HELENA — Helena restaurant manager John Schneider says he feared for his life last November, when a patron upset about being told to leave the premises for not wearing a mask fought with him and then allegedly threatened him with a gun.
And now that Attorney General Austin Knudsen has agreed to a plea deal giving the customer a $50 fine for disorderly conduct – Schneider told MTN News he doesn’t think justice is being done.
“It was very, very difficult (to enforce a mask mandate),” he said in an interview this week. “But we never expect that somebody would actually assault us for it, or threaten us, or threaten our lives with a gun. And then if we do, we assume the law protects us. … Yeah, a $50 fine? It’s a slap in the face.”
Rodney Smith, the man charged in the Nov. 6, 2020, incident at the Hokkaido Restaurant in downtown Helena, initially faced charges of felony assault, misdemeanor assault and two counts of illegally carrying a concealed weapon.
But this summer, Knudsen’s office intervened and took over the case, after Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher refused Knudsen’s directive to drop the weapons charges.
The weapons charges were no longer a crime, Knudsen office had said, because the 2021 Legislature had changed the law in February to expand how and where someone could carry a concealed weapon.
A spokesman for Knudsen’s office said Wednesday it would be a “waste of taxpayers’ money to continue prosecution for laws that no longer exist.”
Two weeks ago, Knudsen and Smith’s attorney filed a proposed plea deal, in which Smith would plead guilty to disorderly conduct, while all of the initial charges would be dropped. As part of the deal, Smith would pay a $50 fine and $75 in court costs.
A hearing is scheduled Dec. 9 before state District Judge Kathy Seeley, on whether to approve the plea deal.
Knudsen’s office told MTN News there was not sufficient evidence to support the assault charges filed by Gallagher, and that other witnesses had contradicted Schneider’s account.
Smith’s defense lawyer, Palmer Hoovestal of Helena, says Smith and the two people with him that evening – his wife, Sarah, and friend, Paul Hermes -- substantially dispute Schneider’s version of what happened. Smith did not threaten anyone with a gun and Schneider was the aggressor, Hoovestal told MTN News.
“I am confident that Mr. Schneider’s credibility would be successfully impeached under a vigorous cross-examination, and his version of the events is inconsistent with the testimony of other witnesses to the event,” Hoovestal said.
Schneider, however, said the incident and its aftermath was witnessed by multiple employees at the restaurant, and that no one from the attorney general’s office contacted him until Wednesday morning – and then, only to tell him that he was no longer a victim because the charge was being amended by the plea deal.
“It’s just a real difficult pill to swallow,” he said. “I’ve been upset every single day since this happened. … I can’t believe he had a gun and showed it to me in our family restaurant here. It’s such a good, safe place for our customers and our employees. He’s taken that away from us.”
In the plea deal, Smith admits that he argued with restaurant employees over wearing a face-mask and knocked over water glasses on his table before leaving.
Schneider said he was working the night when Smith’s wife came into the restaurant, not wearing a mask, and that when she twice ignored his requests to put one on, he told her to leave.
But after Smith’s wife initially left, according to Schneider, she, Smith and another man later entered the restaurant and were seated, without Schneider’s knowledge, and again refused to put on masks while they weren’t seated.
Schneider said he then confronted the party at their table and told them they would not be served, because they had ignored requests to wear a mask.
“These guys were about the 100th or 150th customer that I’d asked to leave because they didn’t want to follow the rules, for whatever reason,” he said. “We followed the mask mandate from day one. We follow the rules. … We consistently did it because it was right, it was what kept everybody safe.”
According to Schneider, Smith then got up from the table, knocking filled water glasses to the floor. At that point, the waitress – Schneider’s then-fiancee, and now his wife – stepped in and told Smith to “get out of the restaurant now,” he said.
Schneider said Smith then shoved his fiancee, after which Schneider stepped between them and got into a scuffle with Smith. The two ended up against a wall, with Schneider holding Smith in headlock, while getting punched in the groin, he said.
It was after he agreed to let Smith go, with Smith’s male friend promising to get him out of the restaurant, that Smith revealed his gun, Schneider said.
“He chose at this point in the situation … to take his shirt off and expose his gun in a holster, on his right hip, which I had no idea he had,” Schneider said. “He touches his holster and his gun, kind of pats it, or at least puts his hand on it and says, `I’m gonna get you.’”
By then, another restaurant employee had called police – and Schneider told Smith that police were coming and that he should leave. Smith, his wife and the other man left and the police arrived a few minutes later and arrested Smith outside the restaurant, he said.
Knudsen’s office said it got involved in the case this summer after being notified by “concerned community members.”
In statements provided by Hoovestal, Smith’s wife and Hermes said that after they were seated, Schneider came to the table and “had a chip on his shoulder,” aggressively told them they had to leave, and instigated the contact with Smith.
Schneider said he plans to be at the Dec. 9 hearing on the plea deal. He doesn’t know whether he’ll be allowed to say anything, but said he believes the deal is not in the best interests of the community.
“If guys like this are allowed to get away with things like this, it makes our community less safe,” he said. “It makes my employees and our customers less safe, it makes other restaurants less safe.”