TUCUMCARI – One of the men charged in an illegal cougar kill on the ranch of the then-chairman of the state Game Commission has described the alleged offense as a “little old bitty misdemeanor.”
But he and the two other remaining defendants in the case, including former Game Commission Chairman Scott Bidegain, are mounting a serious, non-misdemeanor-like defense to avoid conviction.
The three have veteran criminal defense attorneys from Albuquerque and Amarillo. Plea negotiations between them and state District Attorney Tim Rose have gone nowhere.
The case was filed in Magistrate Court, where misdemeanors are normally disposed of, but is now headed to District Court after a magistrate judge refused to dismiss the charges.
“If they wanted a trial here (in Magistrate Court), we would have had one,” Rose said.
In addition to Bidegain, the remaining defendants in the case are Billy Ivy of Canyon, Texas, and Larry Webb of Newkirk, in eastern New Mexico.
They are charged with unlawful hunting for allegedly aiding in the illegal cougar kill Feb. 9 on the Bidegain family’s T4 cattle ranch near Tucumcari.
Oklahoma City lawyer Jason Roselius killed the cougar, which had been cornered by dogs in a cave before his arrival with Bidegain at the ranch, according to Game and Fish Department reports.
Roselius, Bidegain and the others were charged with unlawful hunting, because Game and Fish regulations say a hunter who kills a cougar must be present continuously once any dog is released.
Ivy has called the alleged offense a “little old bitty misdemeanor” and said there are a “lot of tree huggers in New Mexico.”
In a deal with the district attorney, Roselius, who reportedly shelled out $9,000 for the hunt, pleaded no contest in Magistrate Court to unlawful hunting and was ordered to pay $500 in restitution to Game and Fish. The sentencing was deferred, meaning the charge of unlawful hunting will be dismissed if Roselius successfully completes 90 days of unsupervised probation.
A charge against a fifth person in the case, Chad Hassell of Childress, Texas, was dismissed by the district attorney. Rose said Hassell was present during the cougar hunt “basically as a bystander” and that there was insufficient evidence that he encouraged the cougar kill.
Bidegain, an appointee of Gov. Susana Martinez, resigned as Game Commission chairman shortly before he and the others were charged in February.
Under New Mexico law, a person can be charged and convicted of a crime if he aided in its commission, even though he didn’t directly commit the offense.
The charge of unlawful hunting is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $500, but jail time isn’t likely for Bidegain and the others, even if they are convicted.
At a hearing before Magistrate Judge Buddy J. Hall on Tuesday, attorneys for Bidegain, Ivy and Webb argued that the charges against them should be dismissed because the accessory law doesn’t extend to misdemeanors, including violations of Game and Fish regulations.
“We stand before you somewhat surprised that this is before you,” defense attorney Ernie Leger of Albuquerque told Hall.
The judge sided with the district attorney and declined to dismiss the charges. “As I read the statute’s plain and simple language, it (accessory liability) seems to apply to any crime,” Hall said.
Rose and the defense attorneys met privately after the ruling, and Rose said he gave them the option of proceeding with a trial in Magistrate Court or skipping that and heading directly to District Court. Rose said the attorneys chose the latter. “We basically start the process over,” he said.
Had the three men been convicted at trial in Magistrate Court, they would have had a right to a new trial in District Court. Once the case gets to District Court, the defense attorneys are expected to again argue for dismissal of the charges.
Rose said plea negotiations have been held with the defense attorneys, but he declined to discuss the details.
Leger, who represents Ivy and Webb, declined to discuss the specifics of the case or his talks with Rose, but he said the case is “a lot to do about very little.”
Len Walker of Amarillo, the attorney for Bidegain, couldn’t be reached for comment after the hearing before Hall.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.