Plea deal made in San Juan cattle gate case

Couple who closed gate originally charged with felony

April Fools’ Day turned out to be a case of déjà vu for a Colorado man who appeared in Seventh District Court in Monticello Monday to plead no contest to a pair of misdemeanors – trespassing on trust lands and attempted criminal mischief.

The pleas will be held in abeyance until April Fools’ Day in 2020. If Mark Franklin stays trouble-free over that time the counts will be dismissed. If he lands afoul of the law, however, he faces up to a year in the San Juan County Jail.

Franklin and his wife, Rose Chilcoat, of Durango, were originally charged with attempted wanton destruction of livestock, a second-degree felony. The Utah Court of Appeals dismissed felony charges against Chilcoat last summer. The no contest plea Franklin entered holds the same weight as would a guilty plea. Such pleas are usually made when a defendant protests his or her innocence, but agree the evidence against them supports a conviction.

The pair landed in hot water in San Juan County on April 1, 2017 when Franklin closed a corral gate, blocking cattle owned by rancher Zane Odell. Franklin said he stopped to relieve himself near the corral when a large tire repurposed as a watering trough caught his eye.

He said the cattle were “intimidating” and he closed the gate to provide a level of safety to him and his vehicle, as well as to avoid conflict with the cattle.

Franklin, 63, and Chilcoat maintained their innocence throughout the past two years amid claims San Juan County overcharged what they claim was an innocent act devoid of any malice. Chilcoat is a public lands activist with the group Old Broads for Wilderness and the corral in question was on public lands managed by the State of Utah.

On Monday in Monticello, Franklin in his signed statement admitted he engaged in criminal mischief when he “interfered with the activities of a lessee, with intent to halt, impede, obstruct, or interfere with the lawful operation of animal enterprise” and also “attempted to intentionally and unlawfully tamper with the property of another and as a result recklessly endangered human health or safety.”

Franklin’s plea agreement compels him to pay a $1,000 abeyance fee and to stay off of State School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration property unless he is traveling through on public roads.

Both Franklin and Chilcoat, along with San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws told Salt Lake Tribune reporter Brian Maffly in a report published Monday that they would have welcomed the case going to trial, both expressing confidence in victory.

Franklin and Chilcoat have claimed the case against them was politically motivated. Laws denied that was the case, said Maffly in his report, and Laws also believes he would have landed convictions had the case gone to trial.