Utah officers shut down animal rights activists. Now their county is paying the protesters thousands.

Activists were trying to talk to Beaver County residents ahead of a high-profile trial over two piglets taken from a Smithfield Foods farm.

(Leo Chia) A screenshot from video recorded by Leo Chia shows Curtis Vollmar being confronted by Beaver County Sheriff’s Sgt. Warren Woolsey, left, and Deputy Lonnie Laws in Beaver, Saturday, July 23, 2022. The county is now paying a $52,000 settlement to Vollmar, two other men and two animal rights groups.

With layoffs predicted in the local pork industry and a looming high-profile trial over the theft — or rescue — of two sickly piglets, a group of animal rights activists spent the 2022 Pioneer Day holiday in Beaver, trying to strike up conversations with passersby.

The Beaver County sheriff and deputies ordered them to stop and to leave, the activists later said in a federal civil rights lawsuit — and the county is now settling that case by paying them $52,000 plus their attorney fees.

The money will be paid to two organizations, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) SF Bay Area and Utah Animal Rights Coalition, and to three people who claim county officials violated their First Amendment rights.

The settlement is a “tremendous victory for the animals as well as the constitutional rights we all cherish,” Jeremy Beckham, a spokesperson for the Utah coalition, said in a news release Monday.

The lawsuit against the county was filed in August 2022, and the settlement is the latest development in a legal saga centered around Smithfield Foods, then the county’s largest employer.

From a Smithfield pig farm to a Pioneer Day celebration

Members of the two groups were in Beaver in July 2022 to spread awareness about the then-upcoming October 2022 “Smithfield trial,” according to court documents — in which two other animal rights activists were charged for taking two piglets from Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms.

The activists had set up a table on a public sidewalk and confirmed with law enforcement officials that the space was public, according to the lawsuit. Two of the five staffed the table while the others took to public street corners and a nearby park, the complaint said.

Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel, plus two deputies, “ordered” the group to stop and cited Curtis Vollmar with trespassing and disorderly conduct, according to the complaint.

The officers threatened to arrest Vollmar and Alexander Taylor, both from Berkley, California, and Salt Lake City resident Max Corwin, if they didn’t leave, the complaint alleges. Protesting the largest employer in the county wasn’t going to make the activists popular — a fact Noel emphasized in his alleged threats. Some of the exchanges between the officers and activists were recorded and compiled in a YouTube video that has since reached more than 3 million views.

In its offer to settle the case, Beaver County said the proposal was in “no way to be construed as an admission of liability,” and it was instead an effort to “expeditiously” resolve the claims “without further costly litigation.”

“The County does not believe it did anything wrong to violate anyone’s rights but wanted to be done with the litigation,” attorney Frank Mylar said in an email.

The two animal welfare groups said the settlement will be donated to nonprofit organizations that help animals, including the sanctuary that took in the two piglets taken from the Smithfield farm.

“I’m glad to see Beaver County paying towards the veterinary and life care expenses for the pigs who suffered at Smithfield, animals the County should have protected from abuse in the first place,” Corwin said in the news release.

Vollmar was found guilty in April of the trespassing count, but he has appealed and his next hearing is scheduled in September.

(Photo courtesy Direct Action Everywhere) Animal activists hold two pigs at the Smithfield Food hog farm near Milford in 2017, which they filmed under cover of night with the objective of “exposing” injustices within the facility.

Where the case started

These activists’ case is an extension of five other activists’ stories, which began in 2017.

Five DxE activists allegedly took the two piglets from Circle Four Farms and captured it on film in March 2017. Their aim was to raise awareness of what they said were cruel conditions.

Three of the five defendants in that case accepted plea deals. Two others took their case to trial and argued that the piglets were rescued, not stolen, because they were in such bad shape they would not have been worth anything.

A Washington County jury found Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer not guilty on all charges in October 2022.

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.