GREAT FALLS, Mont. — A teenager accused of raping an 11-year-old almost a year ago jumped from the rotunda of the courthouse here, slamming his head on the tile floor.
Kaleb Kuebler, 16, had been scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing at 11 a.m. MT Thursday after agreeing Wednesday to plead guilty to one count of sexual intercourse without consent. He faced up to 60 years in prison with 30 years suspended.
Katie Kenneway was sitting on a bench next to the rotunda as Cascade County deputies escorted Kuebler in leg shackles and handcuffs to the third-floor courtroom.
She said he started struggling to get away and then jumped. One deputy caught Kuebler's leg shackle but before another officer could get there to help, Kuebler's shackle slipped through the deputy's fingers. Kuebler landed 13.5 feet below on the second floor; the top of the railing is 19 feet from the floor.
"It was like out of a movie. It was the craziest scene I ever saw in my life," Kenneway said. "When he fell over, the first instinct is to look. I thought he was dead. It was horrible."
Kuebler was hospitalized in critical condition late Thursday with head injuries. The sound of the fall led several people to believe that a gun had been fired inside the courthouse.
By Friday afternoon, Kuebler's condition was stable and improving, Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards said.
Kuebler is accused of approaching an 11-year-old girl who was walking home from elementary school in October. She told police that he stole her hat, causing her to chase him into an alley where he reportedly assaulted and raped her.
In a Wednesday pretrial hearing, Kuebler was going to enter an Alford plea, meaning the defendant does not admit guilt but admits that sufficient evidence exists that the prosecution likely could persuade a judge or jury to convict him of the charge.
Judge Greg Pinski of Cascade County District Court denied the Alford plea, saying he wanted Kuebler to be held accountable for his crime.
"For the benefit of the victim, he should admit guilt," Pinski said.
When Kuebler agreed to plead guilty to sexual intercourse without consent, felony charges of aggravated assault, tampering with evidence, aggravated kidnapping and tampering with a witness would to be dismissed, according to court documents. Kuebler was initially charged in juvenile court, but prosecutors transferred the case to District Court to charge Kuebler as an adult.
Former Cascade County Sheriff Glenn Osborne said he is not surprised that an inmate would try to jump, but it's unusual for them to succeed.
"It is shocking. It happens other places where people will jump out of a third floor and land in the parking lot, but it doesn't happen here," Osborne said. Police continue to investigate the incident.