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Rancher's conviction on gun charges upheldTell North Platte what you think
Photo by Terri Davis graphic

A Sheridan County rancher’s appeal that he had the right to carry a gun was rejected Wednesday.

Rudolph "Butch" Stanko, convicted of a scheme in the 1980s to sell meat rejected by inspectors, appealed his federal conviction of being a felon in possession of a firearm last year to the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals. He had received a six-year prison sentence.

Stanko argued that he was allowed to possess guns because the scheme he was convicted for was a white-collar crime.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judges Steven Colloton and Raymond Gruender disagreed and issued a decision upholding Stanko’s conviction. The majority ruled that Stanko’s earlier conviction, for violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act, was primarily related to public health not business practices.

But in a separate opinion, Judge Myron Bright dissented.

Bright argued that a person who has committed a felony may still own a gun if that person’s felony relates to certain business crimes. He said the law congress passed was “unconstitutionally vague” and lacked Congressional guidance, leaving a class of people who may possess a firearm without the threat of prosecution undefined.

Bright argued that everyone, Stanko included, enjoy the right to live under a system of laws that defines the criminal offense with sufficient clarity so ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited.

“Stanko should not be convicted under a statute that is so uncertain as to its meaning,” Bright wrote.

Stanko believes he was railroaded

Stanko, a western Nebraska rancher, was convicted of gun charges and social security fraud in U.S. District Court in Omaha in 2006 and was sentenced to six years in the Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas. He believes the Omaha jury didn’t understand that guns are simply tools of the trade for a Panhandle rancher. He thinks he deserved to have his arguments heard by jurors more like him.

Stanko asked to have his trial in North Platte’s federal courtroom instead of Omaha’s, but he was turned down. His lawyer says the denial was part of built-in bias the court system has toward the eastern end of the state.

Stanko’s rights were violated, the attorney says, and so are the rights of all western Nebraskans.

A cowboy needs his guns

Stanko is from Sheridan County. His argument is that a rancher and cowboy from the rural Nebraska Panhandle needs his guns as tools.

Stanko's firearms charge grew out of his troubled relationship with a woman who moved onto his property in Sheridan County. The woman, who was a prisoner when she and Stanko began corresponding, accused Stanko of being abusive.

The woman's teenage daughter ultimately called law enforcement officials, saying she feared for her and her family's safety, and turned over weapons that she said were in the home.

Stanko believes those guns are part of his heritage. Some had been in his family for many years.

Stanko first became a felon in 1984 for his role in a tainted-meat controversy at his family's now-defunct Cattle King Meat Packing Co. He and the Colorado-based company were implicated in a scheme to sneak rejected meat back into the plant without having it checked by federal inspectors, work the adulterated beef in with other meat and then sell it to unsuspecting customers.

Last year, the Omaha jury found Stanko guilty of being a felon in possession of seven guns.

But Stanko believes a jury made up of western Nebraskans might have seen things differently.

Roger Roots, a Montana attorney who is defending Stanko, is appealing the conviction.

Roots said there are vast political, social and cultural differences between eastern and western Nebraska.

Roots said rural people are more tolerant of gun ownership and possession than urban dwellers, and they are less trustful of government management of their lives.

Roots said the basic assumption of federal law is that a defendant is entitled to be tried by a jury of his peers, drawn from population groups and geographical areas most likely to mirror the community in which the offense was allegedly committed.

“One of the historic virtues of a jury selected from the community is ‘acquaintance with local conditions, customs and mores,’” Roots said. “In some cases, local standards govern, making it important to obtain jurors who have had to time to become familiar with the community.”

Roots and Stanko requested a change of venue from Omaha to North Platte four times. They were denied and the trial was held in Omaha.

That meant Stanko’s witnesses and family had to travel roughly 500 miles to the trial, Roots said. Many could not make it.

“I was not able to testify because Omaha is too far away and there was no money for expenses,” Stanko’s daughter Catherine wrote to her dad October 29, 2006.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to Omaha for your trial,” wrote Stanko’s mother Betty to her son in 2006. “The distance was just too great. It is almost a 900 mile round trip from Gordon and at my age, I just couldn’t travel that far.”

“I would have been more than glad to testify in your behalf,” wrote Ralph Stothheid to Stanko. “If it could have been held in North Platte, I could have driven there without missing any work.”

Roots said moving the trial to North Platte, 280 miles closer to the community where the alleged crime happened, not only would have reduced the burden on Stanko and the defense but that it was unconstitutional to deny him the venue change.

Roots said Stanko was tried by an unlawful jury and wants a new trial.

