At a felony trial set to begin November 14, Cheryl "Cheri" Hunter, a 43-year-old grandmother with no criminal record, will tell a St. Charles County Circuit Court jury how she found herself in the frightening position of wielding a loaded pistol before a crowd of Mississippi River boaters last summer.
Hunter is also expected to describe the chaotic moments that included racial slurs and a small mob charging the back of her boat, prompting her to grab the handgun. She'll also recount the harrowing sight of watching five men beat her boyfriend on both sides of his head, while holding him under water.
Finally, Hunter will say she never imagined that the steamy day of August 16, 2006, would culminate in her arrest by the Missouri State Water Patrol and then being handcuffed to a bench in a St. Charles County holding cell. Her boyfriend landed in the emergency room and his alleged assailants were allowed to motor away, never even questioned.
Hunter is charged with one count of unlawful use of a weapon, a class D felony, following what the water patrol and St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Jack Banas term a "rare" instance of river rage.
According to the water patrol, it's neither illegal nor uncommon for a Missouri boater to keep a licensed gun on board. Fights, too, are standard fare. "Typically you find people using equipment such as boat paddles, oars, ropes, that type of thing," says patrolman Lou Amighetti. "It's very rare that weapons are involved."
Hunter and her St. Louis attorney, Greg Wittner, claim the water patrol failed to fully investigate the incident half of which was recorded on videotape by one of the dozens of unknown bystanders and delivered by the water patrol to Banas' office. (Visit /media-archive/movies/riverrage.mov to view the film.) Argues Wittner: "In light of the undisputed facts, the charge is unconscionable and inexplicable."
The trouble began shortly after Hunter and her boyfriend, Steve Huelsmann, pulled their Larson cabin cruiser into Mason's Chute, a smattering of islands near Grafton, Illinois, and anchored near their friends, Cornelius Thompson and his fiancée, Lena Bland. The Chute, a popular spot, teemed that August afternoon with boaters, including a crowd of nearly 60 friends partying in the shallow water. A fight broke out between a friend of Thompson's and members of the other group.
Thompson and Bland, both African-American, tried to intervene. "They were calling us 'niggers,' saying, 'Niggers don't belong here,'" recalls Bland, "and, 'You're not allowed out here! This is the river! You need to go back to the city!'"
Huelsmann and Hunter were just sitting down to lunch when they heard the commotion. Hunter began yelling "Stop!" and blowing the horn as the crowd swelled. Huelsmann grabbed the gun, a Walther P22 that he and Hunter often take with them on the river. "He fired one shot as a distress signal right straight down into the water alongside of the boat," says Thompson. "That didn't do nothing but fire these guys up."
Thompson bounded aboard Huelsmann's boat with fifteen people tailing him. Moments later, some of the men were trying to climb aboard the back of Huelsmann's craft while swinging punches. Huelsmann and Thompson tried to push the men off. Suddenly one of the men caught Huelsmann in a chokehold and he went flying sideways over the boat into the muddy water.
"That's when these people started throwing beer cans and beer bottles at Cheri," recalls Lena Bland. "They were yelling, 'Nigger lovers! Nigger lovers!'"
At the same time, according to Bland and Thompson, several men took turns kicking and punching Huelsmann on both sides of the head and held him under water.
Says Hunter: "I'm seeing this and I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, 'Let him go, you're killing him, he can't breathe!'"
Panicked, Hunter sprinted into the cabin to get the pistol. "I put it on safety, and I ran back upstairs," she says. "I was in the middle of the boat. I pointed it down. I never said, 'I'm going to shoot.' I never even had my finger on the trigger. I was afraid."
The men eventually released Huelsmann, and he crawled aboard his cruiser, blood pouring from beneath his left eye, turning the white fiberglass floor red. "The cut was so deep you could see his cheekbone," Hunter says. It would require more than 100 stitches.
Her boyfriend's assailants weren't finished, however.
Says Hunter: "This crazy-looking bald guy came up the back of the boat, and I will, for the rest of my life, never forget the crazed look in his eyes. He looked at me and said, 'Come on, cunt, shoot me.' I looked back and said, 'You're not worth it.'"
Hunter put the gun away as Thompson threw the boat in gear to get Huelsmann to the hospital. Just then, the group heard water patrol sirens. Says Hunter: "I was thinking, 'Oh, thank God, you're here to help us.'"
Instead, a patrolman ordered everyone on Huelsmann's boat to sit with their hands on their head while another patrolman searched the boat for the pistol. "We wanted to make sure we isolated the weapon," explains Amighetti. "With alcohol and everything else, you never know who else had a gun, and you try to get as many as you can try to control the situation and maintain safety for all." (Missouri leads the nation, says Amighetti, in the number of boating while intoxicated (BWI) incidents, with an average of 500 arrests each year.)
Family and friends, meanwhile, say they tried to identify the men who assaulted Huelsmann. Says Bland: "We were pointing, and all this time people are leaving, and we're going to the officers, 'There they go, there they go!'"
Claims Hunter: "Steve was the only one bleeding, and the water patrol just kept telling us to 'shut the fuck up.' They took away our right to prosecute the people who did this."
"I believe everyone was well taken care of," says Amighetti. "We administered first aid, which included giving him gauze and a towel, but the injury wasn't life-threatening." As to allegations that profanity was used, he adds, "I don't use that language."
Amighetti says that the water patrol's small local unit only three officers spread between the Mississippi/Missouri River Confluence and Hannibal makes it difficult to investigate river brawls. "By the time you get to the scene," Amighetti says, "people are already starting to scatter and it becomes very difficult to find out what happened. It's unfortunate that we couldn't catch any more of them. But again, you do the best you can with what you have."
The state's case appears to center on a statement from a Eureka man, Carl Broyles Jr., who claims he saw, from 30 yards away, Cheri Hunter raise a pistol in the air.
"Me and my two friends had gone up to Pere Marquette and were cutting back through the Chute to go home," explains Broyles. "There were gals dancing on top of the boats, and I knew they were getting ready to take their tops off, so we stopped to see what was going on. We weren't there five minutes when all this happened."
Broyles, though, concedes he's un- sure if Hunter pointed the gun at him. "I don't know if it was exactly at me. I don't think the gal knew exactly what she was pointing at."
Says Hunter: "If I'm guilty of anything it's saving Steve's life. I believe if I had not gotten that gun out, instead of planning a trial, I would have been planning Steve's funeral."