Updated May 14, 2001, 2:30 p.m. ET
The singers, the deputies and a horse  
Country star Tim McGraw, husband of singer Faith Hill, stands trial for misdemeanor assault and other charges in upstate New York

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The last time Tim McGraw came to this Buffalo suburb, 50,000 fans packed a stadium to see him. On Monday, the country music star will play to a much smaller audience — six jurors.

McGraw, a Grammy winner and the husband of megawatt singer Faith Hill, goes on trial for four misdemeanor charges stemming from a backstage scuffle with sheriff's deputies that erupted when crooner Kenny Chesney commandeered a police horse after a music festival last June. Chesney and McGraw's road manager also face misdemeanors.

None of the charges is very serious — McGraw, 34, faces a maximum of 1 year in jail and Chesney just 15 days — and local authorities say such counts are usually settled with plea negotiations and probation. But according to his lawyer, McGraw is convinced he did nothing wrong and wants an acquittal to preserve his squeaky-clean reputation.

(AP Photo)
"He takes it very seriously because he's very much a pro-law-and-order guy. He has a lot riding on this...He has an image he's concerned about...I mean, he's Father of the Year," attorney Thomas Eoannou said, referring to an honor bestowed on McGraw last year for his charity work.

Local law enforcement, however, has been less than impressed with McGraw's character. Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan claims the singer assaulted an officer and then cavalierly joked about it during subsequent concert appearances and interviews.

"I am appalled by those who try to pass this incident off as a misunderstanding, an overreaction or boys just having fun," Gallivan wrote in a letter to the Buffalo News. "McGraw is not above the law. He is fully responsible for his actions and, as the law requires must be held accountable for them."

Were it not for the rhetoric from both sides, the case certainly would in all likelihood have never have seen the inside of a courtroom. County prosecutor Frank Clark describes the case as "not even a pimple on an elephant's ass."

"Unfortunately sometimes egos get in the way," the prosecutor sighed last week. "They both painted themselves in a corner — the defense and the sheriff's office — and now neither can get out of it."

Still, Clark has assigned two assistant district attorneys to prosecute the case.

Chico and The Men

The trouble began June 3, 2000 at the George Strait Country Music Festival, an all-day touring concert featuring McGraw, Chesney and several other acts. Chesney and others who had finished their sets were hanging out in a open-air area behind the stage reserved for the performers and their families.

Among the sheriff's officers monitoring the area was Capt. James Coyle of the mounted division who was with his horse Chico. When he stepped away for a moment at about 8 p.m., he left Chico with his daughter, Charlene.

McGraw and Hill
(AP Photo)
During an appearance on the Tonight Show, Chesney told Jay Leno that he spotted the horse and thought, "Now, wouldn't it be funny if I got on the horse and rode into the bus compound, because Tim McGraw and Faith (Hill) were up there with their kids, Martina McBride's kids were up there."

According to the sheriff, Charlene gave permission to Chesney to sit on the horse, but not to ride it and when he galloped away, she shouted after him to stop. A pair of officers — Sgt. Mark Rokitka and Deputy Art Litzinger—drove a patrol car after him "kind of like Starsky and Hutch," Chesney recalled.

The officers claim that they ordered Chesney down and he refused. When they began pulling him off the horse, the sheriff's office maintains, McGraw and his road manager Mark Russo interfered. McGraw is accused of grabbing Litzinger's throat from behind and pulling him away from the horse. A scuffle followed.

In a statement released through his lawyer, McGraw claimed that it was the police who were a danger, not Chesney. He said he was leaving the stage when he noticed the patrol car "going incredibly fast. My first thought was for my children who were playing there."

He said that Chesney had his hands raised in a surrender gesture, but the deputies continued to try to "rip" him from the horse.

"Fearing for Kenny's safety, I ran over to offer assistance," he said. "At no time did I throw any punches or put anyone in anything remotely resembling a choke hold."

He said that while one of the deputies was hitting him with a nightstick, the second was admitting "this was all a misunderstanding."

McGraw was originally charged with felony assault, but that charge was reduced. He now faces third-degree assault, obstruction of governmental administration, resisting arrest and menacing.

Chesney faces a disorderly conduct charge and Russo obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.

In the weeks after the incident, Chesney and McGraw joked about their arrest. Chesney rode a horse onto the Tonight Show stage, and Hill — dressed as a police officer — "arrested" her husband during a July concert in Buffalo.

The songstress is expected to be by her husband's side in court. The defense says it plans to call Chesney and McGraw and perhaps some other country singers who witnessed the fracas.


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