HELENA, Mont. – A man accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting an 11-year-old Wyoming girl is a talented photographer and graphic designer who is a good father to his two young children, his ex-wife says.
But the cordial relationship between Jesse Speer and Maleesha Kovnesky after their divorce was finalized in 2010 ended a few months ago, when he just stopped talking to her. Kovnesky said Tuesday she was stunned to learn the 39-year-old Speer had been arrested over the weekend and charged in the abduction.
"It's a devastating thing to wake up and see the father of your children on the cover of the newspaper," Kovnesky told The Associated Press. "He wasn't brought up this way. He grew up in a churchgoing family. I think that something in him just must have snapped."
Kovnesky said the case has devastated her and her family, but she is proud of the girl who provided a description that led police to arrest Speer.
"If my own daughter ever ended up in that situation, I hope she would be as brave and strong," Kovnesky said. "It goes beyond whether that was (Speer). I'm just proud of her for being a survivor."
Police said Speer forced the Cody girl into his SUV at gunpoint on Oct. 8 then assaulted and abandoned her outside of town. He was arrested Saturday in Belgrade, Mont., just 10 miles away from his Manhattan home, and is awaiting extradition to Wyoming.
The girl was found by hunters driving through the mountainous area.
Kovnesky, who lives in Whitehall, Mont., provided the first close look at Speer since his arrest. She described him as an introvert, whose few friends are mostly fellow photographers, and as a polite, seemingly normal person from a loving family. His arrest was a shock that she never saw coming, she said.
She called him a talented nature photographer who is renowned in photography circles.
Speer grew up in Kansas and went to college at the University of Kansas. He loved going on family vacations to the West as a child, and Colorado was his favorite destination, Kovnesky said.
They got married in 2003 and lived in Colorado for about five years. He has family in Woodland Park and they also lived in Colorado Springs, she said.
Steve Gresley of Woodland Park said he and his wife rented a house to Speer for a few months in 2006. Gresley remembered him as a polite young man who was having marital problems.
Gresley agreed to let Speer out of his lease after Speer said his estranged wife had become pregnant and he thought he should move back in with her.
"He was a really nice guy, very soft-spoken, very responsible," Gresley said.
The couple moved to Montana in 2008 so Kovnesky could be close to her family in Butte. Speer picked the Bozeman area because of the scenery.
They separated in 2009 and divorced in 2010. Kovnesky said they had a lot of arguments, and divorced for reasons that she declined to discuss. However, she said Speer was a good father to his children, now 7 and 4.
She wrote in her blog that she, her family and their friends hope the police have the wrong man, "but afraid that they do not."
She told the AP there were just too many things in the police report that point back to her ex-husband, including the police sketch of the suspect, a photo of the vehicle, and a description of eyeglasses. Then there was the detail that the suspect's car had bottled water strapped to his roof.
"He's the only person in the universe who drives around with a 24-pack of bottled water" strapped to the car, she said.
Kovnesky has filed a restraining order against Speer in the event he is released, and she has asked for sole custody of their children.
"At this point, I think he would have such a destroyed reputation and be angry enough that I want my children to be protected," she said.
Speer made a brief appearance in court on Monday and said he would not fight extradition to Wyoming. He has not entered a plea.
It is unclear if Speer has a lawyer representing him in the Wyoming charges. Eric Brewer, the Montana public defender representing him in the extradition matter, did not return an after-hours call Tuesday to his office.
Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric, the prosecutor in Cody, said a court hearing has not yet been set in Wyoming. Transportation issues were being worked out between law enforcement authorities in Wyoming and Montana.
Officials in Colorado were investigating whether Speer may have been involved in any unsolved or attempted abductions in that state.
The victim told police she saw stacked photographs of naked young girls in the vehicle driven by her abductor, according to the charging documents.
Associated Press reporters Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Dan Elliott and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.