'I can’t let myself be cowed’ — Eco-activist Rose Chilcoat sues San Juan County, rancher over cattle-gate dispute

Alleging San Juan County trumped up bogus felony offenses over a gate closing, environmental activist Rose Chilcoat is now fighting back with a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking punitive damages from the southeastern Utah county that is already financially stretched over other legal tussles.

Also named in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court is Zane Odell, the rancher who detained Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, at a corral in Bears Ears National Monument two years ago and accused them of trying to kill his cattle. The suit contends Odell and San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws made up or misstated various facts to support a felony case against Chilcoat and Franklin as payback for Chilcoat’s work to protect the county’s public lands and rich archaeological heritage.

“It doesn’t feel good to be doing this. However, I have been encouraged by many people that agree things happened that were wrong and I shouldn’t just say, ‘Good, it’s over,’ and tuck my tail between my legs and walk away, that I should stand up for justice, that I should stand up for integrity and honesty and defend my reputation,” Chilcoat said Wednesday at a news conference in the Salt Lake City offices of her civil attorney, Karra Porter. “The idea that I could have harmed any living creature is just hideous to me. My whole life, my whole career has been about defending nature and animals, the wild places that I love.”

Besides, she said, the case has taken a huge toll on her family, starting with a legal tab totaling at least $130,000.

“I would like to be made whole financially," she said. "I will never get back the two years of my life that I lost having to deal with this, during times that should have been family celebrations.”

She recalled being pulled out of her son’s wedding reception to vet potential defense lawyers.

“My husband I have faced death threats,” Chilcoat said. “My son said, ‘One of these days, they are going to find your body in a ditch out there because you are not backing down.’ I guess that could be a reality, but I can’t let myself by cowed or intimidated. I have to stand for what’s right. That’s who I am.”

(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.

Chilcoat’s suit seeks to pull back the immunity prosecutors normally enjoy and win punitive damages against both Laws and the county, as well as from Odell, who initiated the confrontation April 3, 2017, at a remote spot west of Bluff called Lime Ridge. The suit alleges Chilcoat was illegally detained and falsely accused in the dispute that led to felony charges and a two-year legal ordeal for Chilcoat and her husband that concluded only last week.

“Under the Constitution, citizens have the right to express political viewpoints without retaliation by the government. They have the right not to be seized by the government, or persons acting on behalf of the government, without probable cause. They have the right not to have criminal charges filed against them based upon factual misrepresentations,” Porter wrote in the suit’s opening paragraph. “In the case of Rose Chilcoat, all of these rights were violated.”

Laws and Odell did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. In an interview last week, Laws defended his decision to prosecute the couple, saying he simply applied state law to the facts.

The case highlights the contentious divide over Utah’s public lands and the deep distrust many in San Juan County feel toward outsiders, especially activists who seek to limit motorized access to ecologically and culturally sensitive places that abound there.

Meanwhile, the county has racked up huge legal costs in other disputes, prompting it to seek a special appropriation from the Legislature. Some of these billings arose from federal suits brought by the Navajo Nation and successful County Commission candidate Willie Grayeyes, whom the county had sought to disqualify from the ballot last year, and from pursuing other actions regarding land use disputes with the feds, including an effort to establish a county right of way in Recapture Canyon.

Chilcoat was a key figure in the closure of Recapture Canyon to ATVs and applauded the conviction of County Commissioner-turned-state-legislator Phil Lyman for leading a 2014 protest ride through the canyon east of Blanding. Lyman repaid the favor by calling for Chilcoat’s prosecution in a video post that sought to demonstrate how closing Odell’s gate would keep cattle from their water.

Chilcoat and Franklin, residents of Durango, Colo., argue it was Odell who should have been prosecuted in the clash at his corral, a peculiar contraption of vertical black piping built just off U.S. Highway 163. The couple stopped at the corral on their way home from a weekend trip to southeastern Utah’s Valley of the Gods to check out the cattle operation, which they had inspected two days before — April 1, 2017 — when Franklin closed a gate there.

