Yellowstone County Justice Court Judge Pedro Hernandez accepted rancher James Leachman’s not guilty plea Wednesday to an eighth primary count of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
The judge then gave Leachman 10 days to move the last of his horses off the Home Place Ranch 16 miles east of Billings.
During an unusual sale drawing international interest three weeks ago, the Bureau of Indian Affairs auctioned more than 800 Leachman horses that had been trespassing on Crow Reservation trust lands on the ranch.
But that hasn’t stopped the range wars among some area ranchers.
A year ago, the Leachman Cattle Co., lost the ranch in a federal foreclosure sale to a neighboring family, the Stovalls. The Stovalls insist that Leachman has no right to graze his horses on their land during the year he’s allowed to buy back his land.
When Leachman refused to move the trespassing horses, the BIA seized them and sold them April 2 and 3 for $380,365.
During the sale, Leachman’s son, Seth Leachman, bid successfully on 66 horses.
His father showed up at Crow Agency three days later with a cashier’s check for $33,133, and the horses were turned out on 800 tribal acres that Jim Leachman has leased on the Stovall ranch. The Leachmans also trucked in 10 more horses, according to Yellowstone County Deputy Attorney Ingrid Rosenquist.
But the leased land has no water, so nearly 80 horses are again wandering onto other people’s property, she said.
“These horses must trespass to survive,” she said.
Leachman has been charged with a total of eight primary and eight alternative counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty for allegedly starving his horses and not adjusting their leg bands used for identification. He can be convicted of a maximum of eight charges, either primary or alternative or a mix of both. The maximum sentence is eight years and an $8,000 fine.
In court Tuesday, Leachman also asked for a 90-day extension on his June 3 jury trial.
“It’s a very complicated case. We’re starting flat-footed and we have to do an investigation,” Leachman said.
The Billings-area rancher is acting as his own attorney. On Friday, Hernandez denied his request for a public defender, ruling that Leachman has “the financial means” to hire a private attorney.
In January, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito brought the initial charges, five primary counts, of animal cruelty, accusing Leachman of not feeding his horses and failing to remove leg bands that were crippling some animals. Two additional primary counts and two alternative counts came in March. The latest counts allege that identification bands placed on a black mare’s front legs had cut so deeply that her tissue became bloody and “rotten smelling.”
In court Wednesday, Leachman repeated previous complaints that members of the Stovall family are the offenders.
“Last week, the Stovalls had hundreds of cattle on the north end of my lease. The BIA is aware of that,” he said.
He also accused his neighbors of trespassing on his ranch in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and said prosecutors are overstepping their authority.
“They don’t have any jurisdiction on trust land,” he said. “There is almost no written law about access and trespass on the Crow Reservation.”
During a meeting Monday with the BIA, Leachman said he offered to fence half of his 800 acres if the Stovalls would fence the other half, but said they didn’t show up for the meeting.
Asked directly by Hernandez who owned the horses purchased at the sale, Leachman said, “I did not buy the horses.”
“Then they have no right to be there,” Hernandez responded.
The judge then scolded both Leachman and the County Attorney’s office.
“I’m tired of all the games,” Hernandez said, adding that Justice Court will be spending considerable time resolving these misdemeanor charges.
“To this day I don’t know why they didn’t file felony charges,” the judge said.
In January, Twito gave his reasoning for pursuing misdemeanor, rather than felony, charges:
The horses needed immediate help and court cases move faster in Justice Court than in District Court, where felony cases are heard.
The county needed 10 allegedly abused horses to bring one felony count. The county’s case now is based on eight horses.
Also, a single felony count carries a lesser sentence, two years and $2,500 fine, than the multiple misdemeanor counts.
Leachman has no prior convictions of animal cruelty, and under Montana law, second or subsequent convictions are generally charged as felonies.
After court Wednesday, Twito said that his office has charged Leachman properly and he disputed the judge’s “game-playing” comment.
“The state of Montana doesn’t play games and the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office doesn’t play games,” he said. “We prosecute people and make sure everyone’s rights are adhered to in that process.”