The Gillettes filed their notice of tort claim against Malheur County on Aug. 1, 2012. On Sept. 26, while Sweeny Gillette was in Oklahoma buying cattle, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office dispatched 17 deputies to raid the Gillette family’s home. A separate raid was carried out against Ric Hoyt’s home.
Speelman’s affidavit in support of the search warrant is morbidly obese, yet severely malnourished in terms of actual evidence. In addition to being littered with errors of spelling and grammar, the 79-page document is suffused with speculation, clotted with conjecture, rancid with rumor and larded with leaps of logic. At one point in the bloated harangue, Speelman relies on paraphrased double hearsay in accusing Sweeney of fraud and claiming that he had made self-incriminating statements.
Any conscientious judge would have examined Speelman’s affidavit carefully, and rejected it quickly. It was Speelman’s tremendous good fortune that his affidavit was presented to District Judge Patricia Sullivan, a jurist who has never been inhibited by principle. Sullivan signed the document on the day of the raid, most likely without bothering to read it.
“I went to the door and was greeted by two sheriff’s deputies,” Kendra Gillette relates. “The next thing I knew 17 deputies were in my home. I asked my son Casey and his wife to leave. He reluctantly did, but only after they searched my car.”
Frightened to the depths of her being, Kendra Gillette called her husband and her attorney. While she was on the phone, Kendra Gillette was informed that she would have to submit to a pat-down search “for your safety and ours.”
“Something inside me just snapped,” she recounts. Not in the mood to be treated like a criminal, she informed the intruders in no uncertain terms: “Nobody is going to lay a hand on me — period!”
Composing herself, she walked out her front door “and looked at all the law enforcement in my home. Not one person would look me in the eye.”
She collected her 3-year-old son and went to pick up her daughter from school. In the car, Kendra Gillette says, she offered a prayer “asking my Heavenly Father to protect my family and forgive my enemies.”
A few hours later, she “went home to devastation. They had gone through every room, drawer and closet, and left a huge mess. My office was gone — all my drawers from my desk, my computer, fax machine, back-up discs, message books, file cabinets, cork boards, etc. were gone. My cellphone was gone; my laptop was gone.”
The pillagers had indiscriminately confiscated her business and personal financial records, as well as her checkbooks, leaving Kendra Gillette without the means to pay bills or meet the company payroll. For all of this, the malice of the MCSO was not exhausted.
Investigators contacted the local bank where the family maintained its business account “and alleged that [Sweeny Gillette and Hoyt] were being investigated for cattle theft and that the bank should protect itself because [they] would soon be arrested,” summarizes the lawsuit. This led the bank to foreclose on the Gillette family’s business loan — which was not in default — and seize their cattle.
The seized property and records — which included legally protected personal medical information — were never returned. No evidence was ever found of any criminal wrongdoing by Sweeny Gillette or his father-in-law. Ironically, almost exactly one year prior to the raid, Kendra Gillette had published a letter in the local newspaper, the Argus Observer, urging the use of modernized cattle tracing technology for the purpose of preventing cattle theft — a peculiar, if not inexplicable, gesture for someone who supposedly profited from that criminal practice. As a result of the concerted campaign of official harassment, the Gillette family’s estimated financial losses amounted to more than $6 million; the damages inflicted on Hoyt account for another $300,000.
Sweeny Gillette had practically no money to his name when he began his business as a teenager. He was in similar straits after relocating his family to Vinita, Oklahoma, where he rebuilt his business just as the price of beef headed skyward. Hoyt’s trucking company, however, was put into stasis for two years because of the merit-less “racketeering” investigation.
“People have been asking me, `What are you doing now? Are you keeping busy?’” Hoyt remarked when I contacted him in early November. “I tell them that for the last year or more all I’ve been able to do is write checks to lawyers.”
Speelman and his colleagues didn’t uncover a cattle theft ring, but they succeeded in shutting down a business that provided jobs in an economically depressed county at a time when unemployment was spiking. They also managed to rack up untold thousands of dollars overtime and travel expenses through road trips to destinations throughout the western U.S.
How and why did Sweeny Gillette and Hoyt come under the MCSO’s scrutiny? Matthew Mankee, a Portland-based inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who participated in the investigation, told me that some MCSO deputies were involved in a “task force” to investigate cattle theft. When I asked if the task force had received federal funds, Mankee declined to discuss the matter in detail, insisting that he couldn’t “comment on ongoing cases.”
