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

As punishment for what the judge described as a “gruesome and vicious” killing, a 34-year-old Rapid City man was sentenced Thursday to 50 years in prison.

Clifford Gilbert had pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for the fatal beating of 61-year-old Robert Smith at the Stardust Motel in the early morning of Dec. 27. Judge Craig Pfeifle of the 7th Circuit Court sentenced Gilbert to the maximum number of years recommended by the prosecution.

Though the killing stemmed from a fight between the men, Pfeifle said he was concerned with its level of violence and that the offense happened after Gilbert violated probation.

“The gruesome and vicious nature with which Mr. Smith was dispatched … was outside the bounds of any measured response by you,” the judge told Gilbert.

Gilbert had been homeless, and Smith, an acquaintance, agreed to let him sleep on Smith’s motel room floor that winter night.

Smith died on that same floor not long after. Gilbert admitted hitting Smith on the head with a walking stick after Smith attacked him with the stick as he was sleeping. After Smith got knocked to the floor and flung a racial slur at him, Gilbert said he punched and kicked the other man.

Police found Smith unconscious in the room around 3 a.m. Authorities said cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.

Before entering into a plea deal with Pennington County prosecutors, Gilbert had originally been charged with second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

Gilbert’s lawyer, Ellery Grey, acknowledged that Gilbert didn’t act in self-defense and “took things too far.” Gilbert told investigators he had “snapped” in anger, according to a Rapid City police report obtained from the county courthouse.

The men had been highly intoxicated that night, Grey said, echoing a statement by Deputy State’s Attorney Josh Hendrickson that alcohol played a major factor in the incident.

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Grey asked the court for a prison sentence “significantly less than 50 years.”

Gilbert expressed remorse when given a chance to speak.

“I never meant to take a man’s life. I understand that I went too far at some point … There’s not a day that goes by that it doesn’t haunt me,” he told Judge Pfeifle, adding that he hoped to get out of prison someday.

Pfeifle said Gilbert failed the system when he violated probation for a 2012 aggravated assault. The prosecutor earlier said Gilbert violated his probationary sentence in November 2016 and that a warrant for his arrest had been issued just six days before Smith’s killing.

“You failed in the most heinous way possible,” Pfeifle said. The court had little comfort, he said, that Gilbert court manage his anger and that a sentence of less than 50 years was appropriate.

Gilbert, also known as Gilbert Clifford, would be eligible for parole after 65 percent of his sentence has been served, his lawyer said. He would get credit for about 300 days served at the county jail.

Contact Tiffany Tan at

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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.