Access trial

Three men were found guilty of trespassing in the Crazy Mountains in a jury trial Wednesday. 

Three men have been found guilty of trespassing on private property in the Crazy Mountains last October while trying to hike a disputed trail.

A jury found Johnathan Hettinger, Joseph Bullington and Nathan Howard guilty after a full-day trial in Park County Justice Court Wednesday. The case stems from citations the three were issued last fall for trespassing on the Eagle Ridge Ranch on the west side of the Crazies while they were trying to follow the Porcupine Lowline Trail. 

A sentencing hearing has been set for Sept. 9. One of the defense attorneys, Annie DeWolf, said the defense will consider appealing the case to Park County District Court.

A criminal trespassing charge carries a sentence of up to six months in jail and a fine of $500.

The case highlights the long-running public access controversy in a mountain range known for its complicated patchwork of public and private lands.

On October 14, 2018, the three defendants were hiking along the Porcupine Lowline Trail when they wandered onto private property. Hettinger, Howard and Bullington were all employees of the Livingston Enterprise at the time. Howard still works there. Each man had individual representation at the trial and received a separate verdict.

The trail they were hiking is mapped by U.S. Forest Service. A separate lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups is asking the U.S. Forest Service to protect public access rights on the trail, which crosses private land. The suit says that due to disputes in the area, some land owners built gates and signs on public trails to block use.

A little more than halfway through the hike, the men left the trail and entered property owned by Eagle Ridge Ranch. Ranch manager David Laubach found the hikers and reported them for trespassing. The men were charged with misdemeanors.

In her opening statement, Park County Attorney Kathleen Carrick argued the case is only about trespassing on private land and has nothing to do with the contested trail.

“You’re going to hear a lot about a trail … this is not about a disputed trail,” Carrick told the jury.

She said the men passed through gates and “No Trespassing” signs, and knew they were on private land.

The question of whether the defendants knew they were on private property dominated the debate.

For charges of criminal trespassing to stick, people must knowingly commit the crime. The defense argued the three men did not know they'd illegally entered private land.

Chad Glenn, Bullington’s attorney, said in his opening remarks that the trail had been impossible to follow, and that the hikers did their best to stay off private land.

“They followed their map up until the point it was obscured,” Glenn said.

Bullington testified that the hikers did pass through gates and saw signs, but believed they were illegal obstructions -- as noted in the civil suit brought by the conservation groups. They continued hiking thinking they were on public land, Bullington said.  

The three men encountered Laubach and his family on the ranch’s land. Accounts of what happened next are varied.

Laubach said the men were aggressive and rude, and later returned to the property after learning it was private. Bullington said Laubach wouldn’t give directions back to the trail unless the men provided their names, and that they re-entered the property out of necessity to get off the mountain safely.

The jury deliberated for two-and-a-half hours Wednesday night, delivering the verdict after 9 p.m. 

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