Two Durango environmentalists who face charges for supposedly trying to kill cattle by closing a corral gate will have their trials moved to a new venue after a judge ruled they wouldn’t receive a fair trial in San Juan County.
Seventh Judicial District Judge Lyle Anderson ruled Thursday that a change of venue was warranted for the May 23 trial for Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin because the jury pool in San Juan County would be tainted in light of its grudge against the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, where Chilcoat once worked as an activist.
The two-day trial will now take place in Price, Utah.
“If jurors and prospective jurors know defendants are associated with the Great Old Broads,” Anderson wrote, “it is difficult to see how this court can seat an impartial jury.”
Efforts to reach Chilcoat on Friday were unsuccessful.
Chilcoat and Franklin were charged in April 2017 after a rancher reported the couple trespassed onto his property between Bluff and Mexican Hat and closed a gate to a corral with the intent to cut his cattle off from water.
Defense attorneys have tried to have the case dismissed, saying it stems from Chilcoat’s work with Great Old Broads, an environmental activist group active in San Juan County.
The decision to move the trial out of San Juan County is a victory for the couple, who have said the charges are an attempt at retaliation against Chilcoat for her activist work.
Defense attorneys pointed to a recent poll in San Juan County that found 75 percent of residents are familiar with the Great Old Broads, and of that amount, 75 percent had a “very unfavorable” view. About 200 people were surveyed.
“It is safe to say that environmentalists like Rose Chilcoat are disliked in San Juan County,” her attorney wrote.
Her attorneys told of numerous conflicts between Chilcoat and the Great Old Broads with San Juan County residents.
In 2010, the Great Old Broads were on a field survey in Recapture Canyon when they found signs with a skull and crossbones that read, “Wanted dead or alive: Great Old Broads for Wilderness.”
Two years later, the Great Old Broads claimed locals threatened their group at a campground in Indian Creek when someone hung a “hag” mask on a fence doused in blood with “Stay out of San Juan County. No last chance,” written on it.
Defense attorneys say San Juan County residents blame Chilcoat for orchestrating a ban on ATVs in 2014 in Recapture Canyon. The incident led to an illegal ride through the canyon, headed by County Commissioner Phil Lyman.
Lyman, an influential figure in San Juan County, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and fined $1,000. He has blamed Chilcoat for the incident, calling her “a manipulator and a reprobate” and “evil.”
Chilcoat and Franklin’s attorneys highlighted the vitriolic, even physical threats found on blogs such as The Free Range Report and The Petroglyph, the latter of which is run by San Juan County resident Monte Wells.
Wells wrote that Chilcoat’s actions were a felony, and that “not long ago she would have been hung from the nearest tree for trying to harm cattle. She should feel lucking (sic).”
Ed Black commented, “String that (expletive) up.”
“The recent threats alone provide ample justification for a change of venue in this case,” the defense wrote.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, prosecuting the case, filed a motion to deny the change of venue.
“It is difficult to fathom that there are not at least eight individuals out of over 15,000 who can be fair and impartial,” he wrote.
Aside from Anderson approving to move the trial, Chilcoat and Franklin have been dealt a series of defeats in the case over the past few months.
The couple challenged Anderson’s decision to send the case to trial, to no avail.
And Anderson ruled that Laws did not have to recuse himself after the prosecutor agreed to remove himself on April 18. The defense said Laws, who is friends with Lyman and Wells, is under pressure to take down Chilcoat. He has denied the claim.
About the same time, Laws offered Chilcoat and Franklin a plea agreement that he later rescinded. Prosecutors offered to drop all Chilcoat’s charges and reduce Franklin’s from a felony to a misdemeanor. Defense attorneys accepted Chilcoat’s offer and said they would take Franklin’s case to court.
Prosecutors argued the offer was a package deal and promptly rescinded it, with Anderson’s approval.
Now, Chilcoat and Franklin will head to court to challenge one second-degree felony, wanton destruction of livestock and trespassing on trust lands, a misdemeanor. They face up to 20 years in prison.
Chilcoat was originally charged with two other offenses: providing officers with her maiden name and submitting a complaint to the Bureau of Land Management about the rancher, Zane Odell.
Chilcoat had filed a complaint with the BLM after the gate incident that said Odell could be overgrazing on his allotment and excavating without permission. Prosecutors interpreted the complaint as an retaliation against a witness. Both charges have been dropped.
The couple enlisted attorney Paul Cassell, a former federal prosecutor who served from 2002 to 2007 as a U.S. District Court judge. He now is a professor of law at the University of Utah and is considered an expert on criminal justice.
Cassell argues that the charges are a violation of First Amendment rights.
“The prosecution in this case – one aimed at silencing an environmental activist and her husband by threat of criminal prosecution and imprisonment – is an attack on those fundamental rights,” Cassell wrote in a court filing.
On April 1, 2017, Odell noticed the gate to a corral closed, as well as tire tracks. The incident was reportedly recorded on a trail camera at the corral.
Two days later, Odell noticed the vehicle passing by that had been caught on camera and notified the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office. Officers stopped the couple, and Franklin admitted to closing the gate.
The deputies let Chilcoat and Franklin go. Nine days later, however, charges against the couple were filed.
Chilcoat and Franklin have maintained there was a wide opening in the fence that still allowed cattle access to water.
Odell acknowledge the opening existed, but argued the couple’s critical views of grazing on public lands was the impetus for closing the gate, hoping cattle would die.