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Manslaughter Charge Against Rancher Draws Fire

Manslaughter Charge Against Rancher Draws Fire

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Friends and colleagues are critical of a manslaughter charge against a Benson rancher whose livestock is blamed for a traffic death.

The charges were filed after a woman was killed last month when her vehicle collided with one of Kunzler's Black Angus steers on State Road 30 in northern Utah.

According to an arrest warrant, Kunzler has demonstrated a 30-year pattern of failing to properly contain his livestock, despite repeated requests by law enforcement.

On Thursday, Kunzler appeared in court on one count of manslaughter, a second-degree felony. A judge set a scheduling hearing for Jan. 3. Manslaughter carries a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Kunzler, a longtime member of the Utah Cattlemen's Association and one of Governor Walker's appointees to the state Livestock Brand Board, is "torn to pieces ... absolutely devastated" by the death, said defense attorney Greg Skordas.

Prosecutors claim Kunzler "recklessly" caused the death of Kimberly Johnson, 40, a mother of six from Auburn, Wash., who was in Utah visiting family members for Thanksgiving.

At about 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 27, Johnson was driving with two of her children on state Road 30, west of Logan, when she struck a black steer that had wandered onto the roadway, where the speed limit is 60 mph. Johnson was dead at the scene from head injuries.

Police say the steer rolled up the Subaru Legacy's hood and landed on the roof, crushing it down onto Johnson's head. She lost control of the car, which struck an embankment, rolled onto its top and slid into an irrigation canal.

Johnson's two children who were in the car survived, as did a woman who hit the dead cow immediately following the fatal crash. Two other cow-car collisions occurred in the area in November 2003 and October 2004.

Kunzler was charged with five class A misdemeanor reckless endangerment charges in connection with the accidents' survivors.

Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the cattlemen's association, says animals can be unpredictable.

"If a rancher has made reasonable efforts to contain them, the law has generally come down in favor of the rancher," Tanner said. "We're talking about a large animal with a mind of its own."

Tanner said he has never heard of a rancher charged with homicide as a result of loose livestock.

"It concerns me that it's setting a precedent," he said, noting that many areas of Utah are designated "open range," where animals are unfenced. "It's strictly driver beware, part of the environment."

Utah Highway Patrol troopers who summoned Kunzler to the scene to identify the animal said he appeared unmoved by the woman's death and said he was shocked the steer had escaped the nearby field, according to the charges.

Skordas said Kunzler checks his cattle daily and did what he believed was reasonable and safe. The area is fenced on three sides but not along the highway.

Kunzler's history for having loose cattle was no worse than any other Utah rancher, Skordas said, adding that ranchers don't have absolute control over their livestock.

"Hunters leave gates open, people scare cattle, fences fall down and animals get out," Skordas said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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