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Frustrated over watching wild horses graze on grass they had planted for cattle, two Iron County ranch workers say they reached the breaking point and "just lost it."
Picking up their rifles, they began shooting, they said. By the time it was over, nine horses were dead. They later told authorities that when the shooting was over, they realized they had done a horrible thing.
For their crime, the two Enterprise men, Fred Eugene Woods, 48, and Russell Weston Jones, 30, were sentenced Wednesday to five months in prison, followed by five months of home arrest. U.S. District Judge David Winder also ordered them to pay restitution of $2,005 to cover the value of the animals.
"Horses are the living symbols of the free spirit of the West," the judge said. "The victims are the American people."
Winder noted he had received 14,400 letters, the most in any case during his 30 years as a judge, and almost all asking for the maximum punishment. But many of the defendants' neighbors also wrote letters, these strongly supporting Woods and Jones and asking for no prison time.
Winder said the men took the law into their own hands, something he could not condone.
Woods and Jones, who each had pleaded guilty to one felony and two misdemeanors under a plea bargain, told Winder they are sorry for their actions.
"I know it was wrong," Woods said. "I was at a high level of frustration."
On May 30, 2002, the defendants shot three horses - a black stallion, a buckskin filly and a buckskin mare - about 40 miles west of Cedar City. They then drove about a mile and a half down a road and shot six more stallions. The animals were feeding on rangeland jointly seeded by Iron County ranchers and ranch hands - including the defendants - and the Bureau of Land Management that was intended for cattle.
Wayne Dance, an assistant U.S. attorney, disputes that the defendants acted spontaneously and said they were angry over what they viewed as poor management practices by the BLM. He pointed out that the two had time to think about what they were doing as they drove to the second site.
"Mr. Woods and Mr. Jones were a two-man vigilante committee," Dance said.