Four Missouri hunters who successfully fought criminal and civil trespassing cases after they corner crossed to hunt public land in Carbon County described disbelief, shock and fear experienced during their nearly three-year ordeal.
They didn’t set out to prove a point when they stepped through the airspace above a corner of the Elk Mountain Ranch to hunt public land beyond. They never expected to be criminally cited, because they never set foot on the 22,045-acre Carbon County property.
They were scared and sweating as they stood before a Carbon County jury that then declared them not guilty. Then billionaire ranch owner Fred Eshelman sued them in civil court, claiming $7.75 million in damages for devaluing his property.
They stalked elk in 2020 and 2021 across some of the 6,000 acres of public land enmeshed in a checkerboard of square-mile parcels on Elk Mountain Ranch. In corner crossing, they stepped across the point where two public parcels and two private ones met, all without touching the private land.
It’s unsettled whether corner crossing is illegal, so the cases could influence public access to 8.3 million acres of public land considered “corner locked” across the West.
The hunters, from the day they set out from Steelville, Missouri, three years ago, held that Eshelman can’t block the public from the public land that’s just a step away, keeping its bounty to himself.
“The message to the public is: ‘It’s your land,’” said Bradly Cape, one of the hunters who owns a fence building company. “It’s your land — go hunting and don’t be bullied.”
During a hunting trip to Wyoming in 2019, Cape, his employee Zach Smith and Phillip Yeomans, a military veteran and traveling mechanic, took a side route past intriguing Elk Mountain. The peak rises to 11,156 feet, its ridges and draws climbing above sagebrush and hayfields in a sweeping pine-clad ascension.
The 51-square-mile ranch, including public and private land covering Elk Mountain, is “equivalent to a national-park like landscape,” according to a real estate agent’s description posted before Eshelman bought the ranch in 2005. The land, littered with arrowheads, is home to 950 elk. History took place there, too. Big Nose George Parott’s Powder River Gang murdered two lawmen on Rattlesnake Creek in 1878, a shootout that led to his vigilante lynching on Rawlins’s Front Street.
The odds of drawing a license for Elk Mountain Hunt Area 125 were good, too, in part because of the preponderance of private land and a longstanding practice of deterring corner crossing.
Driving around the mountain in 2019, “we ran into a local elderly lady that said they had problems with the elk getting in their hay piles,” Cape said. “She talked about how nobody goes up on the mountain because the rich guy won’t let them.”
As the owner of the airspace above his property at the corners, “we should have control of who crossed the private land,” Eshelman, a North Carolina pharmaceutical businessman, said in a deposition. The hunters, however, believe an 1885 federal law prevents him from blocking the public from corner-crossing.
Back home in Missouri in 2019, “nobody could fathom that crossing without touching land could be an issue,” Cape said. Yet, the real estate listing stated that two settled lawsuits “protect the ranch from public access.”
Cape found both suits irrelevant.
“There was no such case,” he said. “There really wasn’t a law against it. It was just people’s opinions.”
So the three men set off for Wyoming in 2020, planning to corner cross in bishop-like chess moves from public to public sections. They would use the onX Hunt GPS app to locate corner monuments, then cross without touching Elk Mountain Ranch.
From their camp on public land just off a county road, they could see their first corner in the sagebrush a few hundred yards away. Two fence T-posts and no-trespassing signs straddled the common point of federal sections 14 and 24 and private sections 13 and 23.
Ranch manager Steve Grende had erected the T-posts a few feet apart from one another on the private parcels and chained them together about chest high. Sticking out of the ground a few feet under the chain, a monument about the diameter of a soda can bore a cross marking the infinitesimally small point common to the four sections.
The men grabbed the posts, swung around them, and went hunting.
The mother of all corners
One hundred forty-two years before the three Missourians crossed their portal, surveyor L. M. Lampton and his crew set a granite cuboid about the size of two shoeboxes to mark the corner. A single notch faced east while three notches marked the face looking south.
Regardless of whether Lampton was nervous or rushed — he heard the Powder River Gang’s murderous fusillade eight days earlier — the stone marked a point that would never change. The marker stood until 1967 when federal surveyors replaced it with a thick stake topped by an inscribed brass cap. They buried the original stone beside it.
Camo-clad, the hunters in 2020 stepped over the threshold, breathless for a chance at a wary, six-point, 700-pound ungulate that would yield 150 pounds of meat. By the end of their hunt they downed three elk, one five-point and two six points. They quartered their animals and stepped and swung their way back to camp.
Grende encountered them and said they had trespassed. Authorities showed up.
“You’re invading the airspace,” Deputy Roger Hawks said. But, “I can’t say anything’s going to come of this.”
“There was no citation,” Cape said. “They told us we were good to go.”
Before they returned in 2021, this time with John Slowensky, Cape’s brother-in-law, the fence builders went to their shop.
“We got pieces of pipe and started laying them out on the floor,” making two A-frames, the beginnings of a ladder, Cape said. “Then we discussed how wide the steps needed to be. We welded … and we had ourselves a stile.”
They built the portable structure “so we didn’t have to touch the T-post,” Cape said. They only needed it at the first corner and laid it down nearby.
