SALT LAKE CITY – After two years of having their lives wrapped up in a courtroom drama for their role in an all-terrain vehicle protest ride, Phillip Kay Lyman and Monte Jerome Wells both breathed a sigh of relief Friday when a federal judge handed down a sentence totaling, between them, just over two weeks incarceration.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer sentenced Lyman to 10 days and Wells to five days incarceration, to be served in the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility, which contracts to house federal inmates. Additionally, each was placed on three years probation with conditions and ordered to pay fines of $1,000 and $500, respectively. The judge also ordered $95,955.61 restitution to the U.S. government.
Nuffer told Lyman during court he had lost much sleep over this case.
While sentencing guidelines call for terms ranging from no jail to six months, Nuffer said he struggled with what length to impose but agreed with prosecutors that there needed to be some jail time imposed. He chose the stipulations he felt were not only fair to the two men who do a lot for their families and communities, the judge said, but would also anger those from both sides of the public lands issue.
The short jail terms, Nuffer said, “will strike a balance and I believe it’s merited to promote respect of the law and deter similar conduct.”
In a private interview with St. George News, U.S. Attorney John Huber said he was pleased with Friday’s sentence. Huber said he believes it sent a loud message to those who might think about breaking the law as a way to demonstrate their frustration with the federal government and land-use issues.
“It doesn’t matter what political opinions you espouse or where you fall on the political spectrum, whether its far right or far left,” he said. “The message sent in this case is that when a person breaks the law there are consequences and the U.S. Attorney’s office will prosecute. And, I would hope that that message is one that will make people pause and think twice before walking down the slippery slope toward disorder and chaos.”
A jury deliberated for 7 hours before finding Lyman and Wells guilty last May. The jury convicted them on misdemeanor conspiracy and aiding and abetting charges related to the operation of off-road vehicles on public lands closed by federal land managers in 2007 – a closure the government made with a stated purpose of protecting ancient American Indian sites and to prevent trespassing. Lyman’s charges were enhanced because of his role as a San Juan County Commissioner.
2014 conflicts between county and federal governments
The 2014 Recapture Canyon protest came on the heels of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the BLM when tensions were already high in Southern Utah and many lawmakers were demanding the federal government relinquish control of public lands.
For many, the events south of the state line seemed to spawn a call to action, even inspiring outrage in the public and motivating many county commissioners in Utah to take on the federal government with their own county issues. Among those were the following:
- In Iron County, the commissioners led an initiative in April challenging the BLM on what they argued was a mismanagement of wild horses on public lands. The action became a collective effort of several counties, including Washington and Beaver counties. The commissioners threatened to take matters into their own hands if the BLM started to round up Bundy’s cattle.
- Washington County followed suit, with its commissioners passing a resolution in May prohibiting the transport and sale of Bundy’s cattle across state lines.
- Garfield County Commissioners approved a resolution at the end of May aimed at the U.S. Forestry Service. The resolution declared a state of emergency “as a result of drought conditions and excessive fuel loading,” and placed a moratorium on prescribed burns within the county and encouraged mechanical treatment instead.
While some compromises were reached in time and the dialogue between local and federal government continues over the various issues, the public debate remains.
San Juan County conflicts
Calling the San Juan incident a “tragedy,” Nuffer used his platform to speak to the co-defendants in the Salt Lake City courtroom filled with supporters and political sympathizers about the polarization of the political environment in Southern Utah.
The judge condemned what he said he saw as a “mythology” emerging from this case that was reflected in the letters of support filed on behalf of Lyman and Wells. He said:
On both sides in the letters I’ve received, I see distrust, hostility, anger, fear, suspicions, arrogance, attribution of evil motives, means of dishonesty, hyperbole, refusal to acknowledge any validity in another point of view, refusal to listen, entrenchment and self-attribution of the highest values, motives and correctness. We have some shared values: our country, our freedom, our land; but the way we go about this is destructive. What good comes out of conflict with the huge losses that we are seeing today?
Nuffer, who practiced law in Southern Utah for 25 years, called for the political rhetoric to be scaled back.
“I’d like to speak a word on those things you’re not seeing – family, peace, happiness, liberty. More important than roads are the places they take us. More important than hospitals is the healing that takes place there. More important than politics are people. We are all people,” he said. “Can we reduce the bitterness of the battle and the conflict? Can the values and behaviors our mothers and kindergarten teachers tried to teach come back to us now? Can we stop emulating the people we see on television and the national politicians? Can we be better here?
“. . . If we don’t ratchet down the emotion and all those negative, negative qualities, we will do serious damage,” Nuffer said. “… This is a great time of year to examine ourselves and make changes in our approaches for the betterment of our community which includes our neighbors, our families, our cities, counties, our state and our nation.”
The judge also reminded Lyman about his role as a county commissioner and the need to use caution in delivering his messages.
“You took an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and Utah. We both have taken that same oath … ,” Nuffer said. “We have to be extremely careful about things we say, things we do and the messages we put out.”
Outside court, Lyman refused to provide comment to the press but spoke with St. George News later that day in an exclusive interview. Of the judge’s comments, Lyman said he took his words as “genuine” and at “face value.”
“I took his counsel at face value and I thought ‘this is to me. He’s talking to Phil Lyman. He does not want to see animosity whipped up into some kind of irrational action,’ and I appreciated his advice. I thought it was good counsel, really good advice …,” Lyman said.
Still, Lyman felt the judge did not completely understand the commissioners’ role in the issues facing San Juan County.
“While he was talking there was a part of me that thought, ‘judge you think I was stirring up animosity to BLM employees’ and I was not. . . But I think the judge was still probably saying, ‘Phil you lit a match or you started something.’ And I didn’t light a match. This fire has been burning for a long time.”
