Case Snapshot
Case ID: 17291
Classification: Neglect / Abandonment
Animal: horse
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Attorneys/Judges
Defense(s): Roberta Drew
Judge(s): Pedro Hernandez, Larry Herman


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Friday, Jan 1, 2010

County: Yellowstone

Charges: Misdemeanor
Disposition: Alleged
Case Images: 4 files available

Alleged: James H. Leachman

Case Updates: 8 update(s) available

The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office on Friday filed five primary misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and five alternative counts against James H. Leachman of Billings.

But the legal action may have come too late to save many of the estimated 450 horses starving to death on a ranch east of Billings.

Two horses were humanely shot by a county sheriff's lieutenant last Saturday. Unless the surviving horses are fed, Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila said the horses will start dying in droves within the next two weeks. It isn't clear who will feed the horses or if they can be adopted.

Leachman, who bred cattle in Montana for nearly four decades and turned to horses when his cattle empire collapsed, faces a total maximum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said the charges are part of what may be the largest horse abuse case in Montana history.

"This is just a horrible situation, and we'll try to do whatever we can to help the horses," he said.

Twito said that as soon as possible he would call a meeting of the government agencies involved, along with ranchers surrounding the former Leachman Home Place Ranch, which has about 9,400 deeded acres and 30,000 leased Crow tribal lands.

The five primary charges of negligently failing to provide veterinary care, food or water to helpless animals are "stacked" so they collectively carry a maximum five-year, $5,000 penalty. The charges can be converted later to a felony charge.

The five dead horses cited as evidence include a young mare with what appeared to be a broken leg on Dec. 19 and later found dead Jan. 15; a black mare nursing a colt; an old bay mare nursing a colt that couldn't walk because marking bands placed on her front legs strangled her circulation as she grew; a buckskin mare with a colt with a severe cut tendon; and a 1- to 2-year-old black-blue roan mare that had been walking on her ankle bone for a year after apparently breaking her leg.

Peila, who examined the horses Dec. 29 at the request of investigators, said about 350 of the horses in the 2,600-acre Tschirgi pasture hadn't eaten much for a month.

"It's horrible. They're all starving to death," Peila said Wednesday. "The first time I was up there Dec. 29, (the horses) were running the fence. They wanted out. They had nothing to eat then, and their condition has really deteriorated."

Leachman was served with the charges early Friday evening and will be ordered to appear in Justice Court.

He said Friday evening that he expects to be vindicated. He said Turk Stovall, who is managing the Home Place Ranch with his wife, Jenny, has been interfering with the horses.

"Part of the interference inflicted by Stovall on me includes the unauthorized and inhumane moving, intermingling and locking up of my horses. That has included, but is not limited to, the very same horses referred to in the charges: all the horses who had been sorted off by us in case they needed professional care or needed to be disposed of," Leachman said.

In a lengthy interview with The Billings Gazette on Dec. 4, Leachman denied that his horses were starving. They have always ranged on winter pasture and done well on the Home Place ranch 16 miles east of Billings along Highway 87E, he said. But he lost his ranch last July at a U.S. Marshals Service foreclosure sale when the neighboring Stovall family paid $2.6 million for the ranch. Getting the money to buy it back by July is his focus.

"My game plan now, in general, is to get through the redemption of the ranch and plan on having an orderly horse sale, which would probably entail or include a reduction in the horse numbers," he said. "And ideally, I would have a nucleus to go forward."

All the horses were meticulously sorted for a fall sale, he said, but the Stovalls mixed them up again and they keep moving his horses around without his permission, so he doesn't know where they all are to feed or doctor them. Leachman said the Stovalls are jealous of his skills with genetics and for years have been out to get his ranch and his Crow tribal leases.

The Stovalls can't feed the horses because they don't own them, are wary of getting sued, and need the hay and land for their own livestock. Leachman was supposed to remove his horses six months ago when he lost the ranch, Stovall said, a point Leachman disputes. And Stovall is frustrated at the slow pace of public agencies in dealing with the horse problem that has been festering for at least a year.

