Animal Action: Teton County residents push for successful local prosecutions; changes in animal cruelty laws statewide

By on November 29, 2017

Teton County residents, get your virtual pens ready.

A campaign to change Wyoming’s lax animal cruelty laws and ensure Wyoming outfitter Forest Stearns is successfully prosecuted on charges of cruelty to animals is ramping up on Facebook, and it’s going to require a lot of letters to be successful.

The Facebook group, “Justice for Horses of Stearns Outfitters-Wyoming,” is spearheaded by Jackson resident Mary Wendell Lampton and photojournalist Leigh Vogel, whose work to rescue abused sled dogs in Aspen was recently highlighted in a documentary about the case.

The Facebook group is, in part, calling on concerned residents to write letters to Governor Matt Mead’s office to call for outside support to be sent to the Teton County prosecutors handling Stearns’ case. The group is hoping that if Stearns’ case is successfully prosecuted, it will set precedence for other animal cruelty cases that are sent to local courts.

“The greatest possible outcome I could ask for with this case against animal cruelty would be to enlighten those not yet aware that it is in protecting, honoring and living in balance with all of the natural world-all plants, all animals, every living thing including the planet herself,” Lampton said. “That is the path to our own true happiness and well-being as humans.”

Lampton first became involved in the case on August 8 when she videotaped Stearns, her neighbor, allegedly torturing one of his horses for several hours before it died. The horse can be seen bleeding and kicking throughout the video.

Vogel, whose work  heard about the case through Lampton and offered her assistance.

Stearns was charged with one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty stemming from the incident. He has pleaded not guilty in the case.

For some, a misdemeanor charge isn’t enough for Stearns, who owns the now-defunct Stearns Outfitters in Wilson. The Teton County resident has a long history of legal issues that includes a handful of DUIs for which he was found guilty.

Other charges against Stearns for “unlawful contact: rude, insolent or angry touch without bodily injury,” and one count of battery against a household member, were dismissed, according to court records.

Stearns is perhaps best known for pleading guilty in 1981 to assault and battery charges after he and three other men lassoed an African American man who was riding a bicycle.

According to court documents from the case, on July 17, 1980, Jackson resident Wendall Brown was riding his bike between the Gros Ventre Bridge and Gros Ventre Junction when four men rode up alongside him with a looped rope hanging out the window.

“A rope was then thrown out the passenger window of the vehicle, looping around the left side of the handlebars of the victim’s bicycle,” according to the documents.

Brown was dragged over 200 yards before the truck stopped. Stearns was sentenced to two weekends in Teton County Jail in that case.

This is also not the first time Stearns has been investigated for animal cruelty. A similar complaint against Stearns was launched in 2015, but the Teton County Prosecutor’s Office was unable to move the case forward.

This time, Stearns’ case is going to move forward, though – and Lampton wants to make sure there is as much support in place as possible so that local prosecutors are able to do their jobs.

Lampton recently reached out to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead’s office to ask for additional support to help Teton County Prosecutor Becket Hinckley prosecute Stearns’ abuse case. The letter to Mead read, in part:

“Jackson Hole is one of the most highly visited areas in the country.  It directly represents the heritage and treatment of horses, and ought to set an example in that regard.  This case has been highly publicized and is bringing a negative image to our town and horse culture.

There is a proven correlation between those who harm animals and those who harm people. The Humane Society reports: “Of those who commit animal crimes, 65% had been arrested for battery against another person”.  As a community and as representation for all communities, we here in Jackson Hole want to ensure the safety and rights for all, animals and people alike, and to be assured that our local authorities are taking right action on our behalf.”

But so far, the governor’s office hasn’t agreed to send in the outside support Lampton and Vogel think is necessary to help the Teton County Prosecutor’s Office do its job.  

That’s why the group has been calling on community members to appeal to Mead via a letter writing campaign. The more noise they make, the more change they may help put into place.

Lampton said that while they do hope Stearns is successfully prosecuted, this push for support from the governor’s office isn’t only about the Stearns case. It’s about changing the laws for Wyoming as a whole, making it easier for other communities to curb animal abuse.

“What I want to accomplish is not just the prosecution of Stearns but the change to Wyoming laws. They’re extremely weak; we’re at the bottom of the list for animal cruelty laws,” Lampton said.

That change won’t come easy, given that Wyoming ranks an appalling 48th in the nation for its lax cruelty laws. The state needs a serious animal cruelty overhaul, according to Lampton, and it will take knowledgeable, active community members to make that happen.

Luckily, Lampton said, there are plenty of folks who have already climbed aboard to help steer the ship.

“There are so many people involved who have brought forth incredible contacts and experts – Liz Brimmer and Liz Hirschland have both been incredible – and we need as many people on board to help as possible if we want things to change,” she said.

It isn’t enough to just take animal cruelty on a case-by-case basis.

“We need more of this community to change the laws; we need them to say they need law enforcement to be held accountable,” Lampton said.

The only way that any real change will be effected is if that happens.  Accountability – not only from animal owners but from every single angle – is key.

“We’re hoping that we’re shining a light to make sure the legal system and communities are held accountable from bottom to top,” she said. PJH

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