Utah activist, husband must face trial in corral gate-closing case, San Juan County judge rules

A wilderness advocate and her husband must face a jury on felony charges they tried to kill cattle by closing a gate and then retaliated against the cattle’s owner by filing a complaint with federal land managers, according to a San Juan County judge.

Seventh District Judge Lyle Anderson rejected defense lawyers’ contention that county prosecutors’ evidence is too thin to justify trying Rose Chilcoat, a former director of the Colorado group Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and her spouse Mark Franklin.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, Anderson held that a credible interpretation of the evidence presented in court supports the allegation that Franklin intended to keep rancher Zane Odell’s cattle from accessing water inside a corral when he closed the gate last year, and that Chilcoat’s environmental activism is acceptable evidence of guilt.

“Ms. Chilcoat’s position with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, as well as letters to the BLM, show that she thinks the world would be a better place if Odell’s cattle were gone,” the judge wrote.

The ruling, however, does not explain how Chilcoat’s dislike of Odell’s cattle operation translates into evidence she and her husband were bent on killing livestock, some of her supporters argue.

“Any insinuation that Rose’s involvement with our organization would point to her guilt is simply preposterous and violates her right to free speech in relation to public lands protection,” Great Old Broads’ executive director Shelley Silbert said.

“Our organization advocates healthy, functioning ecosystems, and supports grazing management practices that do not degrade the health of public lands,” Silbert continued. “While we recognize improperly managed grazing can have destructive impacts, we address this in our work with land management agencies to improve grazing practices and ensure that existing laws and policies are followed.”

Underlying tension

The case underscores the intense resentment some of San Juan County’s leading citizens harbor toward activists, as well as toward federal land managers and some judges.

Topping the list of grievances are the crackdown on antiquities trafficking that led to the arrests of several Blanding residents and the suicide of a prominent physician; the closure of Recapture Canyon to motorized use; the Bears Ears National Monument designation; and court-ordered redrawing of voter districts in the county that could lead to Navajo majorities on the County Commission and San Juan school board.

The enmity appears to have fed into catapulting a gate closing into what is now being considered a criminal act potentially punishable with 21 years behind bars.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) In April 20017, this corral west of Bluff in Bears Ears National Monument was the scene of a confrontation between ranchers and environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband Mark Franklin. San Juan County prosecutors allege the couple tried to deprive the cattle access to water by closing the gate pictured here. Chilcoat and Franklin say the felony charges are absurd, filed as payback for Chilcoat's watchdog activism on San Juan's public lands.

Although the Chilcoat case is set for a May 23 trial in Monticello, the judge will have plenty of issues to weigh before a jury is empaneled, including anticipated defense briefs seeking a stay pending appeal, prosecutor Kendall Laws’ removal from the case, and a change of venue.

Defense lawyers have filed several other motions, including some to allow new evidence, such as polygraph results that support Franklin’s claim he had no desire to hurt Odell’s cattle and that he knew part of the corral fence was down, so it made no difference whether the gate was open or closed.

Anderson’s ruling on Tuesday, which denies a defense motion to quash his earlier ruling to bind over the couple for trial, treats Franklin’s claims with skepticism.

“The magistrate had sufficient mental capacity to understand that there would be little purpose in Mark Franklin closing the gate — whatever his motive — if he had already observed that a panel of the fence was already down,” Anderson wrote, referring to himself in the third person.

At the time of the gate-closing incident, Franklin and Chilcoat were visiting the Bears Ears monument and documenting conditions on Odell’s Bureau of Land Management allotment. Prosecutors allege the couple, who live in Durango, Colo., stopped at the corral west of Bluff on their way to Valley of the Gods.

Sources familiar with the matter say Franklin shut the gate to keep Odell’s intimidating steers from following him into the corral, which he entered to inspect a well that was being drilled within the perimeter. That explanation has yet to appear on the record.

Battling lawyers

Defense lawyers will likely challenge Anderson’s ruling, filing an interlocutory appeal that would put the trial on hold while a higher court reviews the matter. Anderson is set to retire at the end of June, so a delay would likely take the case out of his hands.

But in the meantime, both sides have papered the court with new motions and counter filings, and attorneys are threatening to pursue action against each other for improper conduct.

Chilcoat’s lawyer has asked the court to enforce an plea agreement Laws tendered last week, offering to dismiss changes against Chilcoat.

But Laws now contends his settlement offer was contingent on Franklin admitting guilt and accepting convictions on two misdemeanor counts of attempted destruction of livestock and trespassing on the state trust land. That part of the deal would have imposed no jail time, but would include “a reasonable fine.” Under the deal, which is no longer on the table, Franklin “will not be on State of Utah Land” during 18 months of probation, according to the offer Laws emailed last week to defense lawyers.

Unless the charges are dropped against Chilcoat, she intends to pursue a malicious prosecution case against the county, according to her lawyer’s filings.

In still another court brief, Laws threatened to seek sanctions against defense lawyers for filing motions and supporting documents that he contends contain untruthful and dishonest assertions and are intended only to disrupt the legal process.