State v. Stryker

Decision Date11 April 2023
Docket NumberDA 21-0028
Citation2023 MT 63
PartiesSTATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. TIMOTHY JOHN STRYKER, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Submitted on Briefs: November 16, 2022

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Sixteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Rosebud, Cause No. DC 19-39 Honorable Nickolas C. Murnion, Presiding Judge

For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Kathryn Hutchison, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

For Appellee: Austin Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, Michael P. Dougherty, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana

C Kristine White, Rosebud County Attorney, Forsyth, Montana


¶ 1 Timothy John Stryker appeals from the judgment entered by the Sixteenth Judicial District Court, after jury trial adjudging him guilty of incest in violation of § 45-5-507(1), (5)(a)(i) MCA. He challenges the District Court's evidentiary ruling admitting evidence of other acts. We affirm.


¶ 2 Timothy Stryker and Rachel Showalter met through horse training activities, which Stryker coached and in which Rachel's daughter, F.S. participated competitively beginning when she was four years old. Stryker and Rachel were married in 2018, and they, along with Rachel's two children, F.S. and her twin brother, began living together on Stryker's ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming. The family was considered close, with each person helping on the ranch and Stryker's horse training business, and actively riding horses.

Wyoming Allegations

¶ 3 On an evening in June of 2019, Stryker, Rachel, and the twins, then 10 years old, were on the couch, watching TV. They drifted in and out of sleep and, during the night Rachel opened her eyes and observed Stryker's hand under F.S.'s shirt, rubbing her body, including her breast area. In the morning, Rachel and F.S. were together in the barn, and Rachel asked F.S. about what Stryker was doing. F.S. answered that she did not like Stryker's back rubs, and disclosed that Stryker had, on previous occasions, touched her inappropriately on her breasts and buttocks. Rachel took the twins, drove into town, and called an individual she knew at the Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS). Later that day, Kari Packard, a DFS social worker, conducted a forensic interview of F.S. in which she disclosed that, over the prior few weeks, Stryker had touched her buttocks and breasts on two other occasions, with the first time being when F.S. was in her bedroom.

¶ 4 Deputy Keeler and Sheriff Odenbach of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office interviewed Stryker that evening. Stryker initially denied touching F.S. inappropriately, but later stated that, while giving F.S. back rubs, he may have accidentally touched her buttocks, breasts, and nipples. The following day, Stryker called Deputy Keeler and asked to meet again to talk further. On the way to that meeting, Keeler received a phone call from Rachel, who informed him F.S. had also disclosed that Stryker had touched her vagina while they were staying at the Lee Ranch in Montana in April, about six weeks earlier. During Keeler's second interview, Stryker again admitted to touching F.S. in Wyoming, while she was in bed, but denied any touching had occurred in Montana. Stryker explained that, on another occasion, he went into F.S.'s bedroom early in the morning to get her ready for school, and while she was still asleep in bed, rubbed the outside of her vagina. When Keeler asked why someone would touch F.S. the way he had, Stryker responded "pleasure" and "[i]nstinct," and that, "I guess it wouldn't happen if there wasn't some sort of physical attraction."

¶ 5 Deputy Keeler suggested that Stryker could write a letter of apology to help F.S. heal from the ordeal, and provided pen and paper. Stryker wrote apology letters to F.S., as well as to Rachel, his family and his friends. In the apology letter to Rachel, Stryker wrote: "[h]ave no idea where this all came from. Can't even wrap my own mind around it still. No excuse, it is what it is . . . Still no excuse and like I said before I know you can[']t forgive me and I don't really even want you to." In his letter to family and friends, Stryker wrote "[s]orry to disappoint you all. This is not me and I know without a doubt you all know that. No excuses, will maybe someday figure it all out." Stryker was charged in Wyoming with the felony of Sexual Abuse of a Minor. However, prior to the Wyoming case proceeding to trial, he was extradited to face a felony incest charge in Montana under § 45-5-507(1), (5)(a)(i), MCA.

