The end of Gategate?

Mark Franklin asserts his innocence, pleads ‘no contest’ two years after being charged with livestock endangerment for closing a corral gate in San Juan County

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Courtesy photo.

By Zak Podmore

Published: April 2, 2019

On April 1, 2017, Mark Franklin, a biologist and historian from Durango, Colorado, stopped his vehicle near a corral along Highway 163 west of Bluff and let his curiosity get the best of him.

According to a prepared statement released on Monday, Franklin noticed a cattle trough made of a large tire and went over to get a closer look. The cattle began to move toward him. “I pulled the unlatched pipe gate closed to prevent them from surrounding me,” Franklin said. “I did this for my personal safety, the safety of my vehicle and trailer, and to avoid any conflict with the cows. There were two open gates to this corral and I watched cows freely enter and depart through the wire gate.”

Ranchers Zane Odell and Zeb Dalton stopped Franklin and his wife Rose Chilcoat, a prominent environmental activist, on a county road two days after the incident, having identified their vehicle’s trailer through video surveillance footage. The cattlemen then called the sheriff.

The gate closure, known locally as Gategate, led to two years of court proceedings and felony charges against the couple. Odell claimed Franklin was trying to cut off his cattle from the water trough, which is located on School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) lands, and San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws charged Franklin and Chilcoat with “attempted wanton destruction of livestock,” a second-degree felony that carries a maximum fifteen-year sentence.

Franklin and Chilcoat have always maintained their innocence, and have said that the cattle never lost access to water.

A recording of the police dispatch call was obtained by The Durango Herald through an open records request. In it, Odell admits that his cattle had access to water even after the gate was closed.

“We had the fence cut where we were drilling a well so no harm was done,” Odell, a Colorado-based cattleman, said in the recording. “The cows did go around the corner and get in to get a drink of water. So I don’t have any dead cows. But their intent is still there.”

Chilcoat has long claimed the charges were brought in retaliation for her pro-wilderness activism in San Juan County. The charges against her were dismissed in 2018.

And on Monday, exactly two years after the incident that precipitated Gategate, Franklin sat before Judge Don Torgerson in 7th District Court in Monticello. Franklin agreed to a “plea in abeyance” deal that had him plead “no contest” to two misdemeanor charges — attempted criminal mischief and trespassing on state trust lands. The “attempted wanton destruction of livestock” felony charge was dismissed.

“I pled ‘no contest’ because I did nothing wrong,” Franklin wrote in his statement. “I would never have pled guilty to these charges because they are not true. I believe that San Juan County accepted this plea because they know I did nothing criminal and they had no case.”

If Franklin doesn’t break any laws during the next twelve months, the misdemeanor charges will also be dismissed. In that time, Franklin cannot enter SITLA lands without permission from the San Juan County Attorney’s Office unless he is passing through on a public road or is forced to stop on SITLA lands in an emergency.

Assuming Franklin keeps the terms of the deal, Gategate is likely over for Franklin and Chilcoat.

But a separate criminal investigation began in late 2018 into the actions of the two ranchers that stopped Franklin and Chilcoat on April 3, 2017. Odell and Dalton both pled the Fifth at a hearing in December 2018 in Monticello.

“[Odell and Dalton] detained my wife and me while driving on a BLM road,” Franklin said. “It is the rancher’s actions that were criminal. A BLM livestock permittee illegally detaining a citizen on a public road is not acceptable. The ranchers are the ones who should have been charged.”

After Monday’s hearing, Dalton declined to comment to the Canyon Echo.

“I am glad this is finally over as it has caused a great deal of stress for my family and me – financially, emotionally, physically, and reputationally,” Franklin said, noting that he and Chilcoat have received multiple death threats related to the incident. He thanked the people who have helped with his legal costs through a GoFundMe page, which remains active.

Read Franklin’s full statement on the no-contest plea in abeyance deal