidden decided to plead guilty to avoid a trial.
"He felt it was in his best interest to accept responsibility and bring some closure to it," Selvey said. Chegwidden is still grieving Williams' death, he said, and didn't want to put her family or others through the ordeal of a trial, Selvey said.
Selvey said the defense case suffered a blow when Judge Russell Fagg ruled against an earlier motion to suppress the statement that Chegwidden gave investigators after his arrest. Selvey argued that the statement was not admissible as evidence at trial because Chegwidden spoke to detectives without an attorney after his friend said he would hire an attorney for him.
Deputy County Attorney Scott Twito said he was prepared to prove at trial that Chegwidden cocked the single-action revolver, placed it to the back of Williams' head and pulled the trigger. Chegwidden's claim that the shooting was accidental was not supported by the facts, he said.
Both Twito and Selvey agreed that the shooting followed a heated argument by the couple, likely fueled by alcohol. But neither attorney could give a clear motive for the shooting.
"We'll never know for sure," Twito said. "Only Dwane Chegwidden knows."
Selvey said Chegwidden is extremely remorseful. Williams was the mother of two children and owned a cleaning company. Chegwidden had recently moved to Billings and lived with Williams, prosecutors said. He has a misdemeanor drug conviction in New Jersey, but no history of violent crimes, Selvey said.
"He is not a cold-blooded killer," Selvey said. "It was something that happened in the heat and the passion of the moment, and he cannot explain to this day what happened in that second when the gun fired."
Selvey said that even though Chegwidden pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide, he will ask for a prison sentence that reflects a charge of mitigated deliberate homicide. That charge carries a maximum sentence of 40 years.
The plea agreement also calls for an additional 10 years in prison for the use of a weapon. Selvey said he would ask for that prison time to be suspended.
Greg Tuttle can be reached at 657-1320 or at firstname.lastname@example.org