Exactly two years to the day, the saga of a Durango man accused of trying to kill cattle after he closed the gate to a corral in southeastern Utah has reached a resolution.
Mark Franklin, 63, faced a maximum sentence of six years in jail if convicted for “attempted wanton destruction of livestock,” a felony, and trespassing on state trust lands, a misdemeanor, after prosecutors said he intentionally closed the gate to cut cattle off from water on April 1, 2017.
Franklin was supposed to stand trial in Carbon County this week for the charges. On Monday, however, Franklin reached a plea agreement that includes three conditions, which if completed, will result in all charges being dismissed.
“I entered this plea to end a long, two-year persecution by San Juan County,” Franklin said in a written statement after Monday’s hearing. “This was a case that should never have entered the court system.”
Franklin and his wife, Rose Chilcoat, a local environmentalist who was also charged in the incident but had all of her charges dismissed, have maintained the charges are retaliation for Chilcoat’s years of environmental work in San Juan County, where public land and grazing issues are contentious.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, who prosecuted the case, has adamantly denied any such influence. In an interview Monday with The Durango Herald, Laws said the evidence collected that day warranted the charges. But he said the agreement reached Monday is a fitting outcome.
“At the end of the day, it’s a fair resolution for everybody,” he said.
The felony “wanton destruction of livestock” charge was reduced to attempted criminal mischief, a Class B misdemeanor, and the Class A misdemeanor for trespassing remained the same.
Over the next year, Franklin must meet three terms of his plea agreement to have all charges dismissed: No new criminal charges, must pay a $1,000 fee and must stay off certain state trust lands, barring emergency situations.
Franklin said in his statement he would have liked to have gone to trial to have all the facts of the incident brought to light, but he didn’t want to run the risk of a jury trial.
For the past two years, the case has taken many twists and turns as prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over what happened that day, and why.
What’s known is that on April 1, 2017, Utah rancher Zane Odell noticed the gate to one of his corrals had been closed, and trail cameras captured images of the vehicle that stopped there. Two days later, Odell saw the same car driving by, stopped it and called police.
Speaking to deputies, Franklin admitted he closed the gate. But for the past two years, he has never offered a detailed explanation for why he closed the gate.
In his statement, Franklin said he is a “curious person” who noticed an unusual water trough in the corral and went to check it out. He said one of the cattle, a longhorn, gave him the “stink eye.” Two other cows then tried to move behind him.
“That made me concerned so I pulled the unlatched pipe gate closed to prevent them from surrounding me,” Franklin said. “I did this for my personal safety.”
Regardless, the couple have maintained a large section of the fence was down and cattle had full access to water. Odell has conceded this point, saying there was a 10-foot opening in the fence 50 feet away.
No cattle were harmed and the couple were let go. But nine days later, the San Juan County’s Attorney Office filed felony and misdemeanor charges.
“I believe that the prosecutor was trying to keep local ranchers and local politicians happy by showing he was willing to go after me,” Franklin said.
Laws said Monday the charges were in no way political or personal. He said the information included in the police report warranted serious charges.
“We felt like there was enough evidence for a reasonable likelihood of conviction on the charges we brought,” Laws said. “I know there was talk the seriousness of the charges were politically motivated, but in reality, that’s what the state of Utah Legislature set as the criminal penalty for those actions.”
But in recent days, Laws said all sides felt a better resolution could be reached through the no-contest plea agreement rather than a jury trial. He said even Odell was satisfied with the outcome.
With the case finally resolved, Laws said the entire incident should be a lesson to anyone visiting San Juan County.
“The people in San Juan County don’t have a problem with people coming to our area,” Laws said. “But if you come here and recreate, … respect the way of life people have here, and I think you’d be surprised the respect will go the other direction just as quickly.
“Also, whether on federal or state land, leave a gate the way you found it. That’s the biggest thing.”
Franklin wrote in his statement the entire ordeal has taken a toll on him and his family, both emotionally through death threats and calls for people to harass them, as well as financially.
“Who could have imagined that a day recreating in Utah could turn into such a nightmare,” he said. “As I have learned, it was never about me. This case was meant to punish my wife for her years of successful conservation advocacy and to intimidate and silence those who speak out for protection of their public lands.”