Montana man gets life for 2012 kidnapping and sexual assault


Life in prison wasn’t long enough for the Montana man who kidnapped and sexually assaulted a 10-year-old Cody girl last year.

On Tuesday, District Court Judge Steven Cranfill sentenced Jesse Paul Speer, 41, to a term of life in prison plus 30 to 50 years after he pleaded guilty to four felony counts: aggravated kidnapping, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and first- and second-degree sexual assault of a minor.

Speer approached the girl near the Cody library on Oct. 8, 2012, lured her to his vehicle, and then, at gunpoint, tied up her hands and took her to the Carter Mountain area southwest of the city, where he sexually assaulted her. Speer then abandoned the girl, who was found and taken to safety by hunters.

“Within those few moments, you stripped away the innocence of youth and inflicted upon her four hours of darkness and depravity that no human should experience, let alone a 10-year-old girl,” Cranfill told Speer.

Cranfill imposed the sentence requested by Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric, while Speer’s defense attorney had argued for 30 to 50 years. Two lesser charges of aggravated assault were dropped in exchange for Speer pleading guilty to the others — an agreement OK’d by the victim, her family and law enforcement, Skoric said.

Judge Cranfill told Speer he’ll leave a dark legacy in Park County.

“No parent will ever drop off their child at the library again without thinking of you. No teacher will view a suspicious vehicle within school property without thinking of you,” the judge read from a prepared statement. “And I suspect when the community at large thinks of you, they will be reminded of the sick, helpless feeling that engulfed them when hearing of the abduction — and the anger that grew within them thereafter.”

Oct. 8, 2012

Speer — a divorced father of two, designer and accomplished landscape photographer who lived in Manhattan, Mont. — posted on Facebook about a week before the crime that he was going on vacation “with a camera in hand — and no particular destination in mind.”

Surveillance camera footage gathered after the kidnapping, used to help implicate Speer, showed him roaming around Cody on Oct. 8.

Skoric suspects Speer “was just trolling for the right victim” before finding the girl and two friends playing near the south side of the Park County Complex. To lure the child to his SUV, “I made up a story,” Speer said. “I told her I lost my dog.”

The girl volunteered to help and got into the vehicle, but soon told Speer to turn around. Instead, he took the girl to a church parking lot.

“That’s where I told her — after pulling out the firearm — that I needed her to do what I was telling her to do,” Speer said.

He also tied up her hands. Speer said he did not strike the girl in the head with the gun as has been reported, saying he generally allowed her to sit up.

“I was pretty panicked. I didn’t really know what I was doing or where I was going,” Speer testified Tuesday.

The same could be said for the girl.

“She’s terrified enough to tell the defendant that she knows that he’s going to rape her,” Skoric said, adding, “Does he turn around? No. Does her release her, before more harm could be done? No. That terrifying drive continues.”

It continued all the way up to Carter Mountain where Speer ordered the girl to the rear of the vehicle, bound her ankles and sexually assaulted her — though not before she reportedly bloodied his nose. After the assault, Speer left the girl on the road; according to his testimony, he saw a vehicle’s headlights approaching and had waited for it.

Hunters Shane Larsen of Cody and his friend James Lashke of Michigan, accompanied by their young sons, later found and rescued the girl.

Skoric called it ironic she was found “by out-of-state hunters who came to this state to hunt animals, not to hunt a child like this defendant.”

Speer returned home, and two days after the kidnapping, posted a scenic photo online and said he’d been doing lots of fun photography.

Speer promised more images would be coming, but they never came: he was arrested in Belgrade, Mont., on Oct. 13 and has been jailed since.

Judge Cranfill described Speer as having acted out a “sick, demented dream” and then discarded the girl “like a piece of human garbage on a cold, desolate road — and you left thinking it was over.

“But this fragile being mustered up more courage than you will ever know and survived,” Cranfill said, calling her a “brave little soul.”

A lasting impact

The girl not only survived, but also played an indispensable role in helping law enforcement — which included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Cody Police Department, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, Park County Sheriff’s Office and Montana agencies — implicate Speer as her assailant.

But the crime has taken a toll.

“He affected her life forever, took her innocence from her,” wrote the girl’s mother in a statement read in court by Park County Victim/Witness Coordinator Darlene Reed. “She will never be free to feel safe in this world.”

The mother said her entire family and the community have suffered from “a very dangerous and scary person.” She speculated Speer would have killed her daughter had the hunters not come along when they did.

The woman said the incident has left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, her son with emotional issues and her daughter with panic attacks and nightmares.

“The list of problems go on and on — too many and too much pain to write in one letter,” she wrote.

When it was his turn to speak on Tuesday, Speer said there were no words to express the sorrow and responsibility he bears for the trauma he’s caused.

“I apologize to the victim, her family, to this community, to this state, to the various law enforcement agencies, to those who know me, and to anyone else who’s been touched by the ripples of my actions,” Speer said.

Speer said he embraces the hate and anger towards him and takes full responsibility for his actions.

“No human being, let alone an innocent child, should have to endure such suffering,” he said.

He spoke of wanting to making amends to society and humanity, to do whatever he could to help with the healing process and to rehabilitate “the place in my heart from which sprang this significant evil.”

Speer’s court-appointed attorney, J. Travis Smith of Cody, described his client as a well-educated man with a good employment history, but also as “a product of a troubled home.”

“We’re all looking for an explanation. I think everybody is,” Smith said. “How does a ... 41-year-old man who’s never had any trouble with the law suddenly go off the tracks in such a severe way?”

An evaluation of Speer described “escalating self-destructive behavior” and several things that may have been “triggers” for Speer’s actions, including financial difficulties and a change in the custody of his children, Smith said.

Information disclosed at the hearing indicates Speer has suffered from depression for at least a decade and attempted suicide multiple times in the past.

After his arrest, Speer reportedly told investigators he’d struggled with an addiction to pornography and previously downloaded child pornography; he also described searching the social network Tumblr for images of children.

“Certainly, we’d like a full explanation to explain the events of October 8, 2012, but sometimes we just don’t get it,” Smith said.

He argued for a sentence that would give Speer a chance to be released under supervision some day down the road — if he earned it. Smith noted a 23-year-old Casper man recently received 44 to 50 years for kidnapping a 2-year-old child from her home and then sexually assaulting her.

However, Cranfill said the nature of the crime and the safety of the community tilted him “heavily in favor of lengthy incarceration” for Speer.

In his statement, Speer said he hoped Tuesday’s hearing would bring closure for those affected by his crime.

“I am happy to simply fade away into the distance, a place where I will continually pray for those who I’ve hurt,” Speer said. In concluding his statement he said, “Please know that 1,000 unsaid words and untold sorrows are wrapped up in these three words: I am sorry.”