Utah police intimidated animal-rights activists and blamed them for pig farm layoffs, lawsuit says

Activists want an injunction barring Beaver County officers from harassing or threatening them.

(Leo Chia) A screenshot from video recorded by Leo Chia shows Curtis Vollmar talking to Beaver County Sheriff’s Sgt. Warren Woolsey, left, and Deputy Lonnie Laws in Beaver, Saturday, July 23, 2022. A new lawsuit alleges the two officers violated the First Amendment rights of Vollmar and other activists who were handing out pamphlets.

As Beaver residents celebrated Pioneer Day at a weekend festival, animal-rights activists with Direct Action Everywhere set up a table to ask passersby: “Have you heard about the Smithfield trial?”

Smithfield Foods is the county’s largest employer — and the group wanted to discuss the upcoming trial of two members who are accused of stealing two piglets from Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms.

Newly released cellphone video shows Beaver County Sheriff’s Sgt. Warren Woolsey confronting the activists, connecting Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) to Smithfield’s recent announcement that it will reduce production in Utah and lay off an undisclosed number of workers.

“Do you realize that your company caused a problem in our community?” Woolsey asked, according to a July 23 recording by Curtis Vollmar, a DxE organizer, and cited in a new lawsuit. “... Do you realize you’re not wanted in this community and you’ve been asked to leave?”

Vollmar later says in the recording: “All of this for handing out some flyers.”

And Woolsey replies: “All of this because your group has been a direct influence on shutting down Smithfield Foods. ... There’s a lot of people that have lost their jobs. And you come into this community and pour salt into the wounds of the people that have lost their jobs.”

Free speech lawsuit

Now, Vollmar and two other activists, with DxE and Utah Animal Rights Coalition, have filed a lawsuit alleging that the sheriff’s office violated their free speech rights. They’re also asking a federal judge to bar Beaver County and its officers from threatening to arrest or cite them as they return to the community to do outreach in public spaces in the weeks leading up to the trial.

“Like a bad B-movie, defendants literally told plaintiffs they were ‘not wanted’ in their county and to leave town,” attorney Karra Porter wrote in the lawsuit. “The only way for plaintiffs to follow defendants’ orders was to completely stop speaking about important public issues. This case is not a close call.”

The lawsuit also alleges that prior to Woolsey’s interaction with Vollmar, Sheriff Cameron Noel had leaned over the activists’ table and loudly told DxE member Alison Morikawa the activists would be “killed” if they didn’t stop, and threatened to press charges against them, the suit said. The sheriff was “presumably” referring to local citizens, the suit said.

Noel’s alleged statement wasn’t recorded and he didn’t respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s requests for comment. Vollmar was cited for disorderly conduct.

Porter said the activists were on public property on July 23.

“This actually predates our Constitution — the concept that you can stand in a public place and see whether people want to talk to you, or hand out a leaflet,” Porter said.

She said they included photos in the legal complaint to show that Vollmar was “on a street corner, a public street corner. I mean, this is crazy.”

Porter added: “They can try to blame Smithfield’s decisions on the animal rights group, but that really just sounds like an excuse.”

The plaintiffs are suing Beaver County, along with Noel, Woolsey and Deputy Lonnie Laws.

Jim Monroe, a corporate spokesperson for Smithfield Foods, declined to comment on both the lawsuit and the upcoming Sept. 9 trial. As for how many jobs will be cut, he said, “it’s an ongoing transition we’re making over the next few months,” but offered no details.

The lawsuit alleges that Noel and other officers approached the activists at the sheriff’s request and threatened to arrest them. Four of the five activists were intimidated and stopped, according to the filing, but Vollmar continued to approach people. By trying to make him stop, the officers were violating his First Amendment right to free speech, Vollmar told the Tribune.

Much of the encounter was captured on video, which Direct Action Everywhere shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. Members have also posted excerpts on social media.

Laws was recorded telling the activists they would “definitely be killed” if they went to do outreach where horse races were happening, the suit alleged.

What is the ‘Smithfield trial’?

Paul Picklesimer and Wayne Hsiung, the two DxE activists who allegedly took two piglets from Circle Four Farms in 2017, recorded their exploration of the hog farm in virtual reality that allows viewers of the video to pan and view in any direction, The New York Times has reported. The videos showed images such as pigs packed tightly in metal holding pens and dead piglets lying beside their mother.

The activists say they took the piglets to an animal sanctuary because they believed the animals were sickly and likely to die soon without help.

Prosecutors asked a judge to exclude that video from the trial, successfully arguing it “would confuse and mislead the jury” so much that any value it had as evidence would be “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”

The two men appealed the judge’s decision to only allow still images, with their attorneys arguing the ruling “will gag petitioners from explaining their actions [and] exclude the most important evidence for the defense from trial, including evidence of the piglets’ value and the video footage of the alleged crime.”

But the Utah Court of Appeals declined to review the ruling before trial.

The judge, prosecutors told the appellate court, “explained that this case is not ‘a referendum of the swine industry,’ but ‘about a burglary that may or may not have occurred and [about] the theft of pigs that may or may not have happened and the value of those pigs at that time.’”