Colorado Court of Appeals affirms cattle theft conviction
February 24, 2015
Craig — Almost three and a half years after Monty Pilgrim, 52, of Little Snake River turned himself in to authorities for cattle rustling, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed a the conviction against Pilgrim.
The court returned its decision on Feb. 11.
According to the 18-page opinion document provided by Communications Director for the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office Donna Zulian, Pilgrim argued the evidence was insufficient and the trial court improperly admitted prior act evidence.
The prior act evidence contested by the defense was a prior employee of Pilgrim's who testified Pilgrim knowingly kept cattle that did not belong to him.
The opinion confirms Pilgrim and his neighbors operate cow-calf operations and the value of cows to ranches comes from cows bearing calves. In order to evidence a rancher's ownership of cows and the calves born to cows, ranchers brand the cows and calves with a brand distinctive to each rancher.
It also confirms calves do not often stray far from their mothers. But when they do, there is a protocol. The opinion states:
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"A rancher typically inspects his herd at least once per week in order to check for any illnesses and to look for any stray cows. When a rancher finds a stray cow, he is supposed to notify the cow's owner or a State of Colorado brand inspector within five days."
In late July 2011, one of Pilgrim's neighbors notified the brand inspector he'd observed a cow bearing his brand along with a calf bearing Pilgrim's brand in Pilgrim's herd. The brand inspector was certified as an expert in cow ranching during the trial.
Upon investigation, the brand inspector found several other stray cows. When the brand inspector and a sheriff's deputy questioned Pilgrim about the stray cows, he admitted they belonged to his neighbors. Investigators then asked if Pilgrim had branded the calves of the cows that were not his.
"I'm not sure, we tried not to," Pilgrim said to the inspector and deputy, according to the opinion. "If we did, I've — I've got to clean that up." When Pilgrim learned the identity of the reporting neighbor, Pilgrim alleged he was being set up. The two have a history of conflict prior to the case.
When Pilgrim corralled the cows for further inspection by investigators, they found 33 cows bearing the brand of one of Pilgrim's nine neighbors and 28 calves bearing Pilgrim's brand. The inspector testified the 28 calves with Pilgrim's brand were offspring of the 33 cows owned by one of the nine neighbors.
These cow-calf units were about 1/3 of the inspected herd. In two of Pilgrim's other pastures, the investigators found three calf-cow units not belonging to Pilgrim.
"The brand inspector further testified that the most stray cows he had previously observed within a herd were two," the opinion said. Pilgrim returned all cows and calves to his neighbors.
Some of the cattle were missing for years, and Pilgrim returned a total of 16 cows and 14 calves to one neighbor alone. This neighbor had 12 cows missing since 2003 or 2004 and lost a cow or two every year after that.
Pilgrim's defense alleged the reporting neighbor who had a history of conflict with him planted the cows in Pilgrim's herd and branded the calves with Pilgrim's brand in order to frame him.
The brand inspector said it would be logistically difficult for anyone to plant this number of cows in another rancher's herd.
Judge Arthur P. Roy, since retired, and Judges Jerry N. Jones and Maria Teresa "Terry" Fox affirmed the decision. They said while there was no direct evidence in the case, "there was, in our view, sufficient circumstantial evidence to support a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant branded, or caused to be branded, the calves in question," according to the opinion.
Some of the circumstantial evidence included removed ear tags from neighbors' cattle, Pilgrim keeping the cattle for several years and Pilgrim's brand on the calves.
"The sheer number of cows and calves involved in this case make wrongful conduct by defendant considerably more likely," the opinion states.
In the summer of 2012, a Moffat County District Court 12-member jury found Pilgrim guilty on five counts of theft of agricultural animals, a Class 4 felony; five counts of concealing strays, a Class 6 felony; and five counts of wrongful branding, a Class 6 felony. Each of the five counts represent the five alleged victims.
There were nine alleged victims in the case and a total of 27 counts, but the jury returned not guilty verdicts for four of the alleged victims.
Pilgrim's Lakewood attorney Antony Noble filed an appeal in September 2012 after Pilgrim was sentenced. Pilgrim's defense also filed and was granted a stay of execution pending the appeal.
The sentence included three years of supervised probation; 50 hours of useful community service for each year of probation for a total of 150 hours; letters of apology to the five of nine victims he was convicted; payment of restitution, fines and court costs of more than $14,000; and incarceration of 90 days at the Moffat County Jail.
Moffat County District Court's Senior judge David Lass delivered the sentence and in 2012 said Pilgrim "does not have to go to prison to send a message."
Assistant District Attorney for the 14th Judicial District Han Ng argued for 10 years in the Department of Corrections; two years each for the five felony 4 convictions to run consecutively.
"I'm glad this case has brought some awareness to the ranching community that we are watching and this will not be tolerated," said Gary Nichols, Moffat County Sheriff's Office lead investigator on the case.
Ng said the next step in the case is to file a motion to lift the stay of execution on Pilgrim's sentence.