Although the source of funding for the task force remains elusive, it appears to have been provided through a shell company called the Oregon Livestock and Rural Crime Investigators Association. The now-defunct company, which identified Speelman as “president,” had reported annual revenues of $86,000 and listed its business address as 151 B St. in Vale, Oregon — the location of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office. Apart from Speelman, the company had one other employee, Deputy Robert Wroten, who is also a member of the Malheur County Rodeo Board (about which more will be said anon).
An organization of the same name appears to have been founded more than a quarter-century ago, and spent most of its time educating sheriffs about livestock law and related issues. However, the company involved in the Sweeny Gillette investigation wasn’t created until 2010 — and it was quietly disbanded just a couple of years later, at about the same time the Gillettes started discussing a lawsuit against the county.
Cattle rustling remains a problem in Oregon, albeit one that is difficult to quantify. As is the case with all varieties of property crime, law enforcement’s chief contribution where cattle theft is concerned is to offer an expensive demonstration of its uselessness. Seeking some way to justify its subsidized existence but lacking the skills to identify actual cattle thieves, the task force devoted its attention on Gillette’s very successful cattle business and his father-in-law’s cattle-shipping company — neither of which was proven to have committed an offense more serious than the occasional, quickly corrected paperwork error.
What role was played by Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe as his deputies committed what Sweeny Gillette’s lawsuit reasonably describes as “a litany of conspiratorial activities” at the expense of the Gillette and Hoyt families? According to the suit, on Nov. 29, 2011 — nearly a year before the armed raid on the Gillette and Hoyt homes — Wolfe called Sweeny Gillette to “apologize” for the methods used in the investigation, “claiming a sergeant and another deputy ‘made him do it.’”
It’s not clear how subordinates who serve at the pleasure of an elected sheriff could “make” him violate the rights of innocent constituents and drive their business into oblivion, then prolong the pretense of an impending prosecution for years in order to exhaust the financial resources the victims would need in order to pursue redress.
“Malheur County has a history of condoning and ratifying police misconduct,” contends Sweeny Gillette’s lawsuit, which provides abundant evidence in support of that claim.
Litigation ‘time bomb’
Earlier this year, Malheur County settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by Steve Hindi, founder of an animal rights organization called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK). Hindi was subjected to an illegal traffic stop by Malheur County deputies during the 2013 Big Loop Rodeo in Jordan Valley — an event in which the Sheriff’s Office had a financial interest. This happened after SHARK volunteer Adam Fahnestock was assaulted and arrested by MCSO deputies while he was attempting to video-record evidence of “horse tripping” — a practice that has subsequently been made illegal.
Hindi was able to obtain the dash-cam recordings of the stop, in which the one of the deputies candidly admitted that the unwarranted stop was made because of pressure from the “Rodeo Board” and expressed concern that “we’re going to get sued” before exclaiming: “Dammit, I was still recording!”
It cost Malheur County $12,500 to settle Hindi’s lawsuit. That figure is not even a tithe of what the county would have to pay in order to make Sweeny Gillette’s lawsuit disappear. The Gillettes and Hoyt are seeking a total of no less than $7.3 million in damages.
Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris appeared to allude to the Sweeny Gillette lawsuit during a county budget meeting last Feb. 12. Norris requested additional funding to pay the salary of deputy DA Michael Dugan, who prosecuted the 45th Parallel medical marijuana case (which was also fraught with official misconduct and is pregnant with potential lawsuits as well).
At one point late in the discussion, Norris enigmatically commented that “in the meantime you have some issues where attorneys in the drug case are seeking sanctions against the Sheriff’s Office and I don’t have anyone working on dealing with that issue. And it’s a time bomb ticking for the Sheriff’s Office.”
Neither Susan Gerber nor Larry Kiyuna, the defense attorneys involved in the 45th Parallel case, sought sanctions against the Sheriff’s Office; and Hindi had nothing to do with a “drug case” of any kind. However, the Gillette lawsuit has been a “time bomb” for the county since he filed the notice of tort claim in August 2012.
The MSCO’s misconduct has been so abundant that it’s unfair to blame Norris for losing track of some important details. Neither he, nor Wolfe, nor any of their underlings will suffer personal injury when the litigation “time bomb” goes off — unless that detonation is of sufficient magnitude to wake up the somnolent tax victims of Malheur County.
–William N. Grigg