Shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, Jesse Valdez was escorted into Hill County District Court Tuesday morning, where he answered the accusation that he killed a fellow inmate on Nov. 17.
Valdez, born in 1995, pleaded not guilty to felony deliberate homicide, on the advice of defense attorney Lawrence LaFountain. He affirmatively declared his plea into the courtroom microphone.
The case is being handled by the Montana Attorney General’s Office. The incident that led to the death of Gordon Cochran is still being investigated by the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigations.
Valdez also faces a felony burglary charge related to an incident in which he allegedly kicked in the door to someone’s home, as well as two misdemeanor charges. Those charges relate to the incident that originally landed him in the Hill County Detention Center. Police suspect that Valdez may have been under the influence of methamphetamine during the alleged burglary. He pleaded not guilty to those charges as well.
Valdez was arrested four days before his alleged victim. Cochran was arrested on disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges Nov. 16. He was dead by the next day.
Valdez is not a stranger to violence. In 2017, he beat someone so badly the victim ended up with a concussion, missing teeth, and two swollen and shut eyes. He received three years probation for that assault.
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Court documents say Cochran was killed during a fight in his cell with Valdez. Detention officers, who were alerted by other inmates, could not find a pulse after discovering Cochran’s body.
By the time he was transported to the hospital in Havre, Cochran was declared dead. He was 54 years old.
It was the second fight between the two men that day. According to Valdez, the first fight happened because Cochran insulted him. However, interviews with inmates indicate Valdez was the sole aggressor.
Valdez claimed the final fight happened after he went to “make peace” with the victim, but led to violence initiated by Cochran. The two fought in a cell with exposed metal, believed to have been a major factor in Cochran’s fatal injuries. Court records say he suffered a large head wound that partially exposed his skull.
Interviews with inmates and detention staff by DCI and Havre police officers indicate Valdez may have been looking for a fight all day. Multiple inmates said he was behaving aggressively.
One inmate said Valdez was walking around like a “gangster,” which prompted that inmate to avoid Valdez.
Before Cochran’s death, interviews suggest, Valdez may have initially targeted another inmate. Detention staff moved that inmate to another area.
Valdez said multiple times that he believed Cochran was involved in his sister’s death, although he later insisted that had nothing to do with the fatal fight. In addition to lacking anything that validates Valdez’s supposed belief, court documents suggest it could also be that Valdez may have mistaken Cochran for somebody else:
Valdez referred to Cochran as “Gray,” indicating he may have believed his last name to be that.
Valdez asked to see Cochran’s paperwork to verify his name.
One inmate said that after visiting the victim after the first fight, Cochran told him that “Jesse thought I was somebody else.”
Valdez is being held in the Hill County Detention Center on a $500,000 bond. He faces life imprisonment or no less than 10 years in prison.
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Email Paul Dragu at firstname.lastname@example.org