November 12th, 2009, both activists and fur farmers converged on the federal
courthouse on downtown Salt Lake City to attend the sentencing for William
“BJ” Viehl’s. Having pleaded guilty, BJ was to be sentenced
for the release of 600 mink from the nearby McMullin Fur Farm. This was
the first sentencing under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and the
first for a non-turncoat accused A.L.F. activist (for an A.L.F. action)
in over two years. I had the good fortune of visiting BJ in jail the previous
day in what we hoped we be his last jail visit ever. He explained to me
the expectation of both himself and his attorney at the sentencing was a
sentence of no more than six months.
the plea agreement, the prosecution agreed to recommend the low end of the
guidelines. The AETA has been the subject of much hype, among the criticisms
being the harsh sentences imposed for property crimes. A close look at the
guidelines however finds that, within a narrow margin of “damage”
(the dollar amount being the prime determinate of sentencing guideline placement),
the AETA still remains potentially a lesser threat than charges for the
same crimes at the state level. In BJ’s case, the guidelines called
for six to ten months. With the prosecution recommending six months, and
the judge’s history of adhering to the guidelines, BJ expected to
be released from jail in no more than one month. While the guidelines were
discretionary, BJ was hopeful for getting released that day. Present at
the hearing were approximately a dozen friends and supporters of BJ, as
well as his wife and mother. The opposite side of the aisle was occupied
by what we all speculated – by their weight and dress – were
fur farmers. We would later learn Chris Valco (general manager of the Fur
Breeder’s Agricultural Co-op) and Ryan Holt (3,000 mink released from
his South Jordan farm in 1996) were among them.
Benson entered the courtroom and the proceeding began. He started by mentioning
he had received numerous letters about the case, both in favor of BJ and
against. He began by stating he had received a letter signed by numerous
individuals, on the letterhead of an organization with an acronym he could
not identify: “FBAC”. We all looked at each other with knowing
looks. “FBAC”, most were aware, was “Fur Breeders Agricultural
Co-op”, the largest mink feed cooperative in the country. From the
fur farmers, he received letters from Mike Willis (farm unknown, but worth
an investigation), T. Matthews (Blackridge Mink Ranch, Hyrum, Utah), and
Bryan Boyce (Boyce Mink Ranch, Morgan, Utah). Speaking in BJ’s defense,
the judge said he had received letters from BJ’s mother, and BJ himself.
judge asked the defense to address the court. BJ’s attorney approached
the podium. She began by building a case for BJ’s immediate release
by presenting the judge with a letter from an employer willing to hire BJ
immediately on his release. She
continued by stating it was not her intent to downplay the seriousness of
the “crime” of releasing mink, but she wanted the judge to take
into account BJ’s character. She stated that when BJ was arrested,
he was still deeply “imbibed in the ideology of the Animal Liberation
Front”, but since having his bail revoked, he has had a change of
attitude. He has disavowed direct action, she stated, and that when he raided
the McMullin Mink Farm, he was “young an impressionable”. His
time in jail (approx. 5 months) had changed him, she said. She stated he
now realized he could be of greater benefit to animals by using legal channels.
With that, she closed her statement.
attorney John Huber approached the podium. He mentioned the victim, Lindsey
McMullin, was in the audience. The first item addressed was restitution.
Since the last mink-release conviction, the Fur Commission USA had drafted
a mink value / restitution chart for judges in mink release cases. The formula
(described to me in a simplified way as multiplying the pelt value of every
mink by three to five times) put the restitution amount for the approximately
650 released mink (all but 50 alleged to be recaptured) at $66,753. He continued
that while he was abiding by the terms of the plea agreement and recommending
the low end of the guidelines, there were things he wished the judge to
keep in mind before issuing his sentence. Since 2004, federal sentencing
guidelines have been discretionary, and the judges are no longer bound by
them. It was evident the prosecutor was angling for an upward departure.
It was at this point the shift occurred. Animal abusers who cannot rely
on the merits of their argument, or don’t have a solid one, assign
sinister motives to animal liberations as a desperate move to distract from
the cruelty they are responsible for, and demonize liberators. It was clear
it was the intention of the prosecution not to argue “misdirected
compassion”, but to assign a motive of “terror” and “intimidation”
to the release of animals into their native habitat. Huber asked the judge
to consider the crime from the victim’s perspective. The mink release
“had a great impact on Lindsey McMullin, and the whole mink ranching
industry.” While the statute classified it as a property crime, “property
crime”, he said, “does not capture the seriousness of this offense”.
Huber asserted the crime was “designed to intimidate and instill fear”.
prosecutor asked if could use the projector, and referred the judge to a
large screen beside the bench. The first slide, taken the morning after
the raid, was of a mink shed at the McMullin Fur Farm. On the mink shed,
in red ink, were the words: “We are watching” and “A.L.F.”.
next slides were screen shots from websites, primarily the North American
Animal Liberation Press Office site. Images of various arsons were depicted.
