The alleged crime occurred on April Fools’ Day 2017, when a corral gate was closed on Lime Ridge in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a move San Juan County prosecutors described as a calculated attempt to kill cattle and disrupt a livestock operation.
Not exactly a capital offense but worthy of a felony conviction and prison time, in the eyes of local authorities who see attacks on ranching as a threat to southeastern Utah’s culture, custom and commerce.
The case came to an end exactly two years later in a Monticello courtroom Monday, when the alleged malefactor, Mark Franklin, pleaded “no contest” to two misdemeanors in a deal with the prosecution. The “plea in abeyance” means the charges will be dismissed after one year if Franklin commits no other offenses.
It would be inaccurate, however, to say Franklin, a 63-year-old resident of Durango, Colo., and his wife, environmental activist Rose Chilcoat, have not paid a hefty price for what they see as a trivial act that was trumped up into a major criminal case as payback for her years of pro-wilderness activism.
“I am innocent of all charges. Nothing I did was malicious, evil or criminal. I think the prosecutor was trying to keep local ranchers and local politicians happy by showing he was willing to go after me even if there was no evidence that I intended to or caused any harm,” Franklin said in a prepared statement immediately after the deal was accepted by 7th District Judge Don Torgerson. “I regret there will be no trial where the full facts and truth of the incident would be brought to light.”
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws said he, too, regretted there would be no trial but felt the plea agreement was a “fair” conclusion to the case, which blew up like a political bombshell, highlighting the contentious divide over Utah’s public lands.
“A lot of times your most just resolutions come from a negotiated plea,” he said Monday. “We weren’t worried about the facts we had. You never know what a jury is going to do. There is some unknown that goes with it. Our office believes there was enough evidence for a reasonable expectation of conviction at trial.”
The case arose after rancher Zane Odell discovered a gate had been closed on his corral on state trust lands just off U.S. Highway 163 west of Bluff. According to court testimony, a trap camera he had rigged to the fence captured an image of a trailer he presumed to belong to the gate-closer, who he suspected was trying to keep his cattle from their water source inside, even though a section of the corral fence was down.
Two days later, Franklin and Chilcoat, while heading home from a weekend trip to the southeastern Utah’s Valley of the Gods, stopped by the corral, pulling the trailer that appeared to be the same as one in the picture.
Odell and his hands confronted the couple, barred them from leaving and summoned a sheriff’s deputy, who let Franklin and Chilcoat depart after taking Franklin’s statement. A few weeks later, Laws filed a slew of criminal charges against the couple, leading with “attempted wanton destruction of livestock,” a second-degree felony that can be punished by up to 15 years in prison.
Franklin has acknowledged closing the gate, an action he that claims had no impact on the safety of Odell’s cattle since another gate was open. But after two years of silence on the matter, he is now explaining why.
“I pulled off the highway to relieve myself on public land near a prominent, overbuilt corral and turned my vehicle and trailer around in front of an open wire gate,” he said. “When leaving, an unusually large tire in the corral caught my eye.”
The massive tire was filled with water and apparently used as a cattle trough. Franklin, who terms himself a “curious person,” entered the corral to inspect the unusual watering trough and closed one gate to minimize contact with the long-horned animals milling around. Odell’s cattle did not appear or behave like typical beef animals, he said, and seemed rather intimidating.
“As I walked towards the trough, one of the cows turned and gave me the ‘stink eye.’ At the same time, two other cows began to move behind me,” Franklin said. “That made me concerned, so I pulled the unlatched pipe gate closed to prevent them from surrounding me. I did this for my personal safety and the safety of my vehicle and trailer, and to avoid any conflict with the cows.”
Franklin said he was relieved to get the case behind him, although it loomed over his family during one son’s wedding and another’s college graduation.
“I pled ‘no contest’ because I did nothing wrong. I would never have pled guilty to these charges because they are not true,” Franklin said. “As a biologist, I firmly believe all animals have the right to food, water and habitat. It is unthinkable that I would harm any animal for any reason. I do not hunt. I do not trap. I do not even fish. In fact, I rescue animals. It is just who I am.”
The case has taken a toll on Franklin’s reputation, not to mention the family’s finances. He said his printing business lost customers, and numerous death threats were made on Facebook and The Petroglyph, a news blog run by a conservative Monticello commentator.
Chilcoat estimated they have spent $130,000 and made eight trips to Salt Lake City and five to Monticello during the two-year prosecution. Hundreds of supporters helped defray some of their expenses, which included polling San Juan County residents in a successful bid to have the planned trial moved to Price and a polygraph examination that they said supports Franklin’s assertions of innocence.
Those costs do not count the hours University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell devoted for free, according to Chilcoat. A former federal judge, Cassell helped the couple’s Salt Lake City lawyers Jon Williams and Jeremy Delicino prepare various motions and argue an interlocutory appeal.
Charges previously were thrown out against Chilcoat, a longtime staffer with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, after appellate judges ruled prosecutors lacked evidence to support the counts against her — other than her activism which frequently upset San Juan County leaders, who alleged it proved she wants to rid cattle from public lands. Her efforts to close Recapture Canyon to motorized use made many enemies in Blanding, including County Commissioner-turned-state-legislator Phil Lyman, who was himself convicted of a federal charge for leading a protest ride through the archaeologically rich canyon east of town.
“Who could have imagined that a day recreating in Utah could turn into such a nightmare,” Franklin 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.”
In Franklin’s deal, he entered a no contest “plea in abeyance” to a class A misdemeanor of trespassing on state trust lands and attempted criminal mischief, a class B misdemeanor. A felony charge of trying to kill livestock was dropped.
Laws rejected the notion that politics played any role in his decision to charge Chilcoat and Franklin.
“Our office tries hard to be apolitical, certainly when it comes to criminal cases," he said. “We looked at the facts, at what was presented and then we looked at the code, and we determined these facts get these crimes per the state Legislature.”
Lyman actively politicized the case from the beginning, using Facebook posts to accuse Chilcoat of trying to deprive Odell’s cattle of water. His posts alleged Chilcoat filed a complaint against Odell’s cattle operation with the Bureau of Land Management in retaliation for his reporting her to police.
Chilcoat’s BLM complaint was later used as the basis for an additional felony charge against her, but Laws dropped it.
The prosecutor said Odell was fine with the Monday’s resolution.
“I feel like the situation was handled justly," Laws said, “and appropriately by our office.”