Montana Horse Abuser Gets Public Defender

Story by Jan Falstad of the Billings Gazzette

Leachman Too Cheap To Pay For Own Defense

Jim Leachman of the Leachman Cattle Co., and the Hairpin Cavvy, a horse breeding operation, talks with Yellowstone County Public Defender Roberta Drew ~ photo by David Grubbs

Six days after paying $35,000 to buy 66 horses, James Leachman of Billings appeared in Justice Court on Tuesday represented at taxpayers’ expense by a Yellowstone County public defender.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito has charged Leachman with multiple misdemeanor counts of animal abuse for allegedly starving some horses and failing to adjust or remove plastic leg bands. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts, which together carry a maximum penalty of seven years and a $7,000 fine.

Leachman was rebuffed in his first request for a public defender, but Friday he formally reapplied, saying that all of his property is burdened with mortgages and liens, “rendering it of no value.”

David Duke, who manages the public defender’s office, initially refused to take the case but received a court order.

“We will continue to honor that order, but we understand that Judge (Pedro) Hernandez will formally review that decision,” Duke said.

Hernandez was ill Tuesday and didn’t attend the scheduled appearance in advance of Leachman’s jury trial set for June 3.

Public Defender Roberta Drew represented Leachman and asked for more time to review his case.

Last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs confiscated hundreds of Leachman’s quarter horses for trespassing on Crow Tribal lands on the Home Place Ranch 16 miles east of Billings. The BIA sold 804 of the horses on April 2 and 3 at a public auction attended by people from across the country and Canada.

But the dispute over trespassing horses may not be over.

During the auction, Leachman’s son, Seth Leachman, bought back 63 of his father’s horses. Three days later, James Leachman paid the $35,000 bill, but Seth Leachman refused to say Tuesday where the family got the money.

All the other buyers hauled their horses off the ranch, but the Leachmans just opened the corral gates and turned them loose onto unfenced land they have leased from the Crow Tribe.

“The 800 acres in the allotment are in three pastures,” Seth Leachman said Tuesday.

Leachman’s company, the Leachman Cattle Co., used to own the Home Place Ranch but lost the land to a neighboring ranching family, the Stovalls, at a federal foreclosure sale last July. Leachman has until July to come up with the money to reclaim the ranch.

Seth Leachman said they won’t fence off their acres and he wouldn’t say when the lease expires. Under Montana’s open range law, landowners, in this case the Stovalls, are responsible for fencing out other people’s livestock. But the reservation’s mix of Crow and private land complicates all the legal issues.

If the Leachman horses wander again there are only 66, not 800 horses, to deal with, said BIA Regional Director Ed Parisian, who said he only has jurisdiction over land owned by the Crow Tribe and individual members.

“If Stovall feels he’s being trespassed, it’s not our issue,” he said. “But we’re not back to square one. The horses have feed, they are on a legal lease. The issue is they aren’t fenced.”

The BIA grossed $380,365 at the auction nearly two weeks ago. The costs of the roundup and the sale have been tallied, but Parisian said BIA attorneys advised him Monday not to release the numbers at this point.

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