Wells, who also granted St. George News an interview, said of Nuffer’s homily that he felt the judge touched on some points that showed he understood some of the deeper underlying issues with the public lands. He said:
The judge gave a nice comment there at the end – what I got from it is that he can see the route that we are on is leading to a disaster. We’re headed down the wrong path. We’re headed down to a collision none of us want and it hasn’t always been that way. Up until 2005 I use to do all the permitting with my father’s company with the BLM, the forestry and everybody; and you can go in and work with them on anything. We got along. There wasn’t this us and them attitude, but that’s changed since then and that’s what we have now. The people have felt that. There’s just been a huge change since that period, since the raids in 2009 and there’s a blatant disregard the agencies have for the people of San Juan County. It’s very obvious and the people pick up on that.
In an emotional wrenching plea to the court, Lyman described the suffering many of his constituents in Blanding experienced in 2009 from BLM raids on homes of suspected artifact traffickers, an event he says devastated the community and laid the groundwork for the Recapture Canyon protest.
“Old men we love and respected, relatives of mine harshly treated, it was a hard thing. Three young men who suffered,” Lyman said, trying to hold back the rush of emotion coming through during his testimony. “Lives were truly devastated as a result of that time …. The devastation is still very apparent …. My friend’s daughter was strip-searched.”
Lyman’s and Wells’ allusion to 2009 is in reference to an American Indian artifacts trafficking sting in the Four Corners of Southern Utah. At that time federal agents, armed with semi-automatic weapons, arrested James and Jeanne Redd among 22 others on June 10, 2009. Federal prosecutors charged James Redd, 60, with one felony county of theft of tribal property, specifically an effigy bird pendant the size of a small fingernail.
The next day after his arrest James Redd, a prominent physician in Blanding, took his own life after leaving behind a recording that reflected on what the parties say was “excessive, overreaching and abusive treatment” by the agents. Two others also associated with the case committed suicide as well.
The family of James Redd filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2011 contending the federal agencies that included the BLM and the FBI caused his death. That case is ongoing.
Lyman went on to explain that he believes he is a reasonable individual but as an elected official he felt an obligation to not only make himself accessible but vulnerable.
During the interview with St. George News, Lyman discussed his feelings about the 2009 events and the part it played in his decision to lead the protest down Recapture Canyon.
“After seeing what had happened to some of the families in Blanding, namely Dr. Redd and his family, and kind of going through that with them and people I knew – there was a feeling that I can’t be in public office and not do something that demonstrates my displeasure with that,” Lyman said. “And even more so than that, it’s the false narrative that these people, that they were grave diggers, that they were artifact thieves, that they were in the black market – all of it completely false. It’s completely false.”
Lyman described the experience as surreal.
“There’s a difference between hearing a story and not believing it versus living in a town and being part of the story and hearing what’s being written and saying, ‘surely no one is buying this stuff.’ Then you find out that not only are they buying it but pushing on to the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice is taking action, and charging people, and forcing them to take a plea or they’re going to lose everything.”
At that point, he said, he could not sit back and watch it all happen and do nothing.
“And then I found myself in the position saying, ‘I don’t want to step into the ring. I’m really not a tough guy but here I am. I’m elected and I’m not going to spend my tenure as an elected official with my hands in my pockets pretending like I have no ability to effect change,’” he said.
Lyman said his biggest regret in taking on the federal government is the time he lost with his son who then was a senior in high school and is now on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“You know lessons learned sometimes come with a price. Sometimes you pay a price,” he said. “My son is on a mission now and most of his senior year I was absorbed in those things and I shortchanged him and I don’t know – I don’t know how I’ll be evaluated in the final assessment. I think I, I don’t know, probably shortchanged him and that’s a regret. That’s a regret. I look at it like it wasn’t fair to do to him and probably wasn’t fair to my wife but. I put them through a lot of stress. I’m kinda selfish I guess on that front.”
The biggest regret for Wells was outlined in his plea to the court. He told the judge he had failed to appreciate the devastating consequences of the protest.
“I have put my family through a continuing nightmare, placing my liberty and their security at risk. I have come to learn through a very painful experience the right to protest, as will all rights, exists largely because it’s not absolute,” he said. “Rights come with responsibilities. I don’t have the right to take away the rights of others.”
Lyman said going forward he hopes he can work with the federal agencies in the future to get them back on track with their original goals of impartially working with the communities and coordinating with local government and “not just talk about it but actually do it.”
Particulars of judge’s orders against Lyman, Wells
The judge ordered total restitution of $95,955.61, with Wells and Lyman jointly and severally liable for the first $48,000 of that amount. Lyman is solely responsible for the balance of the restitution. Simply put, the first $48,000 may be enforced against either or both Wells and Lyman, while the remaining $47,955.61 may only be enforced against Lyman.
The restitution ordered addresses the federal government’s claim for for damages sustained as a result of the 2014 ATV protest ride against the BLM.
After the hearing, Lyman told St. George News the men have so far received around $30,000 in donations from supporters.
Wells said those donations may go toward covering the bill now owed to the federal government.
As part of the typical probation terms, Nuffer initially barred the men from possessing firearms but later changed the order to require only that the men remove the guns and ammunition from their homes when probation officers visit. The reason for the change is that Wells is a federally licensed gun dealer whose livelihood would be greatly impacted if faced with a full ban on gun ownership.
Lyman’s probation also prohibits him from advocating for the violation of federal land-use laws.
Both Lyman and Wells are allowed to surrender to jail at their convenience but Lyman, an accountant in Blanding, may wait until after April’s tax season, Nuffer said.
The co-defendants have 14 days to appeal. Both Lyman and Wells told St. George News after the hearing they are in the process of weighing all of their options with their attorneys.
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.