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South Jordan mink farm vandal says feds breached deal

Published: Sunday, Dec. 6 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

A man who raided a South Jordan mink farm says a prosecutor's statements during an aborted sentencing hearing amount to a breach of his plea agreement.

As a remedy, William James Viehl asked U.S. District Judge Dee Benson on Thursday to remove himself from his case and reassign it to another judge for the purpose of sentencing.

Viehl, 23, was expected to be sentenced Nov. 12 to six months in prison for damaging and interfering with animal enterprises during a September raid on the McMullin mink farm in South Jordan. Such a sentence is consistent with the low end of the federal sentencing guidelines, which the U.S. Attorney's Office had agreed to recommend in exchange for Viehl's guilty plea.

During the sentencing hearing, however, prosecutor John Huber told Benson that although Viehl's actions were classified as a property crime by the sentencing guidelines, the impact of his misconduct was much more sinister than simple vandalism.

"The crime itself was designed to intimidate and inspire fear in the victims," Huber said.

Investigators believe Viehl and Alex Hall, 21, released as many as 650 minks in the raid and also vandalized a number of buildings on the property with phrases such as "No More Mink, No More Murder" and "ALF: We Are Watching."

"As you fashion your sentence today," Huber told Benson, "the corollary is that your sentencing decision will have a much broader impact than just on Mr. Viehl. ... Everyone is listening to what you're doing."

Benson seemed to be swayed by the argument, saying that the case involved "too much threat and terror."

"I can't be as lenient as six months. I'm inclined to go … to two years, maybe more," the judge said. "This sentence has got to be a deterrent, a message sent to other people."

Defense attorney Heather Harris, in a motion filed Thursday, seized on Huber's statements as evidence of the breach of her client's plea agreement. She said the prosecutor "violated the plea agreement at almost the very outset by complaining about the (sentencing) guidelines."

"The government's presentation was not merely restating facts," Harris wrote, "but was characterizing Mr. Viehl's conduct and the effects of it."

Harris added that Huber's repeated warnings that "people are watching" what kind of sentence Viehl received also constituted a "continued breach of the agreement."

"The only conceivable purpose for the government's presentation was to indirectly encourage the court to impose a sentence other than what the government agreed to recommend," Harris wrote. "The effect of its presentation was the equivalent of winking and nodding while uttering the phrase 'low-end recommendation.' "

A new sentencing hearing scheduled for Dec. 11 is likely to be rescheduled in light of Harris' request for reassignment of the case. A hearing on her request has not been scheduled.

e-mail: gliesik@desnews.com TWITTER: GeoffLiesik

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