While the A.L.F., he said, claimed to be a non-hierarchal group with no
structure or leadership, he argued this was false. “They have handbooks,
they have manuals, and they have websites”. Either deliberately or
ignorantly, the prosecution failed to delineate between the A.L.F. and supporters
of the A.L.F., referring to every website and group he mentioned as run
by the A.L.F. An error tantamount to confusing every Christian for Jesus
himself. While no communiqué was ever made public for the McMullin
action, the prosecutor alleged an email was sent (and apparently intercepted)
to the North American Animal Liberation Press Office in the wake of the
release. Next, he mentioned BJ and his codefendant Alex Hall (trial scheduled
for November 7th) had been seen near the Blackridge Fur Farm in Hyrum at
4am one night in late-2008. The two were then charged with a misdemeanor
for attempting to “disrupt” the farm. BJ had this charge dropped
per his plea bargain, while the charge against Alex remains. Because two
mink releases had occurred in Utah in the past two months during the fall
of 2008, the farmer had taken to sitting up in her pickup truck overnight,
watching the farm. During one of these watchdog sessions, the farmer alleged
to have seen BJ and Alex in a car near the farm, wrote down the vehicle’s
license plate number, and called police. Mink raids, the prosecutor stated,
had a “ripple effect”, placing farmers in “alarm mode”.
“The whole industry was held hostage,” he stated. Huber asked
the judge to be mindful that his sentence would have a much broader impact
on the industry. “Everyone is listening to what you’re doing”,
he said. He requested BJ not be released that day, because “a message
must be made”.
next slide was a snapshot from BJ’s Myspace page, showing the full
text of a communiqué from a mink release at the Ylipelto’s
Fur Farm in Astoria, Oregon, in 2008. To illustrate the “intimidation”
motive of the A.L.F., the prosecutor read the text of the communiqué,
ending with the line “get out before you are forced out”.
by continuing to insinuate BJ and Alex were responsible for another mink
release they have not been charged with: the release of 7,000 mink from
the Lodder Fur Farm in Kaysville in 2008. He alleged the two were stopped
by police near the farm in the weeks before the raid. Police officers searched
their car and found gloves, ski masks, and black clothing. The prosecutor
mentioned this case was still very much under investigation.
asked if mink farmer Lindsey McMullin could make a statement. A man emerged
from the audience and approached the podium. McMullin began by thanking
the FBI for their work on the case. Before finishing his second sentence,
he began to go give the appearance of being “choked up”, asking
the judge to forgive him while he composed himself. This was accompanied
with further embellished sighs and tears. He gathered himself and went on
to state the farm had been in his family for “over 100 years”
(though it is unlikely the family has raised mink this long), and that he
was a third generation mink farmer. He prided himself in raising “the
finest animals humanely”. Mr. McMullin also stated he was a high school
teacher. A wave of emotive language followed. He described the “feeling
of violation” and “emptiness” after the release, and waking
up that morning to see hundreds of mink running through his yard. He was
grateful only 650 (one shed) of the farm’s 4,000 mink were freed.
He described first seeing the Animal Liberation Front graffiti on the mink
shed, saying it was then “my feelings changed to anger and fear”.
With long, dramatic pauses, he described the expression on his children’s
face when they saw the graffiti reading “We are watching”. Fighting
through tears, he described how, to this day, his daughter was afraid to
go near the door of that shed. “Mr.
Viehl”, he said, turning to BJ, “I hope when you have a family
that you never have to answer to them when they ask you ‘Daddy, are
they watching us today?’” He stated that all but 50 of the mink
were recovered. However, because breeding records were destroyed, most future
profits from every released mink were lost. “The entire industry is
affected by the Animal Liberation Front,” he said. “Their sole
purpose is intimidation”. He quoted one mink rancher as saying it
as though he is being “held hostage” by fear of A.L.F. raids.
were other victims, he said, that so far had gone unmentioned. The victims
were “all the mink that died”. “I feel [Mr. Viehl] should
be charged with an animal abuse charge’. His attempt to paint himself
as emotionally distraught over the death over the “cruelty”
of releasing mink must rank among history’s more obscene moments of
courtroom theater – coming from a man who kills mink for a living.
