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Joel Rice, right, listens as his attorney Wes Williams makes a point during a hearing Thursday regarding Augustís Glass Hill Road cattle shootings. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
Criminal mischief charges dropped, animal abuse charges to move forward
Visiting Judge Lung S. Hung approved dismissing first-degree criminal mischief charges against Dr. Joel Rice pursuant to a civil compromise Thursday afternoon.
After hearing about five hours of testimony and arguments, Hung, a circuit court judge out of Malheur County, found that animal abuse charges are not subject to a civil compromise, but agreed to sign an order dismissing the criminal mischief charges.
Rice, a La Grande psychiatrist, was charged with seven counts of criminal mischief in the first degree, five counts of aggravated animal abuse in the first degree and two counts of animal abuse in the first degree.
Defense attorney Wes Williams argued to the court that Rice, who is accused of shooting cattle on his property on Glass Hill Road in August 2013, had already reached a settlement with the three cattle owners affected — Mark Gomes, Ted Mudd and Irwin Smutz — by paying $47,500 for their losses. The cattle owners and Rice also signed an acknowledgement of satisfaction with the compromise on Sept. 3.
Wes Williams said the documents indicate the cattle owners do not wish to prosecute Rice. Mona Williams, the Wallowa County district attorney and prosecutor of the case, said allowing the animal abuse charges to move forward would not violate that settlement because the cattle owners are not pushing the charges, she is.
Wes Williams also argued that the community could face repercussions if Rice were convicted of a felony and lost his medical license. Witnesses pointed out that he is the only psychiatrist in La Grande with admitting privileges at Grande Ronde Hospital and that he is the only doctor in the region who can prescribe suboxone, a drug used to help addicts wean off heroin and other opiates. The defense attorney also pointed to Rice’s farm near End Creek, which was restored to its more natural state and is used by students for study.
Mona Williams argued that dismissing all charges ignores a second set of victims — the cattle — who, she said, suffered pain before eventually dying. She said if they had been killed humanely, in the head, that they likely would not be in court.
Following the finding, Mona Williams said she thinks the decision sets a good precedent for animal abuse cases because if he had dismissed the charges, she said, that would open the door to civil compromise for owners who abused their own animals.
“I think that he made the right decision,” she said.
Mona Williams said she will seek to find a resolution in the case before taking it to trial.
“That’s not our goal — to go to trial with every case,” she said.
Defense attorney Wes Williams said he will file the order to dismiss the criminal mischief charges and noted that the judge’s decision did not consider guilt or innocence.
“The judge did not make a decision regarding guilt or innocence,” Wes Williams said.
Williams also said the settlement agreement and acknowledgement of satisfaction signed by cattle owners and Rice should be honored.
“People ought to settle their own differences without the government interfering,” he said.
The next court date for the case has not been set.