Judge, defense disagree on length of sentence for Layton man in mink case

Nov 13 2009 - 12:38am



SALT LAKE CITY -- A judge said he is inclined to send a Layton man to spend at least two years in federal prison, instead of the recommended six months.

William James Viehl, 23, who pleaded guilty to a charge relating to damaging a mink farm in South Jordan, wore handcuffs, shackles and a Davis County Jail inmate uniform when he appeared before U.S. District Judge Dee Benson on Thursday in a federal courtroom packed with family members, friends and supporters.

Also in the courtroom were family members and supporters of the McMullin mink farm.

"I cannot ignore the fact that Mr. Viehl was scouting around mink farms," Benson said.

Benson set Dec. 7 for another sentencing hearing to give the defense enough time to argue against going over the recommended sentence of six months.

Viehl had pleaded guilty in September to using a cell phone for the purpose of damaging and interfering with the operation of the McMullin mink farm Aug. 19, 2008.

Alex Hall, 21, of Ogden, is scheduled for a trial that begins Dec. 7. He is charged with two counts of damaging and interfering with animal enterprises in connection with the attack at the McMullin farm and an attempted attack Oct. 18, 2008, at the Mathews mink farm in Hyrum. He is being held in Davis County Jail on a federal warrant.

Benson said the recommendation made in Viehl's presentencing report of six months in prison is too lenient. Prosecutors had agreed to recommend six months prison time as part of the plea agreement.

"And I believe one year is not enough," Benson said.

Benson said he did not realize before the sentencing hearing the guidelines were so low, "and I don't agree with them."

Benson said Viehl was involved in criminal conduct that threatened and terrorized law-abiding residents involved in a law-abiding industry.

Benson said he would normally favor a lighter sentence when it is a first-time offense and the defendant, like Viehl, has no previous criminal record.

Lyndsay McMullin, a third-generation mink farmer, spoke at the hearing. When his family woke up Aug. 19, 2008, their first feeling was of violation.

More than 650 mink were released from a shed on a farm that houses 4,000 mink. What scared his family more were the threats and graffiti painted in red on the shed.

"Mr. Viehl, I hope down the road, when you have a family, you don't have to sit and comfort your daughter as she asks, 'Are they really watching us?'" McMullin said.

"First, I want to apologize to the McMullin family for the fear you've had," Viehl said. "You don't have to fear me or anything I'm associated with."

Viehl's attorney, Heather Harris, said her client has re-evaluated his life since his pretrial release was revoked in June and has spent the past five months in jail.

Viehl still believes animals should not be harmed, but does not believe resorting to illegal activities is the way to that goal, Harris said.

Peter Young, one of Viehl's supporters, said after the hearing he served two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy in connection with five raids of mink farms and raiding a sixth mink farm in Wisconsin.

"This is absolutely too severe," Young said about the judge considering a sentence more than six months.

"It's not about inflicting terror, but to save the animals," Young said.

Jeremy Beckham said he and others are planning to stage a protest from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 28 on Main Street in Morgan. He said the protest includes stopping outside two fur farms in the area.

Chris Valco, with the Fur Breeders Association, said after the hearing when the mink were set loose in South Jordan it was in an area with subdivisions, "and it was basically a death sentence for the mink."

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