Two years ago, the Crow Tribe auctioned off more than 800 of James Leachman's horses on a ranch east of Billings. A similar scene will play out Wednesday on the Fort Peck Reservation.
According to a legal ad in the Fort Peck Journal, the 1 p.m. sale at the Holen Ranch, about eight miles west of Poplar, will include 131 Leachman horses: 53 mares, 12 colts and fillies and 66 studs or geldings, which are neutered stallions.
On Tuesday, Richard Dean Holen, his son, James Dean Holen, and three brand inspectors rode through snow and water checking horse brands and paperwork as required before a sale.
In February 2012, Leachman had no place to take his horses, Richard Holen said. So, he and his son, James Dean Holen, brought them to their Poplar ranch to care for them for several months.
When Leachman and his son, Seth Leachman, didn’t pay the bill, Holen said he and his son reluctantly sued in Fort Peck Tribal Court. Because the horses are being held on tribal land, the tribe has jurisdiction.
Last November, the tribal court granted the Holens a $544,510 judgment against the Leachmans for their costs.
“It’s a very bad deal. Jim Leachman was a hell of a man and things, but we had to do this to get compensated,” Richard Holen said. “We tried to give them back to him. He wouldn’t come get them.”
On March 19, a tribal judge granted the Holens permission to auction off the horses to collect on the debt. Richard Holen’s wife and their son are enrolled tribal members.
Richard Holen was convicted of rustling 39 head of cattle in September 2008 from neighboring ranchers. He served 10 months at the Montana State Prison, another eight months at a regional facility in Glendive and will be on probation until March 2049, according to the Montana Department of Corrections.
The tribal court order didn’t specify that the horses be sold in one lot. But the legal ad states the horses will be sold together, a condition the Holens apparently wanted.
Richard Holen said his son will likely be the buyer.
“When we own them, we can sell them as we want to,” he said. “We’re going to sell them to people who will take care of them because they are very good horses.”
Eastern Montana district inspector Bill Blankenship of Glendive said all the horses, except for the youngest on the Holen ranch, carry Leachman’s Hairpin brand.
“I’d say they look like they’ve came through a long winter,” Blankenship said.
Some horses were trucked to Poplar from a feedlot near Park City, he said. None had the plastic leg bands that resulted in the death of some of Leachman's horses near Billings, Blankenship said.
Unlike the Fort Peck reservation sale, with apparently one buyer, horse enthusiasts from around the U.S. and Canada flocked to the Crow auction in April 2011, paying a total of $380,365 for 804 quarter horses.
The Crow Tribe conducted perhaps the largest modern-day horse roundup and two-day auction after the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs seized the Leachman horses for trespassing on tribal lands.
At the auction, Seth Leachman bid on 60 or 70 of his father’s horses and James Leachman paid the bill of about $35,000, according to Yellowstone County Sheriff Lt. Kent O’Donnell. Some of the horses being sold at the Poplar auction apparently were among those Seth bought back.
O'Donnell had supervised feeding the Leachman horses, some of them starving, at the Home Place ranch through the winter of 2010-2011.
Leachman gradually lost his grazing lands after a neighbor bought the Home Place ranch during a 2010 sheriff’s sale. Last week, the Crow Tribe paid the federal government $989,400 to buy back the 1,933-acre Hairpin Cavvy Ranch, once owned by Leachman, about five miles southeast of Billings.
In early December, a Yellowstone County Justice Court jury found James Leachman guilty of abusing his horses by placing plastic identification bands on their legs that eventually resulted in several deaths. He was sentenced to five years in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, with all but 120 days suspended, and a $5,000 fine.
Leachman, acting as his own attorney, has appealed the verdict in Yellowstone District Court.
The reappearance of his horses in northeastern Montana is part of this Montana livestock saga, said John Grainger, head of brand enforcement for the Department of Livestock in Helena.
“It’s like a rabbit in a hat. You think you’re done and then they show up near Poplar,” he said.