Three found guilty of trespassing in Crazy Mountains are appealing

Justin Post — Enterprise Staff Writer
Monday, October 21, 2019

Three Livingston men found guilty during a July jury trial of trespassing in the Crazy Mountains plan to appeal their convictions in District Court.

Nate Howard, Joseph Bullington and Johnathan Hettinger were sentenced Monday in Justice Court to five days in jail with the sentence deferred for six months, meaning they would spend no time in jail and their convictions would be cleared from their records after six months.

Justice Court Judge Linda Cantin ordered the men to share in the cost for the jury in their trial, $403 each, and waived fees for being represented by public defenders. The three were each ordered to pay $85 in court costs and were given the option of paying a $100 fine or serving 10 hours of community service. All three requested community service.

Howard, Bullington and Hettinger said after sentencing that their attorneys have notified the court of their intent to appeal the case.

“This case is about whether landowners can systematically destroy public trails and government trail signs, and then turn around and get the county to prosecute the members of the public who lose their way on those trails,” Bullington said.

The three were charged with trespassing after hiking the highly contested Porcupine Lowline Trail, or U.S. Forest Service Trail 267, along the western slopes of the Crazy Mountains during the evening of Oct. 14, 2018.

The men lost the trail during their hike and wandered into the more than 11,000 acres of Eagle Ridge Ranch near Wilsall, according to court testimony.

After confronting the three hikers near the north fork of Horse Creek, ranch manager David Laubach called the area game warden, who directed him to the Park County Sheriff’s Office, The Livingston Enterprise reported in July.

Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Hopkin collected written accounts of the events from Laubach, his wife and brother-in-law.

Hopkin testified he did not investigate the scene, interview anyone involved or collect evidence other than the written statements prior to issuing the three men citations.

Hopkin did attempt to interview the three men, but they exercised their right to remain silent, a fact that came out during mid-trial deliberations.

Public access advocates have long claimed landowners have intentionally obstructed and obliterated the trail, removed Forest Service trail blazes and placed illegal signage throughout the public easement aimed at intimidating would-be recreationists.

The hikers claimed the controversy is what led them to believe they were not breaking the law when they crossed multiple locked gates and “No Trespassing” signage along what they believed to be the trail.

An attempt by Montana Assistant Public Defender Annie DeWolf to subpoena Forest Service employees during the trial was denied by Judge Cantin.