Enraged that someone messed with the gate, Odell and his hands blocked Chilcoat and Franklin from leaving after recognizing their trailer in a photograph shot from a trail camera rigged to the fence, according to court testimony. The men yelled at them about going to jail and refused to let them leave or even explain why they were being detained until moments before San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Begay arrived and took statements.

Odell accused the couple of closing the gate in a deliberate attempt to keep the cattle from a water source. His proof was the photograph, even though no one appeared in the photograph.

A day or so earlier, Odell alerted sheriff’s deputy that a similar trailer was parked at the Sand Island Campground in Bluff. Deputies investigated only to discover that trailer belonged to hapless vacationers from Minnesota, according to the suit.

Later that month, Laws began filing various charges against Franklin and Chilcoat, who was widely despised in San Juan County for her political activism with Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Friends of Cedar Mesa. These conservation groups stand up for public lands protection and preservation of archaeological sites, positions that upset San Juan leaders who have long resented federal oversight of land use.

Laws initially charged the couple with misdemeanors: trespassing and an additional charge against Chilcoat of making a false statement to a police officer for using her married name. He later added felonies: attempted wanton destruction of livestock and an additional charge against Chilcoat of retaliation against a witness.

The prosecutor cited Chilcoat’s activism as evidence she intended to harm the cattle. The retaliation charge arose from a compliant Chilcoat filed with the Bureau of Land Management, detailing problems with Odell’s cattle operation, which he ran on public land.

This charge was particularly noxious, Chilcoat’s lawyers argued, because it criminalizes civil engagement.

“To be an environmentalist and work on behalf of public lands like I did,” Chilcoat said Wednesday, “should not put a target on someone’s back when all I’ve ever done is work within the appropriate mechanisms for effecting change.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rose Chilcoat, left, former associate director of the Great Old Broads for Wildnerness, is joined by her attorney, Karra Porter, to discuss the filing of a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

At a preliminary hearing in November 2017, Laws alleged that Chilcoat’s complaint contained false allegations, Porter said, and included “altered” photographs showing the damage from Odell’s operation was worse than it really was.

Seventh District Judge Lyle Anderson, who is now retired, ordered Chilcoat tried after that hearing. Porter contends that Laws’ alleged abuse of the criminal justice process is so severe that she hopes to use it as a test case to challenge the immunity that shields prosecutorial misconduct from legal liability.

She believes Laws crossed a line by misstating material facts to persuade Anderson to uphold the retaliation charge. Anderson was openly skeptical of that count, and Laws later dropped it without explanation.

The Utah Court of Appeals later rejected all charges against Chilcoat after concluding prosecutors lacked enough evidence to bring the case to trial. Last week, Franklin pleaded “no contest” to misdemeanor counts to avoid, he said, the hassle and uncertainty of a trial. The charges will be dismissed after a year if he refrains from violating the law.

The suit seeks damages against Odell for leveling accusations against Chilcoat he knew to be false and for assault.

“Odell falsely stated to third parties that Ms. Chilcoat had been caught ‘red-handed’ closing the gate and trying to kill his cattle,” the suit states. Among statements posted on social media in response to Odell’s accusations were “get a rope,” “ignorant bitch,” and one post celebrating the summary justice supposedly practiced “in the good old days.” “In the old West they would have been hanged or shot that day,” the post states.

From the beginning, Franklin acknowledged closing the gate, but pointed out that a section of the fence was down, so the gate closing made no difference for the cattle’s access to the water. Last week after his case ended, he explained he entered the corral to inspect a strange water trough inside and closed the gate to minimize contact with the long-horned cattle giving him the “stink eye.”

Unfortunately for Franklin’s family, San Juan County officials construed shutting a gate as a grave threat to their way of life, another indication of the enmity now infecting Utah’s public lands debates.