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A Richland County ranch manager heads to trial later this month on allegations of felony theft and illegal branding.

Jerry H. Klempel faces seven felony charges for allegedly taking more than his share of the cattle at Veebaray Ranch, while also running an illegal grazing operation on the side and misbranding the cattle of his grazing clients.

The trial is set for Aug. 22. The Montana Attorney General’s office is prosecuting the case, which was also investigated by state investigators and the Department of Livestock. Klempel’s wife, Janice, is a Richland County District Court clerk.

Veebaray Ranch, located near Lambert, is an ancestral ranch operated by a family cooperation overseen by Leslie Russell. In 1998 Klempel was hired to manage the ranch. Klempel had his own cattle, which were merged with the Russell herd, of which Klempel received a 20 percent interest. The combined herd was 620 animals. Klempel and his family lived on the ranch for free. Proceeds from calf sales were split evenly. If the joint venture ended, Klempel was to get 20% of the cattle, with the Russells and Klempel selecting the animals together to avoid cherry picking by either party.

In his affidavit against Klempel, Assistant State Attorney General Kenneth Varns said the arrangement became stressed in 2011, when Russell and her husband, Joe, grew suspicious of the ranch’s feed costs. The Russells hired an accountant to audit their herd. The accountant reported 39 heifers missing, and 42 the next year. In 2013 there were 98 heifers missing.

Joe Russell allegedly found a cattle sale contract between Klempel and Sidney Livestock co-owner Mike Prewitt. The cattle inventory numbers still weren’t what the Russells expected. Klempel was terminated in late 2014.

The cattle split at Klempel’s departure wasn’t 80-20, Veebaray told investigators. They said Klempel left with 465 of the ranch's 864-head herd. The Russells weren’t present, as agreed to when Klempel was hired, to participate in dividing the animals.

Klempel argued that 290 of the cattle he departed with were taken to secure a debt owed to him by Veebaray Ranch. One of the theft charges against Klempel stems from the taking.

The Russells sued. A court-ordered inventory of the Veebaray herd showed 63 animals missing.

The state Department of Livestock began looking at cattle inspection certificates from sales by Klempel. Livestock officials concluded the ranch manager had been selling large numbers of Veebaray cattle for more than 12 years without the Russells’ consent. The Veebaray ranch estimates it was shorted $1.4 million to $1.6 million through the years of cattle sold without its knowledge, or because the proceeds weren’t divided properly.

Additionally, prosecutors accuse Klempel of feeding other people’s cattle on the Veebaray Ranch, something the Russells never agreed to, and billing the ranch for the feed. Three different cattle owners paid to have their animals fed by the Veebaray Ranch. They assumed the ranch had received the money paid to Klempel.

One of the cattle owners, Mike Yore, told investigators that in 2009 Klempel asked that the cattle be rebranded with the Veebaray brand. Yore assumed the rebranding was to hide the animals from the Russells. He agreed to the rebranding, assuming the Russells knew about it.

After Klempel was terminated, Yore told Veebaray he still had 238 cattle on the ranch.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.