“Rule 18 required that federal courts perform an analysis of ‘the convenience of the defendant and the witnesses and the prompt administration of justice,’” Roots said. “Stanko submits that the government’s systematic prosecution of all criminal cases only in Lincoln and Omaha mocks and defies the purpose of the change of venue and makes the Eighth Circuit’s Jury Plan in the Nebraska District a hollow form of words.”

Gem to the bar

There are only three federal court locations in Nebraska – Omaha, Lincoln and North Platte.

Federal law eliminated six federal courtrooms in western Nebraska in 1955. Courtrooms used to exist in McCook, Norfolk, Chadron, Grand Island and Hastings. Congress clearly wanted to consolidate federal cases arising in the immense western Nebraska region into one courtroom – North Platte.

The North Platte federal courtroom serves 40 western Nebraska counties – 43 percent of the total counties in the state but just a fraction of the population.

The courtroom, located in the federal building above the post office, has been in operation since 1964. Before that the federal courtroom was located in the old 1913 building, which also housed the post office.

In 1997, the federal court had a North Platte Committee to be sure the federal courthouse was being used effectively. Minutes from the meeting show that committee members referred to the courtroom as a “gem to the bar.”

Former North Platte attorney John Gale, now secretary of state, told the committee it would “be a real loss of access to justice” to lose it.

In 1997, the U.S. Attorney said they planned to have an assistant U.S. attorney located in North Platte to try criminal cases, according to the minutes of October 1997.

But there is no record of a North Platte committee after 1997. In fact, there have been no federal criminal cases tried here since 1995.

The last criminal case tried in the North Platte federal courtroom was the conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine trial against Merle A. Dack. Dack was charged with conspiring to distribute between 10 and 40 grams of meth in June 1994.

P. Stephen Potter was on Dack’s defense team and said he thought it was “important” to hold the trial here.

“All of our witnesses were here,” Potter said. “I felt he wouldn’t stand a chance in Omaha where he would be just another number.”

The trial began May 15, 1995 and lasted two days. A verdict was returned in less than two hours. Dack was sentenced to five years imprisonment and four years supervised release by U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf.

No criminal trial has been held in the federal courtroom in North Platte since, nearly 12 years.

Potter said one reason fewer trials are held here is that fewer trials are being held everywhere. Instead, more and more defendants reach plea bargains.

“With federal judges able to exercise more discretion in downward departures from mandatory sentencing guidelines, defendants take advantage of the departure and cooperate,” Potter said.

In April 2005, federal agents and the North Platte police rounded up 10 local suspects in North Platte for the sale and distribution of methamphetamine. All 10 were sentenced to federal prison to a total of more than 80 years combined.

The number of criminal and civil cases tried in the North Platte courtroom has diminished over the years.

According to North Platte attorney Leonard Vyhnalek, the concerns about the reduction in cases litigated in North Platte has been around for nearly 40 years.

From the Bulletin’s records, there have been at least 23 federal criminal indictments issued for Lincoln County cases since 2003. None of those cases were arraigned or tried in North Platte.

The U.S. District Court Clerk’s office said other issues affect decisions to hold hearings and trials in North Platte.

Therese Bollerup, chief deputy clerk, said that the North Platte courtroom does not have all the technological features available in Lincoln or Omaha, although they’ve tried to keep it updated.

“In the past, the U.S. marshal’s office expressed concerns with the security available at the courthouse and the lack of criminal facilities for detention available in the area,” a clerk’s office spokesperson said.

“In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s office has previously voiced logistical concerns to the court concerning the assignment of criminal cases to North Platte,” the spokesperson said.

“In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s office has previously voiced logistical concerns to the court concerning the assignment of criminal cases to North Platte,” the spokesperson said.

Criminal trials can be held in North Platte on a motion to change venue, according to the U.S. District Court Clerk’s office. But the clerk’s office also said the courtroom is only staffed during trial sessions since no judges or magistrates are permanently assigned to North Platte.

Chief Justice Joseph F. Bataillan said security issues prevented holding criminal trials in North Platte whenever a defendant is in custody. He said the small holding area plus other security concerns just did not make criminal trials for defendants in custody feasible. He said criminal defendants not in custody could make a motion to change venue and the request would likely be granted.

The clerk’s office could find only one motion to change venue to North Platte since January 2002 but said there could be more because the database query only searches the docket sheets, not the motions.

A court’s denial

To Roots, that explanation doesn’t hold water since he and Stanko alone filed four motions to change the venue from Omaha to North Platte last year.

Roots said the Nebraska District’s current “systematic circumvention” of the North Platte courtroom denies western Nebraskans their constitutional right to serve on federal juries, attend federal proceedings that impact them and to witness public trials.

Roots said the trend in the 8th Circuit and nationwide has been to consolidate federal trials in urban areas.