"We've got to protect our grass and all the hay we bought for our cows," Turk Stovall said. "We've done about everything we can think of."

Stovall and his hired hand could gather up the horses in a day, but a roundup doesn't seem to be in the cards, either.

"We're trying to get this done as fast as possible," Twito said. "It is frustrating, but at the end of the day, this could have been taken care of by Mr. Leachman."

On Jan. 15, Peila, along with a deputy county attorney, two sheriff's deputies and a Montana Department of Livestock manager, returned to the ranch with legal authority to deal with the worst of the horses. The vet had Yellowstone County Sheriff Lt. Kent O'Donnell mercy shoot an old bay mare that Peila called a "sack of bones." The mare lies in a prairie dog town in the Fighter pasture, but the body hadn't been touched yet "the coyotes, cougars and magpies were apparently spooked off by the hum of the high-voltage power lines overhead.

O'Donnell also shot a mare that had been walking on her ankle bone for a year or more after apparently breaking her leg as a baby.

This is big country and finding the bodies ate up a half-day, covering 30 miles in a chained-up pickup. One banded horse was found near Woody Mountain.

"I saw that horse standing on the hill by Woody Mountain, the magpies pecking at him, and two days later I found him lying in the draw, feeding the coyotes," ranch hand Kenny Kukowski said.

All ranchers lose a small percentage of stock running on the range, but this death could have been avoided, Peila said.

"It's poor livestock management to band the horses and turn them out into the damn wilderness," he said.

No one yet knows how many horses are roaming the vast range, including deeded and Crow tribal lands near the Pryor Mountains. What is different about this winter is that these horses cannot roam freely to find grass because Leachman doesn't control the land anymore.

The Stovalls started calving heifers last week, so most of the horses are confined on the Tschirgi with no grass left. Only yucca spikes, wisps of cheat grass and sagebrush "a last meal for a horse" poke through the snow and ice. Winter coats can hide a lot, but these pasture horses show sucked up bellies, skinny necks and protruding hip bones.

More than 100 horses have broken through barbed-wire fences and are roaming on neighboring ranches or on Crow tribal land where they have a much better chance of surviving the winter, Peila said.

After telling a bankruptcy judge last winter that he had no income after the collapse of the Leachman Cattle Co., and a price collapse in the horse markets, Leachman said he would hold his annual fall Hairpin Cavvy sale.

That didn't happen.

"I planned on having a sale this fall, I just couldn't have it. Sure, I could have it if I wanted to sell my horses for 200 bucks," he said in December.

On Dec. 3, the horses in the pasture were wild and strong enough that they ran through 2- to 3-foot drifts to flee when they spotted a pickup a mile away. Last Saturday, a band of mares barely moved when the truck came within 150 yards.

Who is in charge of ensuring the health of the horses isn't simple.

The joke among ranchers on the reservation is that there is little law out there, due mostly to the checkerboard mix of deeded or private land and Crow tribal lands. And the fences follow the water and grass, not property lines, making it tricky to know whether you're on private or tribal lands.

Because the Crow Tribe is a sovereign nation, county, state and federal officials have limited authority on lease lands.

"The sheriff won't come, the Crow tribal police won't come, the BIA won't come and the brand inspector won't come, but the FBI will come if you die," the joke goes.

The reality is that multiple law enforcement agencies are players on the reservation.

The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office is in charge of animal abuse cases, but it isn't set up to handle horses.

"Look at us. Do you see any cowboys here or horse trailers?" then-Undersheriff Seth Weston said in December when it was becoming clear the horses were in danger.

The Sheriff's Office is in charge of the investigation, and the Montana Department of Livestock is assisting.

Last fall, Montana Department of Livestock Eastern Area Manager Travis Elings hauled his personal water tank to 14 Leachman stallions that were apparently living on morning dew.

"It was a bad, bad deal. Them horses were thirsty, thirsty. We had to beat them off with ropes to fill the tanks," Elings said in December.

Leachman said his horses had water until Stovall's hired hand moved them into a pasture without water.

What happens next with the horses isn't clear. Twito said his office lacks the authority to pay for a roundup.

