Two Durango environmentalists who face charges for supposedly trying to kill cattle by closing a corral gate will have their trials moved to a new venue after a judge ruled they wouldn’t receive a fair trail in San Juan County because of bias in the community.
Seventh Judicial District Judge Lyle Anderson ruled Thursday that a change of venue was warranted for the May 23 trial for Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin. Anderson wrote in his determination the jury pool in San Juan County would be tainted in light of its long grudge against the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, where Chilcoat once worked as an activist.
The two-day trial will now take place in Price, Utah, about 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
“If jurors and prospective jurors know defendants are associated with the Great Old Broads,” Anderson wrote, “it is difficult to see how this court can seat an impartial jury.”
Efforts to reach Chilcoat on Friday were unsuccessful.
Chilcoat and Franklin were charged in April 2017 after a rancher reported the couple trespassed onto his property between Bluff and Mexican Hat and closed a gate to a corral with the intent to cut his cattle off from water.
Over the past year, defense attorneys have tried to have the case dismissed, arguing the charges stem from Chilcoat’s work with the Great Old Broads, an environmental activist group that is active in San Juan County.
Anderson has denied all those attempts. The decision to move the trial out of San Juan County is a victory for the couple who for months have said the charges are an attempt at retaliation against Chilcoat for her activist work in the county.
Defense attorneys pointed to a recent poll conducted in San Juan County that found about 75 percent of residents are familiar with the Great Old Broads, and of that amount, 75 percent had a “very unfavorable” view.
About 200 people were surveyed in the poll.
“What’s beyond dispute is that not only is Great Old Broads well-known in San Juan County, it’s also largely unpopular, a troubling conclusion given that a central issue in this case will be Chilcoat’s connection to Great Old Broads,” her attorney wrote.
“It is safe to say that environmentalists like Rose Chilcoat are disliked in San Juan County.”
Defense attorneys then rattled off the numerous conflicts over the years between Chilcoat and the Great Old Broads with the residents of San Juan County.
In 2010, for instance, the Great Old Broads were on a field survey in Recapture Canyon when they encountered signs with a skull and crossbones that read “Wanted dead or alive: Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Great Old Broads not allowed in San Juan County.”
Then, two years later, the Great Old Broads claimed locals threatened their group at a campground in Indian Creek when someone hung a “hag” mask on a fence doused in blood with “Stay out of San Juan County. No last chance,” written on it.
Defense attorneys say San Juan County residents blame Chilcoat for orchestrating a ban on ATVs in 2014 in Recapture Canyon. The incident led to an illegal ride through the canyon, headed by County Commissioner Phil Lyman.
Lyman, an influential figure in San Juan County, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and fined $1,000 for the illegal ride. Since, he has specifically blamed Chilcoat for the incident, calling her “a manipulator and a reprobate” and “evil.”
Chilcoat and Franklin’s attorneys highlighted the vitriolic, even physical threats found on blogs such as The Free Range Report and The Petroglyph, the latter of which is run by San Juan County resident Monte Wells.
Wells wrote that Chilcoat’s actions were a felony offense, and that “not long ago she would have been hung from the nearest tree for trying to harm cattle. She should feel lucking (sic).”
A commenter, Ed Black, wrote: “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes, String that (expletive) up.”
“At their core, change of venue motions exist to avoid the lynch-mob mentality of a community that – rightly or wrongly – feels aggrieved,” the defense wrote. “The recent threats alone provide ample justification for a change of venue in this case.”
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, prosecuting the case, filed a motion to deny the change of venue.
“It is difficult to fathom that there are not at least eight individuals out of over 15,000 who can be fair and impartial,” Laws wrote.
Aside from Anderson approving to move the trial, Chilcoat and Franklin have been dealt a series of defeats in the case over the past few months.
The couple tried to challenge Anderson’s previous decision to send the case to trial, to no avail.
And, Anderson ruled that Laws did not have to recuse himself after the prosecutor previously agreed to remove himself on April 18. The defense believes Laws, who is friends with Lyman and Wells, is under political pressure to take down Chilcoat. He has denied the claim.
About the same time, Laws offered Chilcoat and Franklin a plea agreement that he later rescinded. In the plea agreement, prosecutors offered to drop all of Chilcoat’s charges and reduce Franklin’s charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. Defense attorneys accepted Chilcoat’s offer and announced they would still take Franklin’s case to court.
Prosecutors argued the offer was a package deal and promptly rescinded the entire plea deal. When Chilcoat and Franklin’s defense attorneys petitioned the court to uphold the plea deal, Anderson ruled in the prosecution’s favor.
Now, both Chilcoat and Franklin will head to court to challenge one second-degree felony, wanton destruction of livestock and trespassing on trust lands, a misdemeanor. The couple faces up to 20 years in prison.
Chilcoat was originally charged with two other offenses: one for providing officers with her maiden name instead of her married name, and another for submitting a complaint to the Bureau of Land Management about the rancher, Zane Odell.
Chilcoat had filed a complaint with the BLM after the gate-closing incident that said Odell could be overgrazing on his allotment and excavating without permission. Prosecutors interpreted the complaint as an act of retaliation against a witness.
Both charges have been dropped.
In recent weeks, Chilcoat’s and Franklin’s case has garnered significant attention.
The couple enlisted attorney Paul Cassell, a former federal prosecutor who served from 2002 to 2007 as a U.S. District Court judge. He now is a professor of law at the University of Utah and is considered an expert on criminal justice.
Cassell argues that the charges are a violation of First Amendment rights.
“The prosecution in this case – one aimed at silencing an environmental activist and her husband by threat of criminal prosecution and imprisonment – is an attack on those fundamental rights,” Cassell wrote in a previous court filing.
On April 1, 2017, Odell noticed the gate to a corral closed, as well as tire tracks.
The incident was reportedly recorded on a trail camera set up at the corral and captured images of the vehicle that had stopped at the gate.
Two days later, Odell noticed the same vehicle passing by that was caught on camera the day the gate was closed and notified the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office. Officers stopped the couple and Franklin admitted to closing the gate.
The deputies let Chilcoat and Franklin go without pressing charges. According to body camera audio, a deputy who responded told a supervisor, “I think all we’d have is probably just trespassing. I don’t even think it was criminal trespassing.”
Nine days later, however, charges against the couple were filed.
Chilcoat and Franklin have maintained there was a wide opening in the fence they were aware of that still allowed cattle access to water. Franklin has said he was “helping” the rancher by closing the gate but hasn’t explained his actions further.
Odell, too, said there was a 10-foot opening in the fence 50 yards away, but argued the couple’s critical views of grazing on public lands was the impetus for closing the gate, hoping cattle would die.
The prosecution has argued that vandalism on livestock property has been a continuing problem in San Juan County.