By Tim Eberly
Three weeks after Hill County Attorney David Rice put the offer on the table, Chuck Nottingham accepted a plea bargain Monday and pleaded guilty to two of three felony charges against him.
In District Court, Nottingham pleaded guilty to charges of stalking and bail jumping. The third charge, involving sexual molestation of an 8-year-old girl, was dropped.
In the plea agreement, Rice said he would recommend a five-year suspended sentence and a probation period for the duration of the sentence. Nottingham will be sentenced on March 7.
"I just felt it was the best thing to do," Rice said in an interview after the hearing. "I dropped (the charge) because the facts were not strong enough to be sure of a conviction. And partly because it spared (the alleged victim) a trial. And I felt that by pleading to the other two, that we had sufficient punishment to impose."
Rice said the alleged sexual incident involved "minimal contact." He also said he spoke with the child's mother about his decision. "I talked to her a lot," Rice said. "She was aware of what I was doing."
District Judge John Warner ordered Nottingham released from the Hill County Detention Center, where he has been incarcerated since Oct. 19. Warner said Nottingham must be electronically monitored and must reside with his 90-year-old mother, Patricia Nottingham, in Billings. Except for medical care and food shopping for his mother, Nottingham must remain at her residence. He also cannot leave Yellowstone County without Warner's permission.
On Nov. 28, Warner granted Carly Nottingham a divorce after Chuck Nottingham failed to respond to her divorce petition.
Nottingham's attorney, Stephen Gannon, filed the motion for a change of plea on Friday.
"We had a very strong defense in the (molestation) charge but they had more evidence on the other two charges," Gannon said Monday.
Despite restraining orders issued by Havre City Court, police say Nottingham caused his wife substantial emotional distress or reasonable apprehension of bodily injury or death by repeatedly following and harassing her.
He fled Hill County after he was charged June 14 in the molestation case. The former Montana State University-Northern professor and Havre Daily News outdoors columnist took up residence, using the name Chase Hale, in Wyoming. A telephone tip led the Casper Police Department to a thrift shop where Nottingham worked, and he was arrested July 10.
Nottingham was returned to Hill County for trial in October after unsuccessfully trying to fight extradition. He has spent nearly six months in jails in Natrona County, Wyo., and Hill County.
Due in part to the publicity Nottingham received about the sex charge, Gannon said he felt partial vindication for his client. "Definitely, if you consider the charge that brought this all about is the one that is being dropped."
Because of Nottingham's poor hearing, he sat in the witness chair during his court session, with the court reporter's computer monitor in front of him so he could follow the conversation.
Rice said Nottingham will likely be released from the detention center today. Last Friday, Warner received a letter from Patricia Nottingham requesting that her son be allowed to stay with her.
"I want my son to stay with me," Patricia said in an interview Monday. "I need him. I have work that needs to be done around the house and he can do it."
In her letter, Patricia said she wanted her son home "as soon as possible as I need him here to help me take care of my home and keep it livable.
"I have a two bedroom home which needs some repairs that Charles can do for me. ... Due to so much snow here and my age, I cannot do the work, afraid of falling in icy driveway," wrote Patricia, who turns 91 on Jan. 13. "I don't feel safe and secure here alone, so many break-ins and just annoying people around."
Last week, a Great Falls psychologist evaluated Nottingham, whose attorney had planned to use a mental defect defense for the charges of stalking and bail-jumping during his Jan. 23 trial. The results of the evaluation, Rice said, will affect the sentence Nottingham receives.
"I think it'll show us what causes people to do these things," Rice said.