Sweeney Gillette, a very successful cattle trader from Ontario, Oregon, had barely finished a pleasant chat with his ex-wife when his phone rang. In an agitated voice, Gillette’s attorney reported that he had just been contacted by a Malheur County deputy District Attorney who accused the rancher of “unlawfully interfering with a witness” – namely, his ex-wife.
Since the attorney called literally seconds after Gillette had hung up, the call from the deputy DA must have come in the middle of the conversation with his ex-wife, who later insisted that she hadn’t told anyone about the phone call.
Both Sweeney and his former wife were under surveillance by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, most likely through a “trap and trace” system. This form of electronic eavesdropping records what the NSA calls “metadata” – the telephone numbers and Internet addresses of people who communicate with the subject of a warrant.
Sweeney’s ex-wife was not the focus of an investigation, nor was she a witness. Her ex-husband, however, had been targeted by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office for a campaign of harassment and defamation that would eventually destroy his business and drive his family out of the state.
Although he was never charged with a crime, Gillette suffered millions of dollars in losses – and the lawsuit he has filed against Malheur County may eventually require tax victims residing therein to pay millions of dollars to indemnify the department’s misconduct.
Multi-state campaign of harassment
In April 2011, Gillette owned 3,500 cattle, 130 acres of land, and a feedlot. The business Gillette had built from the ground up after dropping out of school at age 14 was thriving: In the previous year, he had traded more than seven million dollars’ worth of cattle. He had loyal customers throughout the Intermountain West, and a $2 million line of credit. The family was well-regarded in their community, and the business was well-respected within a cliquish and gossip-prone industry.
This happy state of affairs changed abruptly after Sweeney Gillette was contacted by a federal investigator named Kirk Miller, who claimed that there were paperwork irregularities regarding a herd of 600 cattle the family was running on leased ranch in Nevada called Soldier Meadows. Sweeney was given notice that his BLM grazing permit had been canceled, and that he had thirty days to assemble the necessary paperwork, and have the cattle inspected and identified by the appropriate authorities.
Sweeney’s wife Kendra, who took care of bookkeeping for the cattle company, was able to document that the paperwork was in order. Sweeney and Kendra flew to Reno, and drove out to the ranch to show Miller their cattle and the necessary documents. The permit was reinstated – at the cost of $6,000 and the diversion of four days from their very busy schedule.
Within a few weeks, the couple began to hear rumors that their business remained under investigation by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office.
Sweeney and Kendra and their youngest children.
“At first, we just kind of laughed about it,” Kendra later recalled. “We even joked that the deputies wouldn’t have much fun following us around. We are pretty boring.”
Like too many people in similar circumstances, the Gillettes severely underestimated the perverse ingenuity that police and prosecutors display in finding ways to turn innocent people into criminal suspects. They also made the mistake of believing that the MCSO would be content merely to investigate their business, rather than setting out to destroy it by ruining their reputation and intimidating their customers.
“That summer we started getting phone calls from our customers telling us that an Idaho brand inspector and a Malheur County deputy were asking about Sweeney, wanting to look at cows we sold them and our paperwork,” Kendra relates. “Our regular customers were not returning to buy our cows.” One of the lost accounts was worth $500,000.
Within a few weeks, MCSO deputies began following trucks carrying Gillette’s cattle, often stopping and inspecting them for hours in the sweltering heat. Not surprisingly, this led to the death of some of the livestock. Other deputies – including Robert Speelman, who headed the “investigation” – fanned out to harass customers and business partners in Washington, California, Nevada, Wyoming, and Arizona. Without cause or explanation, deputies would trail cattle trucks to kill plants, where they insisted that it would be necessary to shave and “re-inspect” the stock purchased from Gillette.
Although the family was able to find new customers for their cattle, the damage inflicted to their reputation was quickly killing their business.
“We started losing money,” Kendra points out. “The kill plants started quoting us lower prices so they didn’t have the hassle of the Sheriff and Brand Department.”
Covert surveillance, overt intimidation
Operating on the pretense that the Sheriff’s Office was dealing with a multi-state “racketeering” operation, Sgt. Speelman obtained a warrant in June 2011 to conduct secret video surveillance of Gillette’s feedlot in Ontario. A few months later he obtained a warrant to conduct “trash pulls” at the homes of the Gillettes and Ric Hoyt – Kendra’s father, who operates a cattle shipping business — in search of incriminating documents. This involved recruiting personnel from the Idaho Power Company and the Ontario Sanitation Service to help spy on their customers.
Through the use of such Gestapo-style tactics the deputies were able to produce irrefutable evidence that Gillette and his father-in-law Ric Hoyt were lawfully engaged in the practice of selling and transporting cattle to willing buyers on terms agreeable to both parties. But the musk of insinuation emitted by the deputies clung tenaciously to the family, poisoning their business relationships and destroying their standing among neighbors and friends.
