Who, age What Where When Last Known Address
James H. "Jim" Leachman, 68 starving 800 quarter horses

Billings, MT

Yellowstone County

December 4, 2010  
Type of Crime Other Crimes #/Type of animal(s) involved Case Status Next Court Date /Courthouse

800 quarter horses


June 3, 2011 - Yellowstone County Court

The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office on Friday filed five primary misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and five alternative counts against James H. Leachman of Billings.  (Read the Complaint)

  (Photo of Leachman courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette)

But the legal action may have come too late to save many of the estimated 450 horses starving to death on a ranch east of Billings.

Two horses were humanely shot by a county sheriff's lieutenant. Unless the surviving horses are fed, Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila said the horses will start dying in droves within the next two weeks. It isn't clear who will feed the horses or if they can be adopted.

Leachman, who bred cattle in Montana for nearly four decades and turned to horses when his cattle empire collapsed, faces a total maximum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said the charges are part of what may be the largest horse abuse case in Montana history.  "This is just a horrible situation, and we'll try to do whatever we can to help the horses," he said.

Twito said that as soon as possible he would call a meeting of the government agencies involved, along with ranchers surrounding the former Leachman Home Place Ranch, which has about 9,400 deeded acres and 30,000 leased Crow tribal lands.

The five primary charges of negligently failing to provide veterinary care, food or water to helpless animals are "stacked" so they collectively carry a maximum five-year, $5,000 penalty. The charges can be converted later to a felony charge.

The five dead horses cited as evidence include a young mare with what appeared to be a broken leg on Dec. 29 and later found dead Jan. 15; a black mare nursing a colt; an old bay mare nursing a colt that couldn't walk because marking bands placed on her front legs strangled her circulation as she grew; a buckskin mare with a colt with a severe cut tendon; and a 1- to 2-year-old black-blue roan mare that had been walking on her ankle bone for a year after apparently breaking her leg.

Peila, who examined the horses Dec. 29 at the request of investigators, said about 350 of the horses in the 2,600-acre Tschirgi pasture hadn't eaten much for a month.

"It's horrible. They're all starving to death," Peila said. "The first time I was up there Dec. 29, (the horses) were running the fence. They wanted out. They had nothing to eat then, and their condition has really deteriorated."

Leachman was served with the charges early and will be ordered to appear in Justice Court.

Leachman said that he expects to be vindicated. He said Turk Stovall, who is managing the Home Place Ranch with his wife, Jenny, has been interfering with the horses.

"Part of the interference inflicted by Stovall on me includes the unauthorized and inhumane moving, intermingling and locking up of my horses. That has included, but is not limited to, the very same horses referred to in the charges: all the horses who had been sorted off by us in case they needed professional care or needed to be disposed of," Leachman said.

(Photo courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette - Turk Stovall looks for the brand on a dead horse owned by Jim Leachman)

In a lengthy interview on Dec. 4, Leachman denied that his horses were starving. They have always ranged on winter pasture and done well on the Home Place ranch 16 miles east of Billings along Highway 87E, he said. But he lost his ranch last July at a U.S. Marshals Service foreclosure sale when the neighboring Stovall family paid $2.6 million for the ranch. Getting the money to buy it back by July is his focus.

"My game plan now, in general, is to get through the redemption of the ranch and plan on having an orderly horse sale, which would probably entail or include a reduction in the horse numbers," he said. "And ideally, I would have a nucleus to go forward."

All the horses were meticulously sorted for a fall sale, he said, but the Stovalls mixed them up again and they keep moving his horses around without his permission, so he doesn't know where they all are to feed or doctor them. Leachman said the Stovalls are jealous of his skills with genetics and for years have been out to get his ranch and his Crow tribal leases.

The Stovalls can't feed the horses because they don't own them, are wary of getting sued, and need the hay and land for their own livestock. Leachman was supposed to remove his horses six months ago when he lost the ranch, Stovall said, a point Leachman disputes. And Stovall is frustrated at the slow pace of public agencies in dealing with the horse problem that has been festering for at least a year.

"We've got to protect our grass and all the hay we bought for our cows," Turk Stovall said. "We've done about everything we can think of."  Stovall and his hired hand could gather up the horses in a day, but a roundup doesn't seem to be in the cards, either.

"We're trying to get this done as fast as possible," Twito said. "It is frustrating, but at the end of the day, this could have been taken care of by Mr. Leachman."

