Ranch owner waives preliminary hearing in deaths of 32 bison
Ryan Summerlin September 12, 2008
FAIRPLAY A Park County rancher on Friday waived his right to a preliminary hearing and asked to enter a plea in the slaughter of 32 bison owned by his neighbor.Jeff Hawn, a software executive who owns a luxury home outside this old Colorado mining town, had warned his neighbor, rancher Monte Downare, to keep his bison from roaming onto his property or risk having them hunted. Hawn later sued Downare alleging the bison had turned his land in South Park into a feed lot.Nine days later, shots rang out on the snow-covered plains ringed by mountains. The remains of 32 bison 20 of them close to delivering calves were strewn across Hawns property and nearby land. Deputies learned that 14 hunters from southern Colorado had a letter from Hawn giving them permission to hunt bison on his property.Now Hawn the president and CEO of Seattle-based Attachmate who lives in Austin, Texas finds himself in criminal court, charged with theft and 32 counts of aggravated animal cruelty. The case has outraged many in Fairplay, a town of about 700 founded by gold prospectors in 1859. Its also drawn attention to Colorados open range laws and the local politics of fencing.Hawn waived his right to the hearing scheduled for Monday to determine if theres enough evidence for the case to proceed, asking instead to skip to a hearing to enter a plea, Park County court clerk Debbie McLimans said Friday. A date hasnt been set yet. District Attorney Molly Chilson declined to comment on what was next in the case or whether prosecutors were trying to negotiate a deal with Hawn.Hawn is represented by Pamela Mackey, the lawyer who defended Kobe Bryant against sexual assault charges at a Vail-area resort in 2003 that were later dropped.Hawn didnt respond to two messages left on his cell phone or another left with a spokeswoman at Attachmate. Mackey didnt return telephone calls or an e-mail seeking comment.Another Hawn attorney, Steve Csajaghy, said he couldnt discuss the case. But he told the Rocky Mountain News in March that Hawn had no other choice but to get rid of the bison to protect himself.Downare didnt return two telephone messages seeking comment.Since posting a $15,000 bond in May, Hawn has needed court permission for business travel as well as a Cayman Islands vacation with his wife and four children.In his Feb. 25 letter inviting the hunters, Hawn said they could hunt animals on his property or remove them live.Investigators believe the hunters intended to use meat and hides from 10 of the bison slain March 19 but that as many as 16 had been killed and left to rot weeks before. They also believe Hawn may have shot some himself. According to court documents, 10 of the carcasses were in plain view of his house and some of the bullets they recovered were similar to test rounds fired from a rifle found inside the home.Its hard to find anyone here sympathetic to Hawn. Downares family is well-established, and people in Fairplay, the county seat, and tiny Hartsel, the closest town to his ranch, are quick to defend him. They bemoan the waste of so much bison meat and talk about one of the feuds central issues fences.Miles of barbed-wire fences line area roads and property lines. Unlike rural areas elsewhere in the country, Colorado and most other Western states are open range, where livestock can roam wherever they wish. If you dont want animals on your property, build a fence to keep them out. Ranchers dont have to fence their animals in.Given the states population growth and traffic, Colorado brand commissioner Rich Wahlert, who works to prevent livestock theft and regulates stray livestock, said most ranchers still try to fence their livestock. Since buffalo are stouter than cattle, he said, they can break through the minimal three-barbed-wire fencing required by Colorado law. Many buffalo producers build taller and stronger fences to keep animals in even though they arent required to.Wahlert said livestock are bound to escape from any kind of fence and that Downare has a good track record of responding quickly to calls of stray buffalo, which can weigh a ton and jump six feet.In the civil suit Hawn filed on March 10, he said his barbed-wire fences were sturdy and similar to others in the county. The suit seeks payment for damage caused by Downares buffalo.Hawn said the bison knocked his satellite television dishes off-line and left dung, tracks and hair on pristine pasture on rolling hills. He included a photograph of three bison walking past his deck as evidence.Park County investigators allege that Hawn initially paid one of the hunters $2,000 to build corrals to capture and remove the buffalo live. When he asked for more money, Hawn allegedly said that if the hunters didnt remove the animals in one week he would invite paying hunters to kill the animals. Ranches that raise bison for meat sometimes allow people to hunt them for about $2,000 a head.In Downares victim impact statement, he said Hawns invitation to the hunters was crazy. When asked on the form if he would like any special conditions imposed on Hawn, besides paying for the lost bison, valued at $77,000, Downare wrote: I would like him to fence his property good and leave my livestock alone.Downares bison were killed during a harsh winter in South Park, an area that lent its name to the animated television series. Resident Cindi Raymer noted that roaming animals are a given and were especially so last winter, when snow covered many fences.Raymer, a bartender at the Hob Cafe & Saloon, had a simple answer when talking with owner Violet Jacobus about whether the area can stay open range with an influx of retirees and second-home owners.Just fence the people out, she said with a laugh.