James H. Leachman of Billings pleaded not guilty to 10 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty Friday in Justice Court and said he will ask for a jury trial.
Relaxed and joking with others in the courtroom, the 69-year-old Leachman appeared without an attorney before Justice of the Peace Larry Herman and was released without bail. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Deputy County Attorney Ingrid Rosenquist said the county does not object to Leachman visiting the ranch to care for the horses, but said he must first call the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office.
"I go out there every day, almost," Leachman said, after his arraignment.
Ranch hand Kenny Kukowski, however, told the county attorney in early January that he hadn't seen Leachman at the ranch since the first week in November.
Leachman's next hearing was set for April 12 with a possible jury trial June 3.
Following Friday's hearing, Leachman distributed a statement in which he apologized for any "embarrassment, disappointment, or distress" the controversy has caused the livestock industry. But, "only four horses, out of a very significant number, are dead and two of those horses were shot by authorities," he said.
As many as 700 horses are running on Leachman's former Home Place ranch and several neighboring ranches along along Highway 87E east of Billings. Since the charges were filed, a massive rescue effort has been mounted to get food and water to the horses.
Leachman blamed Turk Stovall and his family, which now owns the ranch, with moving his horses around without permission and trapping them. He said he will ask for a dismissal of the charges due to lack of proof that "the horses died due to unacceptable agricultural practices and for jurisdictional questions since the horses were largely on Indian trust land on the Crow Indian Reservation."
Stovall said he wasn't surprised at the plea.
"Who would be surprised? Jim has never taken accountability for anything he's been accused of, to my knowledge," he said.
On Jan. 21, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office filed five main and five alternate misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty against Leachman for the deaths of several horses.
The county attorney's office alleges two of Leachman's horses had starved to the point they had to be put down, and three others were severely injured because of neglect.
Two weeks ago, Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila said many of the Leachman horses were starving and would begin dying in droves by the end of January. Since then, the weather has warmed up enough to melt snow and ice, providing drinking water for the horses, and Thursday more than 20 tons of hay were airlifted to some of the more isolated horses.
As of Friday, the rescue effort, dubbed Operation Home Place, had raised $17,000 and had pledges of more than 500 tons of hay.
Cold weather is returning this weekend and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said water will be hauled from Billings as needed. Horses must have water to drink if they are fed hay.
Leachman is charged with "knowingly or negligently" subjecting an animal to mistreatment or neglect by failing to provide veterinarian care for serious injuries that caused the animal's injury or death.
The charges are based on five injured horses, including one old mare who was starving, that investigators witnessed between Dec. 29, 2010 and Jan. 15, 2011. By the time authorities got a search warrant Jan. 15, only two of four horses marked for euthanasia could be found and were mercy shot by Sheriff's Lt. Kent O'Donnell.
The Home Place ranch has been at the center of a lengthy legal dispute.
The former Leachman ranch was sold at a federal foreclosure sale last July for $2.6 million to the Stovall family. The Stovalls said Leachman was supposed to move his horses seven months ago when he lost the ranch, but Leachman refused. Leachman has until July to redeem the ranch by buying it back.
The hundreds of horses are running on the Stovall ranch and several neighboring ranches, and Turk Stovall said they're eating about $500 worth of grass a day.
Sheriff's Office officials plan to visit the ranch again Saturday to deliver more hay.
Meanwhile, area landowners held another meeting with Yellowstone County officials Friday to work on a long-term solution.
"We're talking with landowners today to assure them we're doing everything we can as far as our efforts to take care of the horses," Linder said.
Donations to aid the hungry horses may be made through the Northern International Livestock Exposition's website at www.nile.org.