On Jan. 15, Peila, along with a deputy county attorney, two sheriff's deputies and a Montana Department of Livestock manager, returned to the ranch with legal authority to deal with the worst of the horses. The vet had Yellowstone County Sheriff Lt. Kent O'Donnell mercy shoot an old bay mare that Peila called a "sack of bones." The mare lies in a prairie dog town in the Fighter pasture, but the body hadn't been touched yet — the coyotes, cougars and magpies were apparently spooked off by the hum of the high-voltage power lines overhead.

O'Donnell also shot a mare that had been walking on her ankle bone for a year or more after apparently breaking her leg as a baby.

  (Photo courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette - Kenny Kukowski, of Stovall Ranches, looks over a dead horse. This horse had to be shot after it was handicapped with a broken hoof and had been walking on the bone.

This is big country and finding the bodies ate up a half-day, covering 30 miles in a chained-up pickup. One banded horse was found near Woody Mountain.

"I saw that horse standing on the hill by Woody Mountain, the magpies pecking at him, and two days later I found him lying in the draw, feeding the coyotes," ranch hand Kenny Kukowski said.

All ranchers lose a small percentage of stock running on the range, but this death could have been avoided, Peila said.  "It's poor livestock management to band the horses and turn them out into the damn wilderness," he said.

No one yet knows how many horses are roaming the vast range, including deeded and Crow tribal lands near the Pryor Mountains. What is different about this winter is that these horses cannot roam freely to find grass because Leachman doesn't control the land anymore.

The Stovalls started calving heifers last week, so most of the horses are confined on the Tschirgi with no grass left. Only yucca spikes, wisps of cheat grass and sagebrush — a last meal for a horse — poke through the snow and ice. Winter coats can hide a lot, but these pasture horses show sucked up bellies, skinny necks and protruding hip bones.

More than 100 horses have broken through barbed-wire fences and are roaming on neighboring ranches or on Crow tribal land where they have a much better chance of surviving the winter, Peila said.

After telling a bankruptcy judge last winter that he had no income after the collapse of the Leachman Cattle Co., and a price collapse in the horse markets, Leachman said he would hold his annual fall Hairpin Cavvy sale.

That didn't happen.  "I planned on having a sale this fall, I just couldn't have it. Sure, I could have it if I wanted to sell my horses for 200 bucks," he said in December.

On Dec. 3, the horses in the pasture were wild and strong enough that they ran through 2-to3-foot drifts to flee when they spotted a pickup a mile away.   Then a band of mares barely moved when the truck came within 150 yards.

Who is in charge of ensuring the health of the horses isn't simple.  The joke among ranchers on the reservation is that there is little law out there, due mostly to the checkerboard mix of deeded or private land and Crow tribal lands. And the fences follow the water and grass, not property lines, making it tricky to know whether you're on private or tribal lands.

Because the Crow Tribe is a sovereign nation, county, state and federal officials have limited authority on lease lands.  "The sheriff won't come, the Crow tribal police won't come, the BIA won't come and the brand inspector won't come, but the FBI will come if you die," the joke goes.

The reality is that multiple law enforcement agencies are players on the reservation.

The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office is in charge of animal abuse cases, but it isn't set up to handle horses.  "Look at us. Do you see any cowboys here or horse trailers?" then-Undersheriff Seth Weston said in December when it was becoming clear the horses were in danger.

The Sheriff's Office is in charge of the investigation, and the Montana Department of Livestock is assisting.

Last fall, Montana Department of Livestock Eastern Area Manager Travis Elings hauled his personal water tank to 14 Leachman stallions that were apparently living on morning dew.  "It was a bad, bad deal. Them horses were thirsty, thirsty. We had to beat them off with ropes to fill the tanks," Elings said in December.

Leachman said his horses had water until Stovall's hired hand moved them into a pasture without water.

What happens next with the horses isn't clear. Twito said his office lacks the authority to pay for a roundup.

"If you look at the roundup provision in statute, it requires the adjoining landowners or livestock association to pay," Twito said. "If I could wave a magic wand and help those horses, I would in a heartbeat, but I'm bound to enforce the law."

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which apparently manages the Tschirgi pasture on tribal lands, and the Crow Tribe haven't responded to Freedom of Information Act letters or recent requests for comment.

"In my opinion, the BIA has the easy power to snap to it, but nobody wants to pay the bill to feed those horses and to deal with Leachman," Peila said.

