Yet another twist in San Juan cattle gate clash: Now the accusers are under investigation and may not testify at trial

The key witnesses in San Juan County’s felony case against the husband of a prominent environmental activist may not testify after all.

The reason: The ranchers themselves face a criminal investigation for their actions during a clash over a closed corral gate.

Cattlemen Zane Odell and Zeb Dalton took the Fifth at an evidentiary hearing Monday in Monticello. On advice of counsel, they declined to testify — and refused to speak with an investigator — about how they prevented activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, from leaving their corral while they summoned deputies.

The confrontation resulted in multiple charges against Franklin, alleging he was trying to kill cattle when he closed a corral gate. Without testimony from Odell or Dalton, there may not be much left to support San Juan County’s prosecution of Franklin, who is accused of keeping cattle from reaching a water source and trespassing on state trust lands.

“Now that the purported victim is no longer cooperating,” Franklin’s attorney Paul Cassell said Tuesday, “it’s hard to imagine this meritless case can effectively move forward.”

Franklin’s trial, set for Jan. 16 before 7th District Judge Don Torgerson, was moved from Monticello to Carbon County, where few people know of Chilcoat, a retired associate director of the Colorado-based group Great Old Broads for Wilderness. In her role as an environmental watchdog, she has long drawn the ire of San Juan’s conservative leaders, who saw her activism as a threat to motorized access and ranching on public lands.

Chilcoat was initially charged as well, but a higher court later threw out those charges. Her supporters contend the counts were trumped up as political payback. Her critics were angered about her prodding the Bureau of Land Management to close Recapture Canyon to motorized use in 2007 after an unauthorized ATV trail was discovered there and to prosecute the Blanding locals who built the trail through the canyon filled with ancient artifacts and ruins.

Social media posts, including one from County Commissioner Phil Lyman, called for Chilcoat to receive harsh punishment, even though no cattle were harmed or even endangered in the episode.

Although the Utah Court of Appeals threw out the charges against Chilcoat, the 7th District Court had already determined neither she nor her husband could get a fair trial in Monticello.

Key to any charges against Franklin is the account from Odell and Dalton of what happened April 3, 2017, on Lime Ridge, a few miles west of Bluff in Bears Ears National Monument. At a preliminary hearing last year, Odell said he and Dalton arrived at the remote corral to discover the gate closed. Suspecting someone was trying to disrupt operations, he checked a trail camera rigged to a fence and discovered an image of a vehicle.

While the two worked on the corral, where a well was being drilled, a Toyota drove up with Franklin and Chilcoat inside. The ranchers recognized the vehicle from the image in the trail camera and rushed to block it from leaving with their own truck while they called police.

In the ensuing confrontation, Franklin acknowledged closing the gate a few days earlier but out of desire to be helpful, according to a transcript of the earlier hearing. Closing the gate would not keep the animals from their water, Franklin had argued, since a section of fence was down about 50 yards from the gate.

Odell testified that his reading of the way Franklin’s tire tracks overlapped showed that he could not have known the fence was down. Now-retired 7th District Judge Lyle Anderson accepted Odell’s tire-track analysis and ordered Franklin to face trial.

At Monday’s hearing, Franklin’s lawyers argued that Torgerson, the current judge, should bar the ranchers from testifying about what Franklin said to them and about their speculative interpretation of the tire tracks.

But just before the hearing, attorneys for the ranchers told Cassell, a former federal judge, that the Weber County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the two cattlemen for alleged kidnapping and false imprisonment in connection with the confrontation. The San Juan sheriff referred the matter to Weber County to avoid a conflict of interest.

From the beginning, Chilcoat had complained that the ranchers had violated her and Franklin’s rights by not letting them leave and characterized their behavior as coercive and intimidating.

Weber County sheriff’s Lt. Matt Jensen confirmed his office has dispatched a detective to San Juan County to investigate, but he said the ranchers have so far refused to cooperate on advice of counsel.

On Monday, the judge declined to dismiss the Franklin case while he considers defense motions to limit the ranchers’ testimony. If they don’t testify, Torgerson’s ruling could be moot. He instructed the two sides to brief him on whether Odell’s previous testimony can be used at Franklin’s trial if the rancher continues to assert his right against self-incrimination.