Animal-rights activist gets 2 years in prison
Crime » Man released minks from S. Jordan farm.
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Depending on who you believe, William James Viehl is either Harriet Beecher Stowe or a terrorist.

U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson voted for the latter and on Thursday sentenced Viehl to two years in prison for releasing hundreds of minks from a South Jordan farm.

"I don't know any better word for it than 'terror,'" Benson said during a long explanation of his decision. "It's a form of terrorism."

Viehl last year pleaded guilty to one count of damaging and interfering with animal enterprises. On Aug. 19, 2008, Viehl helped release about 425 female and 225 male minks from the farm. Vehicles hit and killed seven, seven died of stress and 20 were never recovered, said the farm's owner, Lindsey McMullin. Viehl and his co-defendant also are accused of removing pedigree tags, forcing the McMullins to sell the females for their pelts rather than breeding them.

The bandits also spray painted "ALF," for Animal Liberation Front, on a barn and the words, "We are watching."

Viehl's lawyer, Heather Harris, asked for a six-month sentence that, with time served, would have freed Viehl after his sentencing hearing. Harris argued the federal statutes and sentences were meant to target wide-ranging conspiracies against animal producers and researchers, not singular acts. Benson said he had received letters from both advocates of the mink industry and people supporting Viehl and the freeing of animals.

Benson, reading from the bench, said one letter called Viehl "our Harriet Beecher Stowe," referring to the anti-slavery crusader. Other letters, Benson said, compared Viehl or his actions to the Boston Tea Party, World War II resistance fighters and Mahatma Gandhi.

Benson said those comparisons were "just ridiculous" and denounced the actions of groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. Viehl's actions hurt "real people" engaged in a law-abiding venture, Benson said.

Benson noted there was evidence Viehl conducted surveillance or helped release minks from farms in Kaysville and Hyrum and said the federal sentencing guidelines for crimes targeting animal producers and researchers do not permit enough prison time.

"We want to make it so other people don't want to be in that [defendant's] chair either," Benson said.

Viehl stood and apologized in the courtroom.

"Whatever choice you make I will respect," he told Benson.

Benson said he considered giving Viehl up to three years in prison.

"That speech got you a year off," Benson said.

Viehl already has served about six months in jail while awaiting sentencing and will be given credit for that time. Benson also sentenced Viehl to three years of probation, during which time he cannot have contact with other people who advocate the freeing of animals. Viehl also must pay about $66,000 in restitution, though he can split that amount with his co-defendant, Alex Jason Hall, if he is convicted. Hall is awaiting trial.

Outside the courtroom, McMullin said he was happy with the sentence. "This message is being sent that this will not be tolerated in our country," McMullin said.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com