The group spent several days in 2021 hunting with bows and then rifles, had new confrontations with Grende and were questioned by a game warden and sheriff’s deputy.
Grende lobbied for authorities to act, asking the lawmen: “do they realize how much money my boss has … and property?” A game warden wrote a report, and Grende took his case to County Prosecutor Ashley Mayfield Davis.
“At that point we had our own knowledge and research,” Cape said, “plus we had the law tell us that what we were doing was good. We all are faith-based men and tried to do what’s correct.”
Prosecutor Mayfield Davis ordered criminal trespass citations. “We never thought we were gonna get cited until we did,” Cape said.
Each faced a misdemeanor charge of trespassing, counts that carry sentences of up to six months in jail and $750 in fines. That brought a reckoning.
“We actually considered for a fair amount of time whether or not we would fight it,” Yeomans said. “We’re not attention hounds.”
An avenue opened, however, as Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers launched a fundraising drive for their defense. Podcaster Steven Rinella advanced their cause on The MeatEater.
“Things just started falling in place,” Yeomans said.
Summoned back to Wyoming for their misdemeanor trial in the spring of 2022, the Missouri four faced 58 potential jurors during voir dire. Lottery drew the citizens from towns that saddlebag the Continental Divide, separated by the North Platte River and stretching from the Seminoe Reservoir to a 12,015-foot Snowy Range summit.
They assembled in Rawlins, a windburned interstate crossroads of western agriculture and energy development, home to the state penitentiary and Frontier Prison. A few of the prospects could have ridden out of pages of “The Virginian,” Owen Wister’s Western set a half-day’s ride up the trail in Medicine Bow.
Many wore jeans. There were rodeo belt buckles, embroidered snap-button shirts, hoodies, Filson vests, Carhartts, Stetsons and Resistols. Some had on work boots, others battered tennies, high heels. There was a skirt, a tie. Judge Susan Stipe silenced a blabbermouth, dismissed a rancher with corner-crossing entanglements. One prospective juror didn’t believe in a defendant’s right to remain silent.
“It was pretty intimidating having all those people watch you,” Smith said.
What would Carbon County justice look like to this pool?
“You could sure tell the ones that you didn’t want on the jury,” Cape said. Looking at the sea of faces, he wondered: “do these people think I’m a bad guy?”
Prosecutor Mayfield Davis opened the trial saying, “In life there are boundaries everywhere.” The hunters’ attorney Ryan Semerad likened Eshelman, a hunter himself, to a feudal lord claiming “the king’s deer” when that wildlife actually belonged to the state.
After two and a half days of trial, the jury of six — “good, normal people,” as Cape saw them — began deliberating. Faster than a hungry man could eat a taco salad from Rose’s Lariat café down the street, they returned with a verdict.
“My heart was in my throat and I was sweating like crazy,” Slowensky said.
The suspense debilitated Yeomans. “I couldn’t think,” he said.
“You’re standing there in a room full of people in front of a judge and a jury of your peers and you don’t know,” Cape said. “It’s scary.”
Slowensky had come to some peace before the hunters’ acquittal of all charges. “People know who I am in my heart,” he said, “and [that] I would never put myself in a knowing position to ever do anything wrong or, especially, illegal.”
Civil suit for $7.75 million in damages
While they were facing the criminal charges, Eshelman filed a civil suit against the men, claiming their corner crossing caused $7.75 million in damages by devaluing his property.
“That was a shock to me,” Cape said about the civil filing. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“My worry at that point was we’re gonna have to go through this all over again,” he said. The potential penalty, “it scared some of the others, but it never scared me. It was an unrealistic number.”
A federal judge on May 26 granted most of the hunters’ summary judgment dismissal requests against Eshelman’s suit. The ranch owner owns the airspace above his property, Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl wrote, but that ownership comes with some restrictions.
“Where a person corner crosses on foot within the checkerboard from public land to public land without touching the surface of private land and without damaging private property, there is no liability for trespass,” he wrote.
The checkerboard runs in a band 20 miles on either side of the Union Pacific rail line across much of Wyoming, a relic of the railroad grant era. Skavdahl’s decision has implications for public access to 8.3 million acres across the West that are considered corner locked by any interpretation that corner crossing is illegal.
Those implications have yet to shake out. Attorneys and observers anticipate an appeal of Skavdahl’s decision and the hunters will continue to fight, they said. Resolution of that would be necessary before the case sets a precedent across states in the federal 10th Circuit — Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Utah.
The legal wranglings “just instilled a bigger trust in how it all works,” Yeomans said. The hunters don’t hold a grudge, they said.
“We understand [Eshelman’s] point as far as wanting to protect what’s precious to him,” Yeomans said. “We respect his private property. That was the intent of the ladder.
“There’s no animosity,” he said. “I’ve got no ill will toward Mr. Eshelman or his team of lawyers.”
Eshelman’s attorney did not respond to a request for an interview with the landowner.
Cape remains curious about the gulch separating the parties. “I would still like to meet Fred and just sit down and talk with the guy.”
The case drew national interest, and Cape said credits the support it engendered with helping the hunters.
“We stood up for ourselves a little bit in the beginning,” Cape said, “but we would have never been able to do it without support.”
When you’re on the right side of something and win, he said, “that’s the way that America is supposed to be.”