Roundup couple challenges federal assault charges

2012-01-27T00:00:00Z Roundup couple challenges federal assault chargesBy GREG TUTTLE gtuttle@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
January 27, 2012 12:00 am  • 

A Roundup couple say they have been wrongfully charged with assaulting a federal officer during a family hunting trip.

Bill and Tammie McCutcheon were arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Billings and pleaded not guilty to two counts each of assault on a federal officer for an incident Nov. 26 in the Little Belt Mountains.  

In a criminal indictment, federal prosecutors allege that Bill McCutcheon assaulted the officer with a weapon and that both McCutcheons "forcefully assaulted, resisted, opposed, impeded, intimidated and interfered" with the officer.

The charges against Bill McCutcheon carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine. If convicted, Tammie McCutcheon could face up to eight years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

A trial date will be set later.

The criminal indictment filed against the McCutcheons contains no details of the incident that resulted in the charges, but a complaint filed by U.S. Forest Service Officer Shawn Tripp after the incident provides his official account of the run-in with the McCutcheons.

In an interview with The Billings Gazette before their court appearance, the couple said they encountered an overly aggressive officer who they allege sexually assaulted Tammie McCutcheon and nearly started a gunfight.

The couple said that despite the criminal charges, they are considering a lawsuit alleging that the officer violated their civil rights.

"I want the government to be held responsible for putting people in positions of responsibility who abuse it," Tammie McCutcheon said. "I'm charged for assaulting a federal officer, and he's the one who was laying on top of me."

The incident described by the McCutcheons during an interview and the official account filed by Tripp differ in several areas, including whether Tripp's clothing identified him as a law enforcement officer.

The incident began at about 2 p.m. while Tripp was patrolling on a four-wheeler and came across a pickup truck parked on the side of a Forest Service road near a "road closed" sign.

Tammie McCutcheon said she was sitting in the truck with the couple's 18-month old twins. Her 12-year-old daughter was playing in the snow nearby, and her husband and teenage son were in the surrounding forest. The couple's son was hunting elk, and Bill McCutcheon had left the truck a short time before Tripp arrived.

Tammie McCutcheon said Tripp was wearing a heavy jacket with nothing to indicate he was an officer. Her first thought was that the man approaching the truck was another hunter stopping to chat, she said.

Tripp states he was wearing a duty jacket with patches identifying him as an officer.

The encounter quickly became heated, Tammie McCutcheon said, as Tripp refused to identify himself and demanded that she get out of the truck. He began questioning her about whether they had driven past the "road closed" sign, she said.

Tammie McCutcheon said she was worried about her twins alone in the truck but was trying to respond to Tripp's questions.

The encounter escalated, Tammie McCutcheon said, when Tripp tried to remove a hunting tag from the antlers of a deer in the back of the couple's truck. Tammie McCutcheon said she believed Tripp had no authority to remove the tag, and she grabbed it from his hand, bumping against him as she reached for the tag.

Tripp threw her up against the truck, she said, and placed her in handcuffs behind her back. Tripp then wrestled her to the back of the truck, the woman said, bent her forward over the open tailgate with one hand and reached into her shirt with his other hand.

Tammie McCutcheon said she began screaming for help.

"I thought I was going to get raped," she said.

Bill McCutcheon said he heard a commotion coming from the direction of the truck and began walking that way. Carrying his hunting rifle, McCutcheon reached the top of a small hill above the truck and saw, from about 100 yards away, a man on top of his wife as she screamed for help.

"My first thought was, the way he had her bent over, was she was about to get raped," he said.

McCutcheon said he considered shooting the man but quickly dismissed that notion and instead ran down the hill toward the truck while yelling for the man to get away from his wife.

McCutcheon said he was carrying his hunting rifle in both hands across his chest, and the firearm was never pointed at Tripp during the encounter.

Tripp said he "felt extremely threatened by the fact that Mr. McCutcheon had a rifle pointed at me," the complaint states.

Tripp drew his pistol and ordered McCutcheon to drop the rifle.

The encounter was tense for several minutes, Bill McCutcheon said, before he agreed to unload the rifle and hand it to his daughter. Tammie McCutcheon described Tripp as "unstable" and "mumbling" as he held her husband at gunpoint with a pistol.

At one point, Tripp pointed the gun at the couple's 12-year-old daughter, she said.

Tripp called for help on a radio, and the situation slowly calmed. Wheatland County Sheriff Jim Rosenberg happened to be in the area hunting with three other men, and the group responded to Tripp's radio call for help.

After Rosenberg and the others arrived, Bill McCutcheon was arrested. He spent five days in jail before he was released.

Rosenberg later gave a statement to an investigator working for a Billings attorney hired by the McCutcheons. According to a transcript of the statement, Tripp told Rosenberg that McCutcheon did not point the rifle at him.

Rosenberg also said that both men are fortunate that the encounter didn't end in gunfire.  

Bill McCutcheon "is probably really lucky that he didn't get shot because even had (Tripp) shot him he'd still been able to kill (Tripp)," the sheriff said in the statement. "I mean, that's a pretty quick deal. You know, I mean that was a tense situation for all involved, I'm sure."

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