Each horse needs 30 pounds of hay a day, he said, which would run $1,600 to $1,800 per day to feed all of them. That doesn't include vet fees and the costs of hauling hay and water to the remote Crow Reservation hills. The horses are eating snow now, but they can't eat hay without water to drink or they'll die. Hay has no moisture, grass does.

"Now is the quiet downhill. A month ago, they were not that bad. Now, they're really suffering," Peila said. "I think we'll see a lot of dead horses in two weeks and a lot of suffering in between."

Although he admits it's a long-shot politically, the vet said time has run out, so in his opinion all the horses in pasture need to be kicked out to other ranches and tribal lands to survive until July when the ranch redemption issue is settled.

"These are his horses, and as the owner, he is responsible to God and everybody to take care of those animals," Peila said. "It appears for some reason Leachman is neglecting everything and waiting for someone else to do something."

Update 1/15/11:  The owners of Valley M Ranch in Red Lodge drove two pickup trucks with trailers loaded with 10 tons of hay from the Beartooth Mountains to the former Leachman Cattle Co. Home Place ranch, giving some of the hungry horses east of Billings their first good meal in weeks.

“We'll got it off-loaded as soon as we got out there,” said Yellowstone County Undersheriff Kevin Evans. “There's a tractor out here and we're going to spread some of the hay out.”

The good Samaritans from Red Lodge want to remain anonymous, but they said they offered to deliver more small loads of hay to the ranch until they can line up a semitrailer from Absarokee to haul the rest of the hay. The couple has pledged 100 tons of round bales, about $9,000 worth.

Offers to help the estimated 350 to 700 horses belonging to James H. Leachman of Billings and one of his companies, the Hairpin Cavvy, have been pouring in, keeping three or four operators at the Northern International Livestock Exposition busy answering calls.

The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office filed five primary and five alternative counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty against Leachman. He is scheduled to appear in Justice Court and faces five years in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted on all counts. The charges could be upgraded to a felony later, County Attorney Scott Twito said.

The charges were based on five dead horses found on the ranch and on observations from Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila that some of the horses would starve to death soon if not fed.

Yellowstone County Sheriff's Lt. Kent O'Donnell humanely shot two of the ailing horses Jan. 15 and three others were found dead. Wounds ranged from a severe leg cut to injuries related to marking bands to one mare Peila described as a “sack of bones.”

  (Photo courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette - A horse's banded leg is found near other bones picked clean by coyotes and other predators. The mare couldn't walk, Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila said, because the bands attached when she was young had cut off circulation)

Photo courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette - the remains of a horse - one of several hundred that lack enough food and water)

(Photo courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette - Scavengers cleaned the bones of a horse that died of neglect)

Leachman's limited liability company, Leachman Cattle Co., used to own the Home Place ranch, but the property on the Crow Reservation was sold last July at a U.S. Marshal's Service foreclosure sale. The neighboring Stovall family paid $2.6 million for the ranch.

Westfeeds Inc. of Billings donated about 4-1/2 tons of horse feed.

“We felt an obligation to help out. We just felt terrible when we heard about these animals and the situation there were in,” said Scott Black, the company's president and chief executive.

The feed will be given to the neediest horses, but only under a veterinarian's supervision because horses can develop colic and die if they haven't eaten properly for a long time and are fed grain or sweet feed.

O'Donnell also hauled about 11 100-gallon water tanks to the ranch in case cold weather returns and standing water freezes again. More tanks are waiting to be hauled, so what has been named Operation Home Place has enough water tanks for now. Shipton's Big R and Tractor Supply Co. donated most of the water tanks.

Before the donated hay could leave the Red Lodge ranch, Carbon County had to plow snow from a steep hill by the Valley M Ranch.

In addition to a loaner tractor, O'Donnell said the Sheriff's Office is talking to some helicopter pilots about donating some time to fly hay out to the horses in the most remote areas.  “That country's so rough in there, I don't know that a pickup and horse trailer can get in there,” Mills said.

There is no count yet on the number of calls or amount of donations, which are being handled by the NILE Foundation, Mills said.

The Red Lodge couple donating hay also handed Mills an envelope with a check from one of their neighbors.

Update 1/28/11:  A helicopter airlifted 20 tons of hay, and deputies hauled even more to a sprawling southeastern Montana ranch where hundreds of horses are starving.

  (Photo of Leachman courtesy of Larry Mayer/Gazette)

The horses belong to James H. Leachman, who pleaded not guilty to 10 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in an initial court appearance in Billings.

Leachman said little during the hearing.  "There's only been one side told," Leachman said. "They put them in a pasture that had no grass."