"If you look at the roundup provision in statute, it requires the adjoining landowners or livestock association to pay," Twito said. "If I could wave a magic wand and help those horses, I would in a heartbeat, but I'm bound to enforce the law."

In December 2008, Yellowstone County rescued about 200 neglected dogs and 30 other animals on Linda Kapsa's Ballantine farm and fed and cared for the animals until the case was concluded and the animals could be adopted. The cost of caring for the animals topped $255,000, including $44,000 in donations.

But horses are a lot harder to handle.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which apparently manages the Tschirgi pasture on tribal lands, and the Crow Tribe haven't responded to Freedom of Information Act letters or recent requests for comment.

"In my opinion, the BIA has the easy power to snap to it, but nobody wants to pay the bill to feed those horses and to deal with Leachman," Peila said.

Each horse needs 30 pounds of hay a day, he said, which would run $1,600 to $1,800 per day to feed all of them. That doesn't include vet fees and the costs of hauling hay and water to the remote Crow Reservation hills. The horses are eating snow now, but they can't eat hay without water to drink or they'll die. Hay has no moisture, grass does.

"Now is the quiet downhill. A month ago, they were not that bad. Now, they're really suffering," Peila said. "I think we'll see a lot of dead horses in two weeks and a lot of suffering in between."

Although he admits it's a long-shot politically, the vet said time has run out, so in his opinion all the horses in pasture need to be kicked out to other ranches and tribal lands to survive until July when the ranch redemption issue is settled.

"These are his horses, and as the owner, he is responsible to God and everybody to take care of those animals," Peila said. "It appears for some reason Leachman is neglecting everything and waiting for someone else to do something."


Case Updates

Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Larry Herman signed an order Friday granting James Leachman of Billings a public defender.

Leachman's two previous requests were turned down by another judge and the Public Defender's Office, who both said he had the money to hire a private attorney.

The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office has charged Leachman with eight primary misdemeanor counts of starving and not adjusting or removing leg bands on some of the 800 horses he had grazing on the Crow Reservation 16 miles east of Billings. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts and asked for a jury trial.

Herman also ordered Leachman to submit a financial statement and said he may issue a future order requiring the cattle and horse breeder to pay part of all of his defense costs, if he has the financial ability.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs confiscated all the Leachman horses for trespassing after he missed deadlines to move them off tribal lands. The BIA sold them in early April at a ranch auction. Buyers from around the country and Canada purchased the majority of the horses, except for nearly 70 that his son, Seth Leachman, bought. James Leachman personally presented a cashier's check for $33,133 to pay for his son's horses.

James Leachman's pretrial hearing is July 18 and his jury trial, which is expected to last one week, is scheduled for Aug. 15. On Monday, James Leachman pleaded not guilty to a separate misdemeanor charge of allowing a stallion to run free on open range in violation of Montana's livestock laws.
Source: billingsgazette.com - May 27, 2011
Update posted on May 28, 2011 - 9:06AM 
James Leachman of Billings is set to appear May 25 at 1 p.m. before Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Larry Herman on misdemeanor animal cruelty charges.

Herman took over the case on Monday from fellow Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez, who was asked by both Leachman and the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office to step down.

Both the county attorney and Leachman, who is representing himself, wanted another judge because of Hernandez's actions during an April 20 hearing.

During the hearing, Hernandez said he didn't understand why the case wasn't charged as a felony and ruled that Leachman had to move some horses from 800 acres that he leased on the Home Place ranch 16 miles east of Billings.

After a winter of emergency hay drops to feed many of Leachman's horses, the Bureau of Indian Affairs confiscated more than 800 of the horses for trespassing on tribal trust lands and sold them at auction in early April.

During the auction, Seth Leachman bought 70 of his father's horses and turned them loose on his dad's unfenced leases.

James Leachman is charged with starving and not adjusting or removing leg bands on some of his horses.

In January when Leachman was initially charged with animal cruelty, the county attorney's office had documented five counts of abuse, not the minimum of 10 needed to bring one felony charge. Since then, three more misdemeanor charges have been filed for a total of eight primary counts. The "stacked" misdemeanor counts carry a tougher sentence than a single felony charge, said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito.

