Utah 2: Judge to deviate from plea agreement and impose harsher sentence on William James Viehl

From the Salt Lake Tribune:

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson on Thursday rejected a plea bargain that called for a Layton man to serve six months in prison for releasing hundreds of mink last year in support of animal rights.

Instead, Benson said he plans to sentence William James Viehl to at least two years behind bars and could go even higher. The law allows a maximum of five years imprisonment.

The judge said he generally deals leniently with offenders who have no criminal record. But he said Viehl’s actions — letting more than 600 mink out of their pens at the McMullin Fur Farm in South Jordan and spray-painting a barn with the words ALF (for Animal Liberation Front) and “We are watching” — went beyond property damage.

“People who are engaged in a lawful enterprise are being terrorized by the actions of Mister Viehl,” Benson said. “There’s got to be some deterrent message sent.”

Lindsey McMullin, who operates his family’s farm, applauded Benson’s decision. He said the attack had frightened his family and the fur industry.

“Domestic terrorism can’t happen in our country,” he said.

But Peter Young, who attended court Thursday along with other animal-rights activists, said Viehl’s actions were an effort to save animals. Benson’s proposed sentence “is in no way commensurate with the offense,” said Young, who added that he served two years in prison in Wisconsin for carrying out mink releases at six farms in that state.

Prosecutors say Viehl and co-defendant Alex Hall released about 425 female mink and 225 male mink on Aug. 19, 2008, at the McMullin farm.

Lindsey McMullin said seven were killed by vehicles, seven died from stress and about 20 were never recovered. He said the two men also took the animals’ pedigree tags, forcing the sale of the females for their pelts because they no longer could be bred and costing the farm $66,753.

Viehl and Hall were indicted last year on the felony interference count and a misdemeanor charge of attempting to damage the operations of the mink farm.

Viehl, 23, pleaded guilty to one count of damaging and interfering with animal enterprises. In a plea deal, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to recommend that he be given a term on the low end of the sentencing range for the crime. The range is determined after a guilty plea is entered and depends on a defendant’s background and other factors.

Viehl said he now realizes he can support animal rights without breaking the law and apologized to the McMullin family on Thursday. He is being held in a jail until his case is resolved.

Charges are pending against Hall, 20, of Ogden, who has pleaded not guilty and is slated to go to trial Dec. 7

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