In the absence of evidence that Gillette and Hoyt had done anything illegal, the MCSO escalated from defamation to undisguised intimidation. Investigators hired by the family would later discover that Sgt. Speelman and his comrades systematically contacted the Gillette family’s friends, relatives, and business associates, telling them that criminal charges against Sweeney were pending. Dr. Robert Derby, a veterinarian from nearby Nyssa, Oregon who had worked with the Gillette family, was confronted by deputies who demanded that he “cooperate” with the investigation, or face charges as a “co-conspirator.”
According to a lawsuit subsequently filed by the family, the MCSO “witch hunt” did not spare suspected heretics within the department. Among them, allegedly, was former MSCO deputy and livestock investigator Chance Stringer.
“At every meeting with law enforcement [Stringer] would hear [Sgt.] Speelman and others focus on Sweeney Gillette and how they were going to `nail him,’” asserts the lawsuit. “When Deputy Stringer spoke up on behalf of Gillette, attempting to explain why they were wrong, and that Sweeney Gillette was running a legitimate operation, he was threatened with criminal prosecution and accusations that he was part of Gillette’s criminal conspiracy.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Stringer quit the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office and started a business on the Idaho side of the Snake River. Stringer, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment about the matter beyond saying that the whole affair was “behind him” and that he wants “nothing to do” with the continuing controversy.
By the winter of 2011, “rumors and gossip were running wild and our `friends’ in the community started avoiding us,” Kendra laments. “We heard the words `cattle thief’ constantly.”
Frantic to save their business and recover from the unwarranted attack on their character, Sweeney and Kendra reached out to the local media, their congressional representatives, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (in a spasm of misplaced confidence, they eventually contacted the FBI) — only to be ignored by public officials and shunned by their peers.
During the December 2011 Oregon Cattlemen’s Convention, Sweeney and Kendra – who were puzzled by the cold, hostile reception that greeted them — received a phone call from a customer in Wyoming informing them of a visit from MCSO Deputy Travis Johnson (who is now undersheriff) and an Idaho brand inspector named Lynn Gibson, who shaved and inspected cattle that had been purchased from the Gillettes two years earlier. No irregularities were discovered but the visit had the intended effect: The customer, who had bought more than $200,000 worth of cattle, never did business with the couple again.
Undersheriff (former deputy) Travis Johnson.
In February of the following year, the Gillettes shipped cattle to a JBS kill plant in Arizona. The shipment was trailed by two MCSO deputies, who “re-inspected” the shipment and informed the plant owners that Gillette was a suspected “cattle thief.” As a result, the JBS accounting department contacted their bank and stopped payment on a $126,000 check.
The Gillettes did eventually receive their payment – but by this point it had become clear that they would have to leave Malheur County in order to make a living. They hired an attorney and a private investigator, made arrangements to sell their home and feedlot, and prepared to file a lawsuit against the MCSO.
Although Sweeney’s reputation had been unjustly destroyed in the Intermountain West, he was able to find a job buying butcher cows in Northeast Oklahoma. He and Kendra flew to Tusla in June 2012 to look for a house. Returning to Oregon, they set about wrapping up their business and family affairs, which meant selling their home and feedlot, working with an attorney to compose a tort claim against the MCSO, and preparing for the wedding of Kendra’s daughter, Blair.
The Gillettes filed their notice of tort claim against Malheur County on August 1, 2012. On September 26, while Sweeney was in Oklahoma buying cattle, the MCSO 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 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 called her husband and her attorney. While she was on the phone, Kendra 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 that “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 three-year-old son and went to pick up her daughter from school. In the car, Kendra 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 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 [Sweeney Gillette and Ric 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 Sweeney 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 Ric Hoyt account for another $300,000.
Sweeney 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.
Ric Hoyt and granddaughter (Facebook photo).
“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.”
Sgt. 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 Sweeney Gillette and Ric Hoyt come under the MCSO’s scrutiny? Matthew Mankee, a Portland-based inspector with the US 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 Sgt. 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 Sweeney 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 Sweeney’s lawsuit reasonably describes as “a litany of conspiratorial activities” at the expense of the Gillette and Hoyt families? According to the suit, on November 29, 2011 – nearly a year before the armed raid on the Gillette and Hoyt homes – Sheriff Wolfe called Sweeney 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 Sweeney 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 dashcam 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 Sweeney Gillette’s lawsuit disappear: Sweeney, his wife, and Ric Hoyt are seeking a total of no less than $7.3 million in damages.
Malheur County DA Dan Norris appeared to allude to the Sweeney lawsuit during a county budgetmeeting last February 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 Sheriff 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.
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Will Grigg (1963–2017), the former Managing Editor of The Libertarian Institute, was an independent, award-winning investigative journalist and author. He authored six books, most recently his posthumous work, No Quarter: The Ravings of William Norman Grigg.