Seth Leachman has his own lawsuit unfolding in federal court.

After hearing that some Leachman horses were trespassing again, Hernandez on April 20 set a 10-day deadline to remove them. But, rather than find new pasture, Seth Leachman sued Hernandez in U.S. District Court, claiming the judge's order caused him "emotional distress" and violated his 14th Amendment property rights.

Because Hernandez is a public official, the county attorney's office is responsible for defending him. On Monday, Twito said two deputy county attorneys in his civil division, Mark English and Ryan Nordland, will defend Hernandez.

"I don't believe there is a conflict. The criminal division can prosecute (James Leachman), and the civil division will defend Hernandez as a public official," Twito said.

Hernandez must respond by Thursday to Seth Leachman's complaint.

Also by Thursday, James Leachman must enter a plea in Justice Court to a new misdemeanor charge that he allowed a stallion to run free on open range on the ranch in violation of Montana's livestock rules.
Source: billingsgazette.com - May 17, 2011
Update posted on May 17, 2011 - 8:04PM 
A Billings man has filed a federal lawsuit claiming a Yellowstone County judge did not have the jurisdiction to order his horses removed from land leased by his father.

The suit, filed Thursday by Seth Leachman, alleges Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez caused him emotional distress and led him to spend money trying to find suitable pasture for nearly 70 horses.

On April 20, Hernandez gave Leachman's father, James, 10 days to remove the horses from land east of Billings where the animals had no access to water.

The order came during a hearing in which James Leachman pleaded not guilty to an eighth charge of misdemeanor animal cruelty for failing to provide adequate food, water and veterinary care for hundreds of horses.

The horses were trespassing on tribal lands, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered them rounded up and sold at auction.

Seth Leachman's legal action said he owns the horses that were subject to the order.

Seth Leachman successfully bid on about 65 horses during the auction of the horses belonging to his father. Several days later, James Leachman presented a cashier's check for just over $33,000 to pay for the horses.

Seth Leachman said the horses were turned out to pasture on land his father leased. However, Yellowstone County prosecutors have said the horses don't have access to water and have been trespassing on neighboring land.

During the April 20 hearing, Hernandez asked James Leachman who owned the horses, to which James Leachman responded, "I did not buy the horses."

"Then they have no right to be there," Hernandez said.

Seth Leachman argues that Hernandez's order deprives him of his rights to due process and violates his constitutional property rights and contract rights between him and his father to pasture the horses.

"I don't know what arrangements Seth and his father have, I just said remove the horses," Hernandez told The Associated Press on Friday.

The lawsuit seeks a judgment that Hernandez made the ruling without jurisdiction over Seth Leachman, that the order is void and asks for a ruling prohibiting the judge from exercising judicial authority over Seth Leachman.

Hernandez said Seth Leachman has a right to challenge the order. "That's our system," he said.

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, who presided over the lengthy court case involving James Leachman's delinquent debt on his ranches. In 2006, Cebull ordered the federal government to sell Leachman's personal ranch and his company's ranch to pay off his creditors. The ranches were sold last summer.
Source: greenfieldreporter.com - Apr 29, 2011
Update posted on Apr 29, 2011 - 9:07PM 
Yellowstone County Justice Court Judge Pedro Hernandez accepted rancher James Leachman's not guilty plea Wednesday to an eighth primary count of misdemeanor animal cruelty.

The judge then gave Leachman 10 days to move the last of his horses off the Home Place Ranch 16 miles east of Billings.

During an unusual sale drawing international interest three weeks ago, the Bureau of Indian Affairs auctioned more than 800 Leachman horses that had been trespassing on Crow Reservation trust lands on the ranch.

But that hasn't stopped the range wars among some area ranchers.

A year ago, the Leachman Cattle Co., lost the ranch in a federal foreclosure sale to a neighboring family, the Stovalls. The Stovalls insist that Leachman has no right to graze his horses on their land during the year he's allowed to buy back his land.

When Leachman refused to move the trespassing horses, the BIA seized them and sold them April 2 and 3 for $380,365.