Justice Court Judge Larry Herman told Leachman not to enter the property to provide care for the horses without first making arrangements with authorities. Each animal cruelty count is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Leachman, 68, ran a horse breeding business called Hairpin Cavvy.

Small bands of horses started eating the hay when the bales broke up on impact during the airlift. The hay was expected to last a few days, until colder weather hardened roads enough to drive more to the animals.

Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office officials hauled more hay with a tractor and a flatbed to about 75 horses stuck in an isolated pasture.

Sheriff Mike Linder, who drove a loaned tractor to deliver hay to the animals, said the volunteer response had been great.

"I spent three hours on the phone, and, in three hours, the hitch was being built, I had the tractor and the helicopter lined up," he said.

Al Blain, who owns Billings Flying Service with his brother, said an estimated 300 to 400 horses gathered in the drop area.

The Northern International Livestock Exposition had collected $10,000 in cash donations and about 250 tons of hay to date.

Turk Stovall, whose family now owns the ranch, said Leachman's horses have been grazing there for six months.  Stovall said he couldn't continue to let the horses graze with his cows calving and the need for the spring grass.  "These horses would never have had a chance if we hadn't said we need some help out here," Stovall said.

Update 3/5/11:  Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito brought four more counts of animal abuse against Leachman.

"He appeared in Justice Court and we charged him with new misdemeanor charges for two more dead horses we found," Twito said.  Two of the four counts were primary charges, and two were alternative counts.

On Feb. 18, Crow Fish and Game personnel told Yellowstone County Sheriff Deputy Lt. Kent O'Donnell about two horses they had spotted. Both horses were unable to get up, including a skinny mare bleeding from her leg. The deputy shot them at the request of a veterinarian.

The charges were added to the original 10 misdemeanor counts filed against Leachman on Jan. 21 based on five dead horses found among an estimated 700 horses. Some horses died because of broken bones or identification bands that weren't adjusted as they grew, eventually cutting off their ability to walk. The bands of horses are spread across ranches and Crow Tribal land 16 miles east of Billings.

Leachman now faces a maximum sentence of seven years and a $7,000 fine.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs moved a step closer to rounding up the horses and selling them at auction.

The BIA published a legal notice saying it intended to impound the horses as early as March 9.

"The Rocky Mountain Region (of the BIA) and the Crow Agency are formulating a plan now," said Department of the Interior Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling in Washington, D.C.

The BIA tried unsuccessfully last month to hire a livestock outfit to round up the horses, but the bid process hasn't worked out. Darling confirmed that no bids have been awarded.

Justin Mills, executive director of the Northern International Livestock Exposition in Billings, which has helped feed the Leachman horses this winter, said it came down to money.

"The BIA has $25,000 to spend and all the bids came in way higher, so we're in the process of working out an agreement with the Crow Tribe and the BIA," Mills said. "The BIA has only so much money. That's a given."

Leachman legally has five days to gather his horses before they are impounded. But he said he was broke while testifying last year in his personal bankruptcy case. Leachman did not immediately respond to calls Friday for comment. His omnibus hearing is scheduled for April 12 and a jury trial, which he requested, is set for June 3.

So far, the NILE has fed about 75 tons of hay and spent another $15,000 caring for the Leachman horses out of total donations topping $55,000.

Since Jan. 27, the sheriff's office and NILE officials have been feeding and watering the horses, including two airlifts of hay to horses in remote areas.

Meanwhile, the Montana Department of Revenue is going after Leachman's personal property to collect $179,098 in delinquent taxes, according to a legal notice published on Feb. 24.

Update 4/4/11:  Last weekend’s sale of horses seized for trespassing on the Crow Reservation drew buyers from across the country and Canada who spent $380,365 on 804 Leachman quarter horses.

Every Leachman horse run through the sales ring sold. The other 25 out of a total 829 horses got swept up in the Crow Tribe roundup and were reclaimed by their owners.

Absarokee auctioneer Rick Young said he has never sold more than 100 horses at one time.  “I thought it was awesome, just a very, very well-run deal, and I was well-pleased with the prices the horses brought, all things considered,” he said.

This has been called the largest sale of trespassing livestock in the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA confiscated the horses after giving the owner, Jim Leachman of Billings, a notice last October and another last month that his horses were trespassing on tribal lands. He failed to pay the bills to reclaim his horses, and that cleared the way for this sale on the Home Place ranch 16 miles east of Billings.