Mr. McMullin failed to mention every mink on his farm were to be killed
three months after their release, by McMullin’s own hands.
judge asked McMullin two questions. The first: “Mr. McMullin, where
to mink live? Are there mink in the wild?” McMullin answered: “Mink
are indigenous to the U.S.”, and proceeded to talk about wild mink
populations in Utah, that his brother grew up trapping mink in Utah, and
reiterated that mink were a native species. Next: “What are these
groups complaint with fur? What are they against?” McMullin answered
that it was not merely fur “these groups” were against, but
all animal agriculture. “But why mink?” the judge asked. He
responded that it wasn’t just about the fur; it was the use of all
animals for human benefit. Having told the first truths of his testimony,
McMullin took a seat. The judge then asked BJ if he had a statement. BJ
– shackled at the hands and feet, in a striped jail uniform –
approached the podium. I feel it is important to stress here that an activist’s
primary goal in the courtroom is to get back on the street to fight for
animals. While I chose a different path than BJ when asked to address a
judge, I find any courtroom statement to be wholly symbolic. And what BJ
did at the McMulllin farm was in antithetical to symbolism – it was
about a practical approach to an urgent problem. It was about the power
of action over the symbolism of words. And the only role symbolic statements
have in remedying the evils of the world is in the absence of any other
option. That day, BJ had the option of using words that will ultimately
achieve the desired result of his own freedom. I stand by the decision of
anyone to say anything in court (short of implicating others). Because in
the fight for animal liberation, words, very truly, mean nothing. BJ turned
to McMullin. He told him he apologized, and that he no longer had anything
to fear. After a short statement, he sat down. All parties having weighed
in, it came time for the judge’s sentence.
by stating “I do a lot of sentencings, and this case is much more
complicated for me than other crimes”. He then addressed what he called
“the bigger picture”. “Mink ranchers are terrorized by
the people in the Animal Liberation Front” he said. “And I have
a hard time seeing how this doesn’t fit the category of ‘terror’”.
He stated that on 9-11, terrorists inflicted fear on an entire nation by
bringing down the World Trade Center, and that was also the result of BJ
releasing animals. “It was the same kind of fear,” he said.
He stated his history of approaching all sentencings of defendants who have
no criminal record with lenience. He told BJ it seemed that he had changed,
and while he appreciated his statement to the court, he can’t ignore
that the sentence he imposes must be a deterrent to others in the future.
I think we all sensed a shift in his tone, but didn’t anticipate something
as unexpected as his next statements. Given what I know “there is
too much threat and terror, and I am inclined to go well above the guidelines”.
The sentence must be a deterrent he said. For the sentence to be a deterrent,
he must go above the recommended 6 months. He said to create a deterrent;
he must go over 2 years. With these words, he expressed his intent to more
than quadruple BJ’s recommended sentence.
said that before entering the courtroom that day, he had not been aware
the guidelines call for a sentence as low as 6 months. He stated he did
not feel the sentence matched the severity of the crime, and that to do
so he must issue a sentence of over one year, and that he was inclined to
sentence him to over two years.
He then began to build a circumstantial case against BJ and Alex as being
guilty of much more than the McMullin farm raid. He mentioned they had been
“chased” from a farm in Hyrum, and that it appeared their presence
indicated they “were up to no good”. He also mentioned the two
had been stopped near the Lodder mink farm weeks before 7,000 mink were
released there in the fall of 2008. “This shows a connection,”
the judge said, and that he can’t ignore they have been seen near
other farms. “The picture is bigger than this”. He stated he
would allow the defense two weeks to prepare an argument against throwing
out the plea bargain, but ended with - “I’m inclined to go well
above the guidelines”.
sentencing was set over for December 11th at 3:30. No one foresaw this outcome.
It was expected by most BJ would serve no more than one additional month,
while the judge expressed every intention of sentencing him to an additional
18 months or more. We all left in silence. We were fortunate to do interviews
with three newspapers and a TV station, explaining that the message that
was lost today was that BJ’s actions were motivated by compassion,
and not “intimidation” as asserted by the fur farmers, prosecutor,
and judge. We also explained the true “terrorism” is what McMullin
does for a living – murdering several thousand mink each year.
found Lindsey McMullin and neighboring South Jordan fur farmer Bryan Holt
(his farm was raided in 1996), among others, outside. He refused our invitation
to a debate in front of the news station camera crew. Our parting words
to McMullin came in front of the media and fur farmers. I locked him into
eye contact, and told him what every person present with a conscience felt
– “You’re a disgrace”. It was a day of little to
celebrate except the 50 mink still living as fugitives in South Jordan –
and people like BJ for making animal liberation a reality. We will be back
on December 11th.
- Peter Young
not return to business as usual for fur farmers in Utah. In two weeks we
will be taking the fight to the belly of the beast, and converging on the
mink farm capital of the U.S. – nearby Morgan, Utah, for Fur Free
Saturday (Nov. 28th). Our march that day will be dedicated to BJ and Alex,
and all animals murdered on fur farms (and in slaughterhouses, labs, and
everywhere) each day. It is our duty when any activist is imprisoned to
pick up the slack for them threefold. Those from across the country wishing
to join us on November 28th, visit http://www.furfreeutah.com
more info on BJ & Alex, please visit http://www.supportbjandalex.com