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Rapid City Police Department officials mark possible evidence in the alley behind the Stardust Motel in December.

It was supposed to be a hearing to discuss a Rapid City murder defendant’s upcoming trial. Instead, the defendant admitted fatally beating an acquaintance at a local motel just after Christmas last year.

Clifford Gilbert, 34, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the death of 61-year-old Robert Smith at the Stardust Motel on East North Street. The offense is punishable by up to life in prison.

Gilbert’s retelling of the incident, at his Pennington County Courthouse hearing, started at some point between the night of Dec. 26 and the early morning of Dec. 27, when he knocked on Smith’s first-floor motel room to escape the cold. The temperature then would have been around 7 to 8 degrees, according to data from the National Weather Service.

Gilbert asked Smith if he could “crash” on his motel room floor. Gilbert was homeless. The older man said, “Sure,” and got him a blanket and a pillow.

“I lay down and I closed my eyes, and I woke to him a couple of minutes later attacking me with a walking stick, beating me on my head,” Gilbert told 7th Circuit Judge Craig Pfeifle.

Gilbert wrestled the walking stick away from Smith, hit him with it and knocked him to the ground.

“I hit him a few times. I knocked him out and didn’t know he was dead,” Gilbert said. “My purpose was to neutralize the threat.” He then left the room.

Rapid City police found Smith unconscious inside the room around 3 a.m. Dec. 27. He was declared dead at Rapid City Regional Hospital. The owner of Stardust said Smith had been at the motel for about a month and had been living alone.

His cause of death was later determined to be blunt force trauma to the head area “caused by either an object or a fist,” Deputy State’s Attorney Josh Hendrickson, the prosecutor, told the court.

Gilbert, who also goes by the name Gilbert Clifford, was arrested on the same day Smith’s body was found. He was charged with alternative counts of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

He maintained his innocence and was scheduled for a four-day jury trial beginning Sept. 11. Hendrickson had already prepared the state’s list of 58 witnesses and 35 items of physical evidence to present at the trial.

Gilbert would have argued before a jury that he acted in self-defense, Hendrickson told the Journal, but authorities viewed his actions as “excessive.”

Gilbert seemed to say as much to Judge Pfeifle, when he admitted to continuously hitting Smith after the other man was already down on the ground.

First-degree manslaughter is a killing that doesn’t involve premeditation, according to Gilbert’s charging document. It occurs “while in the heat of passion, but in a cruel and unusual manner.”

Gilbert’s plea change came as part of a deal with the state. Under the deal, county prosecutors will recommend a prison sentence that won’t exceed 50 years and will dismiss Gilbert’s charge of murder and probation violation, said his lawyer, Ellery Grey.

Gilbert is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 13. He is detained at the county jail without bond.

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Rapid City Journal from February 2016 to July 2018. Contact her on Facebook or Twitter @tiffgtan.