During the sale, Leachman's son, Seth Leachman, bid successfully on 66 horses.

His father showed up at Crow Agency three days later with a cashier's check for $33,133, and the horses were turned out on 800 tribal acres that Jim Leachman has leased on the Stovall ranch. The Leachmans also trucked in 10 more horses, according to Yellowstone County Deputy Attorney Ingrid Rosenquist.

But the leased land has no water, so nearly 80 horses are again wandering onto other people's property, she said.

"These horses must trespass to survive," she said.

Leachman has been charged with a total of eight primary and eight alternative counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty for allegedly starving his horses and not adjusting their leg bands used for identification. He can be convicted of a maximum of eight charges, either primary or alternative or a mix of both. The maximum sentence is eight years and an $8,000 fine.

In court Tuesday, Leachman also asked for a 90-day extension on his June 3 jury trial.

"It's a very complicated case. We're starting flat-footed and we have to do an investigation," Leachman said.

The Billings-area rancher is acting as his own attorney. On Friday, Hernandez denied his request for a public defender, ruling that Leachman has "the financial means" to hire a private attorney.

In January, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito brought the initial charges, five primary counts, of animal cruelty, accusing Leachman of not feeding his horses and failing to remove leg bands that were crippling some animals. Two additional primary counts and two alternative counts came in March. The latest counts allege that identification bands placed on a black mare's front legs had cut so deeply that her tissue became bloody and "rotten smelling."

In court Wednesday, Leachman repeated previous complaints that members of the Stovall family are the offenders.

"Last week, the Stovalls had hundreds of cattle on the north end of my lease. The BIA is aware of that," he said.

He also accused his neighbors of trespassing on his ranch in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and said prosecutors are overstepping their authority.

"They don't have any jurisdiction on trust land," he said. "There is almost no written law about access and trespass on the Crow Reservation."

During a meeting Monday with the BIA, Leachman said he offered to fence half of his 800 acres if the Stovalls would fence the other half, but said they didn't show up for the meeting.

Asked directly by Hernandez who owned the horses purchased at the sale, Leachman said, "I did not buy the horses."

"Then they have no right to be there," Hernandez responded.

The judge then scolded both Leachman and the County Attorney's office.

"I'm tired of all the games," Hernandez said, adding that Justice Court will be spending considerable time resolving these misdemeanor charges.

"To this day I don't know why they didn't file felony charges," the judge said.

In January, Twito gave his reasoning for pursuing misdemeanor, rather than felony, charges:

The horses needed immediate help and court cases move faster in Justice Court than in District Court, where felony cases are heard.

The county needed 10 allegedly abused horses to bring one felony count. The county's case now is based on eight horses.

Also, a single felony count carries a lesser sentence, two years and $2,500 fine, than the multiple misdemeanor counts.

Leachman has no prior convictions of animal cruelty, and under Montana law, second or subsequent convictions are generally charged as felonies.

After court Wednesday, Twito said that his office has charged Leachman properly and he disputed the judge's "game-playing" comment.

"The state of Montana doesn't play games and the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office doesn't play games," he said. "We prosecute people and make sure everyone's rights are adhered to in that process."
Source: billingsgazette.com - Apr 20, 2011
Update posted on Apr 21, 2011 - 10:56AM 
Billings-area rancher James Leachman is being denied a public defender.

Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez reviewed Leachman's financial standing this morning and is requiring the rancher to pay for his own defense.

Leachman is facing 14 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty for allegedly starving horses east of Billings. He is scheduled to appear in Justice Court before Judge Hernandez May 27th for a pre-trial hearing. His jury trial is scheduled to begin June 3rd.
Source: ktvq.com - Apr 15, 2011
Update posted on Apr 16, 2011 - 11:16PM 
A bankrupt Billings rancher facing animal cruelty charges asked for a public defender just days after he paid $35,000 to buy back more than 60 of his 800 horses that were seized for trespassing on Crow tribal lands.

James Leachman is accused of not providing adequate food, water and veterinary care for the horses over the winter. He is charged with seven misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty.