Montana Allegation

¶ 6 As noted, during the Wyoming investigation, F.S. disclosed that Stryker had also touched her inappropriately in Montana about six weeks earlier. Stryker and F.S. took a trip to Colstrip, Montana, over two days, April 27-28, 2019, to help with spring branding at the Lee Ranch. This was not the first time Stryker and F.S. had gone to the Lee Ranch. When they arrived, Jeff Bilharz, ranch foreman, asked F.S. where she wanted to sleep. In her trial testimony, F.S. stated Stryker had answered the question, saying F.S. could just sleep with him in a bedroom. F.S. testified she spent the night in the room with Stryker, and described the room in detail. Relating this incident to Rachel, F.S. provided an account of specific contact Stryker initiated while they were in bed early in the morning, with Stryker touching her buttock, vagina, and breasts under her clothes. To leave the room, F.S. said she had to go to the bathroom and got up. She did not return to the bedroom, but got some cereal and went into the living room.

¶ 7 Stryker provided a differing account at trial, stating F.S. had slept on the living room couch, not in the bedroom. He called three witnesses, each of whom testified they saw F.S. sleeping on the couch in the living room, rather than with Stryker. Bilharz testified he was the first one to go bed and the first one to rise, at which point he saw F.S. sleeping on the couch. On cross-examination, Bilharz was asked to read a text message exchange between himself and Rachel wherein Rachel asked Bilharz where F.S. had slept that night, stating: "So I have an odd question. Just trying to wrap my mind around this shit. That night of your branding when you told Tim there were two rooms available what did he say? Give it to me strai[gh]t." Bilharz responded:

He asked [F.S.] w[h]ere she wanted to sleep and she shrugged her shoulders & said I don't care &Tim asked if she just wanted to bunk with [him] &she said sure! &Tim said there u don't have to mess up another bed &less work for Jeff &I said cool! That's pretty much a quote [emoji] and the next morning everyone seemed fine [emoji][.]

After he read this text message, Bilharz explained that he could not finish the message at the time because he was on horseback, but if he could have finished it, he would have also stated that he saw F.S. lying on the couch.

¶ 8 Second, James Beier testified he heard F.S. say she was going to sleep on the couch, and when he went to sleep, she was asleep on the couch and Stryker had retired to the bedroom. Third, Kolton Kimmel testified that F.S. slept on the couch and, due to his bad back, he slept on the living room floor, which meant that if F.S. wanted to move, she would have had to step over him.


¶ 9 Stryker filed a pre-trial motion in limine to exclude evidence of "other acts committed between the Defendant and F.S." The State sought to have Rachel testify about seeing Stryker touch F.S. during the night while on the couch, Stryker's admissions to touching F.S. on multiple occasions through testimony of the officers, and the apology letters Stryker wrote. In response, the State argued the evidence would be used to prove a pattern of behavior, motive, opportunity, and absence of mistake or accident. The District Court denied the motion, reasoning that "[t]he evidence of the subsequent acts of inappropriate and sexual touching tend to show that sexual attraction to the victim was the motive of the Defendant .... to 'arouse or gratify the sexual response' of the Defendant as alleged in the Amended Information," and "also shows opportunity and pattern of behavior by the Defendant." The District Court noted that all of the alleged acts by Stryker "involved massaging and cuddling with the victim which [led] to sexual touching." Noting that Stryker had implied that some of the touching was unintentional or inadvertent, the District Court stated that the evidence would also "show absence of mistake or accident." The District Court also ruled the evidence was admissible under the transaction rule, and, lastly, held that the probative value of the evidence was not outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice or potential confusion.[1]

¶ 10 At trial, the District Court provided a limiting instruction before the State elicited any of the Wyoming evidence. The court read the limiting instruction prior to F.S. testifying about the other times Stryker had touched her. The court read the limiting instruction prior to Rachel testifying about her seeing Stryker touch F.S. on the couch, and again prior to Rachel testifying about her conversation with F.S. in which she had initially disclosed Stryker's actions. The court also read the limiting instruction prior to Deputy Keeler's testimony about his conversations with Stryker wherein Stryker admitted he had touched F.S. During his testimony, Deputy Keeler explained that, in both of his interviews, Stryker denied any inappropriate touching had occurred in Colstrip. The jury returned a guilty verdict.

¶ 11 Stryker appeals, challenging only the admission of the Wyoming evidence.


¶ 12 This Court reviews ...

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