Animal activists face charges of theft and burglary in Utah 6th District
By Robert Stevens
MANTI—“This is about the letter of the law,” Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said in regards to prosecuting animal rights activists Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) for burglary and theft of a turkey from a Moroni farm last year.
Daniels has charged six members of the group for committing two third-degree felonies—burglary of a building and theft—while shooting undercover video of a farm contracted by Norbest to grow turkeys.
The California-based group’s co-founder and lead investigator, Wayne Hsiung, said the nine-month undercover investigation of the farm was part of an effort to expose what the group called “cruel conditions and false advertising” from Norbest marketing the turkeys as “mountain-grown.”
They released a video of the investigation a day before Gov. Gary Herbert and former Norbest CEO Matt Cook performed an annual pre-Thanksgiving “turkey pardoning ceremony”—which the activists disrupted, shouting “show us the farms” in answer to Cook’s claims that the farm’s conditions were isolated to one location, and were “deeply disturbing.”
In the middle of the filming, DxE took a young turkey from the farm. Hsiung claims the bird was sick and dying, and in a pile of its own feces.
“Rescuing a dying bird is not a crime,” Hsiung said, “It’s an act of compassion.”
But Daniels said their claims of compassion are disingenuous if you consider the way DxE supporters are directing aggression towards him.
“I’ve received a number of death threats over this,” Daniels said. “Does that sound like compassion?”
DxE will undoubtedly use the court appearances as a platform for their voice and agenda, Daniels said. The group has been quoted as saying that if they get a chance to explain themselves, most Americans would agree with them.
“Most Americans believe in compassion towards animals,” DxE investigator and defendant Jon Frohnmayer said. “It’s time for us to give consumers what they’re asking for: compassion and transparency.”
But the group might not find as many sympathizers in Sanpete County as they expect, Daniels said. In fact, he has received over 400 emails on the topic, but every last one of the negative or openly aggressive correspondence has been from out-of-state antagonists.
The positive feedback for pursuing prosecution of the activists has been enormous, and primarily from Utah correspondents, Daniels said. “I think they’re underestimating the people from Sanpete County.”
Although he admits agriculture and, indeed, the turkey industry is the lifeblood and legacy of Sanpete County, Daniels said it’s not about economics, or any local or political pressure to prosecute.
“It’s about the law,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. They broke in; they trespassed; they stole. It’s pretty cut-and-dry.”
And the charges are cut-and-dry too, he said. Although some recent reports by other media outlets have implied that the third-degree theft charges come from a charge enhancement or exception due to the stolen animal being intended for commercial use, Daniels said that is a misperception by anyone who believes it.
Frohnmayer said the law was “was written into Utah’s criminal code by the industry to protect itself.” But it is not a modern agribusiness invention, said Daniels.
According to the county attorney, theft of “livestock” or nearly any farm animal—including poultry—is a third-degree felony, even if the animal is a pet, and not intended for sale or slaughter—and he said that has been the law since the early 1900s.
Each charge carries with it a maximum sentence of five years in a Utah State Prison.
But the felonies don’t really matter to DxE, said Daniels. It gives them a higher priority platform to deliver their message from.
But that doesn’t change his approach to the matter. He still has a job to do, and if the activists are going to get visibility from the process, he intends to play hardball, he said.
“They’re going to want a jury trial,” Daniels said. “I’ll be happy to oblige. I won’t be backing down.”
His approach to prosecuting the activists has been methodical. “We are taking it slow and careful,” he said. “Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”
With the help of Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office Detectives Derick Taysom and Tyler Johnson, Daniels has built up a case based on the burglary and theft charges for the best shot at winning.
In a previous interview with DxE investigator Charles Pickleseimer, the Messenger was told the undercover DxE investigation had begun while so-called “Ag Gag” laws — laws making it a crime to expose the workings of factory farming operations — were still on the books. Since then, Ag Gag laws have been overturned in Utah court, but Daniels said he never even considered taking that route with the prosecution.
Since the release of DxE’s investigation video of Norbest, the company has been purchased by California-based poultry growers Pitman Family Farms.
The DxE defendants will have their initial appearance in 6th District Court on June 13.