“The transition to three – and now merely two locations in practice – has made federal courts less accessible for western Nebraskans,” Roots said. “The two eastern locations are virtually the same from a western Nebraskan’s perspective.”

Roots said Stanko’s witnesses had to face a two-day trip, extended lodging and hundreds of dollars in fuel, meal and other travel expenses to attend his trial.

“He would have suffered less prejudice if he had been tried in the federal courthouse in Cheyenne, Wyo., Denver, Rapid City, S.D. or even Bismarck, N.D., which was closer than Omaha,” Roots said.

Roots said there was “no question” that had Stanko been tried in North Platte, he would most likely have been acquitted.

The Lincoln County Bar Association said the courthouse in North Platte was a “great asset” to the community and the Third District as a whole because it allows residents access to the federal courts without having to travel to Omaha or Lincoln.

The association encouraged residents to take the opportunity to attend a trial at the federal courtroom in North Platte to see the judicial system at work.

Stanko in the headlines for years

Rudolph G. “Butch” Stanko was sentenced to six years in prison in 1984 for violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Court papers show that his Cattle King Packing Co., which operated in Denver, Nebraska and Wyoming, routinely processed animals that were dead before arrival, hid diseased cows from inspectors and mixed rotten beef that had been returned by customers into newly packaged hamburger.

Stanko, then 36, had already been convicted on similar charges two years earlier, yet the U. S. Department of Agriculture continued to buy 18 million pounds of Cattle King's meat for the National School Lunch Program.

At one point, according to court records, a quarter of all ground beef served to America's schoolchildren came from Stanko's plant. Stanko’s company grossed more than $200 million in one year.

A 1983 investigation by NBC News brought the case to the nation’s attention. The report also said Cattle King's facilities were infested with rats and cockroaches. The plant closed its doors and went out of business in 1984.

While serving federal prison time, Stanko wrote “The Score,” an intensely anti-Semitic book that detailed how Stanko's meatpacking corporation was destroyed by a Zionist conspiracy. The 389-page screed includes such topics as "Zionism;” "The Sanhedrin" and "Who Rules America." It concludes with a reprise of notorious anti-Semitic tract, “the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” The book became a cult favorite among white supremacists and brought Stanko to the attention of Ben Klassen, head of the racist Church of the Creator.

In 1990, Klassen appointed Stanko to be his successor, the church’s pontifex maximus.

Stanko was released from a federal penitentiary in December 1991 but was arrested shortly thereafter for speeding in Nebraska. He was also charged with obstructing a police operation, criminal mischief, and driving with an expired license. After being taken to the local jail, Stanko reportedly wrestled with officers while they attempted to inventory his property during the booking procedure. He was then taken to a hospital, where he broke a light fixture with a crutch. When police entered his room, Stanko allegedly tried to assault an officer with the crutch.

Shortly after these incidents, it became clear that Stanko would not be taking over the leadership of COTC. Another man was appointed.

Stanko entered a plea bargain agreement in October 1993, then was sentenced for destruction of property and speeding.

Stanko had claimed publicly that he left the COTC. After Klassen’s death, the Montana Human Rights Network reported that Stanko obtained the inventory of books and literature of the Church of the Creator.

By 1996, Stanko’s "Creator Publishing" was running full-page ads for Natures Eternal Religion, White Mans' Bible, and other books by Klassen in Resistance, the glossy magazine of the white-power music scene. The full-page color advertisement included Stanko's Montana address.

But Stanko never strayed far from the public eye. Living in Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, Stanko continued to challenge the law.

In 1998, Stanko successfully challenged Montana's basic rule speed limit law that required motorists to drive in a “careful and prudent manner,” which at the time was Montana's only daytime speed limit.

He also went before the Montana Supreme Court and unsuccessfully argued that as an ordained minister in the white supremacist Church of the Creator, he should have been allowed to preach to fellow inmates at a Lewistown jail and at the state women's prison in Billings.

In 1996, Stanko sought to overturn a Montana law that required certain cattle buyers to have a state livestock dealer's license. Both federal and state courts rejected his arguments.

In Wyoming, Stanko made the news for seeking $180,800 from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for what he said were 198 cattle killed by grizzly bears. He also asked the state for permission to kill grizzlies and wolves on his son's grazing allotment.

In June 2000, Stanko was arrested on charges stemming from an altercation in which he allegedly handcuffed a woman to a staircase and refused to release her.

In 2006 Stanko was found guilty in Nebraska for opening a bank account using the Social Security number of a 3-year-old Wyoming girl. Evidence showed Stanko had federal tax liens against him, motivating him to avoid using his true Social Security number.

Source - A Special Report by the Center for New Community, the Montana Human Rights Network, and the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 6/24/2007
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