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Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Jail, No Bail, for Rancher
By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES A federal magistrate judge ordered rancher Kit Laney held without bond after his detention hearing Tuesday on a charge of assaulting Forest Service officers.
The hearing, drawing about 40 Laney supporters from Otero and Catron counties, stemmed from an incident Sunday evening in the Gila National Forest where Laney is accused of riding his horse at three Forest Service officers involved in removing his cattle from the forest. He also is accused of shoving two officers with his hands and attempting to open the corral where his impounded cattle were being kept.
The officers were providing security at a temporary corral on the southeast side of the forest, where 250 of Laney's estimated 400 cattle have been impounded since last Thursday because of a federal court order.
Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen acknowledged it was unusual to deny bail for a defendant with no criminal record. She also said she didn't consider the rancher a flight risk.
But she said the federal roundup of Laney's cattle in the Gila resulted from his "disregard for a prior court order."
In December, another federal judge found Laney in contempt of court for violating a 1997 order requiring him to remove his cattle from the 146,000-acre Diamond Bar grazing allotment on the Gila, where the rancher had grazed cattle without a permit.
Molzen said Laney's alleged interference with the current roundup contradicted his intention, published in a newspaper report, not to physically obstruct the Forest Service action.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crews questioned whether Laney truly respected the authority of the federal court and government in the case.
Crews said Laney, at his first appearance in federal court Monday on the assault charge, described himself as a "citizen of the sovereign state of New Mexico" when asked his citizenship.
Longtime friend Al Schneberger, former executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, testified Tuesday on Laney's behalf. "I don't know a better cowman or a harder worker or a better man," Schneberger said.
Calling Laney "very patriotic," Schneberger said, "Kit believes in the law, and he believes in justice, and he believes in truth, and he believes the law will be on his side if he ever gets a hearing."
Noting the dozens of Laney supporters attending the hearing, Molzen said the controversial roundup in the Gila represented a "real explosive situation," and she was wary of releasing him back "to his own back yard," where wranglers continue gathering the livestock.
"I'm not trying to punish Mr. Laney. I just don't have confidence he will abide by my order," Molzen said as Laney, his wrists and ankles shackled, sat without his customary hat in a drab green jump pullover and pants issued by the Doña Ana County Detention Center.
Supporters speak out
Sherry Farr, Laney's ranching partner and ex-wife, said the no-bond order was too harsh.
"You could murder someone and get off easier than this," Farr said.
Laney, subdued Sunday after Forest Service officers sprayed pepper spray into his face, had a pocket knife in his possession when he was arrested but did not use it against the officers.
Farr said, "How is an unarmed man a threat to all the law enforcement officers running around?"
Before the Forest Service began the roundup last week, it closed off the Diamond Bar allotment which straddles the Gila and Aldo Leopold national wilderness areas to everyone except a few area residents and required them to obtain permits to enter the area. The Forest Service brought in more than a dozen law enforcement officers to provide security for the operation carried out by an unidentified contractor.
"It's like martial law in there," said Laura Schneberger, owner of the Rafter Spear Ranch and a longtime Laney friend.
Prosecution witness Douglas Charles Roe, a Forest Service special agent, testified Tuesday that Laney charged his horse at three federal officers in the dark Sunday night yelling, "You sons of bitches, you're stealing my cattle."
According to the officers' accounts, Roe said, Laney's horse struck the left arm of one retreating officer and pushed the officer into a cattle guard, where the officer struck his leg.
"He (Laney) started yelling, 'Shoot me. Just shoot me. That's what you want to do anyway,' '' Roe said.
After striking one federal wrangler in the face with his leather reins, Roe said, Laney dismounted and climbed the corral fence, trying to pull it down.
In an interview outside the courtroom, Laney's brother, 52-year-old Luna resident Russell Laney, disputed the Forest Service version of the incident.
When Kit Laney approached the Forest Service officers Sunday evening about 7 p.m., he asked them if they had "taken possession of the cattle," said Russell Laney. He said he had spoken with his brother by phone after the arrest.
"They told him, no, he would be in possession until such time as they were sold," Russell Laney said. "And he said, 'If I'm in possession of the cattle, then I'm going to open up this corral.' ''
The question of who owns the cattle is a key point that Forest Service critics have homed in on in their effort to derail the impoundment before Laney's cattle are sent to auction.
Critics argue the state Livestock Board should not sanction the Forest Service's sale of the cattle because they still belong to Laney.