International publicity and Internet chatter about the horses, many rescued from starvation last winter, probably pushed prices higher than they might have been, Young said.

“This was such a unique situation that normal market values may have varied considerably due to outside circumstances,” he said. “There were a lot of people this weekend trying to save the horses.”

Crow Agency BIA Superintendent Vianna Stewart said people will be sorting and loading horses until the end of the week, so she won’t be able to total up the costs of the operation until the end of this week.  “We don’t know if there is money left over yet. If so, he (Leachman) has creditors who have liens,” she said.

Sixty-three BIA and Crow Tribal employees worked the sale, plus four Montana Department of Livestock brand inspectors, officials from the Northern International Livestock Exposition and dozens of volunteers.  Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder was there both days with five department members.  “Our office was just basically there for security. There was a lot of money out there,” the sheriff said.

Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila drew blood from 400 horses needing papers to travel out of state or into Canada. The Canadian horses will be loaded last because they have to get health certificates signed in Helena, which takes longer, he said.

Jim Glenn of Sidney, Iowa, bought six horses. Prices for horses across the United States are depressed, but not at this sale, he said.  “The prices were twice as high as I thought they would be,” Glenn said. “On the other hand, I spent $200 for one mare and would have spent $500.”

Sunburst rancher Darold Tomsheck drove 350 miles one way.  “I just wanted some of the horses. The Leachman horses are really great horses,” he said.

Leachman is scheduled to appear in Justice Court again April 12 on animal cruelty charges. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito has charged him with 14 counts, seven primary and seven alternative, of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Leachman has pleaded not guilty on all counts and faces a jury trial on June 3.

Wyola rancher Delano White Clay was hauling his yearling filly home after waiting four hours - the load-out operation was backed up with too many horses.

And at least one buyer was saddened by failing to buy a favorite mare.  So, Charles Fochs of Wisconsin Dells, WI, is trying to find her new owner and offer a better price. Despite an empty trailer heading home, the 1,058-mile trip was worth it, he said.

“We heard this would be one of the largest private horse auctions ever and that you’d probably never see another one like it again,” he said. “We decided we wanted to see that part of history.”

Update 4/8/11:  Leachman presented a check at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Crow Agency to buy back 60 to 70 of the 829 horses he is accused of starving.

His son, Seth Leachman, bought the quarter horses during last weekend's BIA auction at the Home Place Ranch 16 miles east of Billings.

"He (Jim Leachman) came in and paid with a cashier's check for the amount that he owed," BIA Crow Agency Superintendent Vianna Stewart said.

Stewart said she didn't know the exact amount of the check because she was traveling and all the agency employees who knew the total were attending a meeting about the pending federal government shutdown.

Yellowstone County Sheriff Lt. Kent O'Donnell said he heard the check was for $35,000.

Last month, the BIA confiscated 829 horses for trespassing on tribal lands and sold them in a two-day sale.

Jim Leachman still has about 800 acres of Crow Tribal lands under lease on the Home Place Ranch, Stewart said. Theoretically, he could turn the horses loose on the ranch again.

"Seth bought them (the horses). Seth has no leases, so we couldn't put any conditions on him," Stewart said.

Update 4/12/11:  Six days after paying $35,000 to buy 66 horses, Leachman appeared in Justice Court represented at taxpayers’ expense by a Yellowstone County public defender.

Leachman was rebuffed in his first request for a public defender, but he formally reapplied, saying that all of his property is burdened with mortgages and liens, “rendering it of no value.”

David Duke, who manages the public defender’s office, initially refused to take the case but received a court order.  “We will continue to honor that order, but we understand that Judge (Pedro) Hernandez will formally review that decision,” Duke said.

Hernandez was ill and didn’t attend the scheduled appearance in advance of Leachman’s jury trial set for June 3.

Public Defender Roberta Drew represented Leachman and asked for more time to review his case.

If the Leachman horses wander again there are only 66, not 800 horses, to deal with, said BIA Regional Director Ed Parisian, who said he only has jurisdiction over land owned by the Crow Tribe and individual members.

“If Stovall feels he’s being trespassed, it’s not our issue,” he said. “But we’re not back to square one. The horses have feed, they are on a legal lease. The issue is they aren’t fenced.”

The BIA grossed $380,365 at the auction nearly two weeks ago. The costs of the roundup and the sale have been tallied, but Parisian said BIA attorneys advised him not to release the numbers at this point.

Update 4/15/11:  Leachman has been denied a public defender.

Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez filed an order denying Leachman’s request for a court-appointed attorney at taxpayer expense.

Hernandez found that Leachman, a well-known rancher who lost most of his property and business in a federal foreclosure last year, “has the financial means” to hire a private attorney.

Leachman appeared in Justice Court for a scheduling hearing with a public defender, but the issue of whether he would receive a court-appointed attorney had not been settled.

Hernandez issued the order denying Leachman’s request. Leachman will now have to hire a private attorney or represent himself.

Update 4/28/11:  Seth Leachman filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez for the “emotional distress” caused by Hernandez ordering nearly 70 horses to be moved off a ranch east of Billings.

That means Hernandez is both a defendant in federal court and the judge in a misdemeanor case of animal cruelty against Leachman’s father, James Leachman. Both Leachmans are representing themselves in court.

Seth Leachman said that on April 20, Hernandez signed a court order requiring removal of the horses from the Home Place Ranch, which the Leachman Cattle Co. used to own.

Last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs confiscated the Leachman horses for trespassing on tribal trust lands and sold them at a public auction on April 2 and 3. During that auction, Seth Leachman bought 65 of his father’s horses and three foals. After his father presented a cashier’s check $33,133 for the horses, they were immediately turned loose on 800 unfenced acres adjacent to the sales barn that his father had leased from the Crow Tribe.

The horses soon were trespassing again because the leased acres had no water, Deputy County Attorney Ingrid Rosenquist said in court. When James Leachman said he didn’t own the horses, the judge set a 10-day deadline to move them.

In his lawsuit, Seth Leachman said the judge’s order has caused him “emotional distress” and travel expenses in trying to find suitable pasture. The order interferes with his contractual rights with his father to use the Crow Tribal leases, Seth Leachman argued.  He said Hernandez’s ruling also violates his property rights protected under the 14th Amendment.

His federal lawsuit cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that even judges with “absolute civil immunity for centuries, could be punished criminally for willful deprivations of Constitutional rights.”

Seth Leachman is asking for damages to be determined by a jury, punitive damages and court costs.

His federal lawsuit won’t affect the county’s animal cruelty case against his father, Twito said.

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull. Cebull presided over the lengthy court case involving James Leachman’s delinquent debt on his ranches. In 2006, Cebull ordered the federal government to sell Leachman’s personal ranch, the Hairpin Ranch, and his company’s Home Place Ranch to pay off his creditors.

Update 4/30/11:  Yellowstone County Justice Court Judge Pedro Hernandez accepted rancher James Leachman’s not guilty plea 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.

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.

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.

In court, 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 recent meeting 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:

1.  The horses needed immediate help and court cases move faster in Justice Court than in District Court, where felony cases are heard.

2.  The county needed 10 allegedly abused horses to bring one felony count. The county’s case now is based on eight horses.

3.  Also, a single felony count carries a lesser sentence, two years and $2,500 fine, than the multiple misdemeanor counts.

4.  Leachman has no prior convictions of animal cruelty, and under Montana law, second or subsequent convictions are generally charged as felonies.

After court, 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.”

Update 5/3/11:  The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office wants another judge to hear the animal cruelty charges against Leachman.

In a motion filed, County Attorney Scott Twito asked Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez to refrain from hearing the Leachman case to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

“In light of the situation created by Seth Leachman, the State recommends recusal to avoid appearance of impropriety in the criminal case,” Twito’s motion said.

A hearing on the motion for Hernandez to step down is set for May 11 at 1 p.m.

If convicted on all eight counts, he faces maximum sentence of eight years in jail and a $8,000 fine.

At the hearing, Hernandez signed an order recusing himself of the criminal case and asking District Judge Susan Watters to appoint a new judge. But that order is now in question following a motion filed by the County Attorney's Office the next day.

In the motion, Rod Souza, the chief deputy county attorney, argues that under state law the case must be returned to Hernandez for appointment of a new judge.

Also on this day, a Montana Department of Livestock agent issued James Leachman a misdemeanor citation for allowing a stallion to run free at the same property. State law states that it is "unlawful for any owner ... of any stallion, ridgeling, unaltered male mule, or jackass over the age of 1 year to permit or suffer such animal to run at large on the open range."

The criminal offense carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.

A spokesman for the Department of Livestock said the citation was issued because Leachman has unfenced lease property at his former ranch and horses are leaving the property.

Leachman is ordered to appear in Justice Court on or before May 20 to enter a plea to the new charge.


Yellowstone County Court Billings Gazette