Leachman's first request for a public defender was rejected, but he reapplied on Friday, saying all of his property is burdened with mortgages and liens, "rendering it of no value."

Under Montana law, public defenders are available only to indigents " those whose income is at or less than 133 percent of the poverty level.

David Duke, who manages the public defender's office, initially refused to take Leachman's case, but Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez issued a court order.

"We will continue to honor that order, but we understand that Judge Hernandez will formally review that decision," Duke said Tuesday.

Hernandez was ill Tuesday and did not attend a hearing scheduled ahead of Leachman's June 3 jury trial. Public defender Roberta Drew was assigned to represent Leachman and asked for more time to review the case.

Last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs rounded up 804 of Leachman's horses for trespassing on tribal lands. The horses, which authorities said were starving and had been fed donated hay since January, were sold at auction April 2-3. Leachman's son, Seth Leachman, bought back more than 60 of the animals. James Leachman paid for the horses with a cashier's check last week.

Seth Leachman would not say where the family got the money.

While others that purchased horses at the auction hauled them off the Home Place Ranch that James Leachman lost in a foreclosure sale last July, The Billings Gazette reports Leachman just opened the corral gates and turned them loose onto unfenced land they have leased from the Crow Tribe.

Leachman has until July to come up with enough money to reclaim the ranch.

Seth Leachman said the family won't fence off their 800 acres of leased land and wouldn't say when the lease expires.

Under Montana's open range laws, landowners are responsible for fencing out other people's livestock.

If Leachman's horses wander again, there are fewer than 70, rather than 800 to deal with, said Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Director Ed Parisian.

"The horses have feed, they are on a legal lease. The issue is they're not fenced," Parisian said.

The BIA grossed over $380,000 at the auction nearly two weeks ago. Parisian said BIA attorneys have advised him not to release how much is left after the expenses of the roundup, feeding the horses and holding the auction.
Source: dailyjournal.net - Apr 13, 2011
Update posted on Apr 15, 2011 - 11:08AM 
Jim Leachman, representing himself, pleaded not guilty to all 10 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. His omnibus hearing was scheduled for April 12, at 9 a.m. He was released on his own recognizance.

Leachman, who bred cattle in Montana for nearly four decades and turned to horses when his cattle empire collapsed, faces a total maximum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said the charges are part of what may be the largest horse abuse case in Montana history.
Source: billingsgazette.com - Jan 28, 2011
Update posted on Jan 28, 2011 - 6:00PM 
Officials with the Northern International Livestock Exchange said Saturday that the group will act as an unofficial point of contact between the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office and people who want to provide aid for what could be hundreds of starving horses on a ranch east of Billings.

County officials filed five misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty against James H. Leachman on Friday, alleging that he has mistreated an estimated 450 horses abandoned on the former Leachman Family Home Place Ranch.

The horses are spread across about 9,400 deeded acres and about 30,000 acres of leased Crow tribal land. Veterinarians and county law enforcement officials said the horses have little grass, hay or water to make it through the winter.

NILE General Manager Justin Mills said Sheriff Mike Linder asked him Friday night what options were available to care for the horses and if there was anything the NILE could do to help.

While nothing official has been organized, Mills said Saturday that the NILE will put together a list of people who are willing to help and what they can offer.

"We're not much more than discussing things to help with right now," he said. "It's not that we're formally organized, but we can put a list together."

That list of people and aid options will then be passed along to the Sheriff's Office, which is in charge of the investigation.

Mills said the main focus will likely be to gather donations of hay for authorities to take to the horses.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito described the situation as possibly the largest horse abuse case in state history.

Leachman lost the ranch last year in a U.S. Marshals Service foreclosure sale. Neighboring rancher Turk Stovall and his family bought the property, but they don't own the horses.

Stovall said Leachman was supposed to remove the horses last summer after the foreclosure sale, but Leachman said that's not true.

Stovall also said they don't have the grass or hay to support the horses because of their cattle operation.

Anyone wishing to donate hay or offer assistance is asked to call the NILE offices in Billings at 256-2495.
Source: billingsgazette.com - Jan 22, 2011
Update posted on Jan 22, 2011 - 9:50PM 

References

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