Almost two years after a massive raid on the properties of Arcata rancher Ray Christie, his case is in the hands of a jury.
Jurors, after hearing a nearly two-hour argument by the defense and a terse rebuttal by the prosecutor, began deliberating late Wednesday on whether Christie is guilty of animal cruelty and leaving cow carcasses within 150 feet of state waters.
Defense attorney John Cogorno told the jury that, as he predicted at the beginning of Christie’s trial, the prosecution offered nothing but a gory picture show.
“No samples were taken from any cattle,” Cogorno said. “Not one cow was seized. Not one cow was removed. Not one cow was treated.”
Officers from the 11 agencies participating in the search “were there to look, to video and to take pictures.” Their aim was simply to prosecute Christie, Cogorno said, not to help animals in distress.
Christie’s business consisted of buying sub-par animals and then restoring them to health, then reselling them. He doesn’t always succeed.
“That’s where the problem is,” Cogorno said. “If you’re caught with a neglected animal that you rescued, you’re in deep trouble. Ray Christie takes the financial risk … to rehabilitate these animals into productive beef or dairy cows. He is a target. He is a perfect target of law enforcement.”
Christie buys up to 40,000 cattle a year, Cogorno told the jury. A lot of them are “sub-par and some of them are not going to make it. He tries. He has a financial stake.”
If not for Christie rescuing these animals, he said, the previous owner “would euthanize them and bury them on their property.”
According to the evidence, Christie did not bury dead animals but left their carcasses to rot in and near waterways on his many properties throughout the county. One pile at his ranch on Jackson Ranch Road contained dozens, if not hundreds, of dead cattle.
Cogorno showed drone footage of some of the properties, telling jurors the defense paid $7,100 for the film to prove there are no longer carcasses and bones on Christie’s land. He cleaned up the remains as soon as it was dry enough to get a vehicle on the property without it sinking in the muck, Cogorno said.
Cogorno stressed the “reasonable doubt” standard for conviction. At one point he started to offer his own definition of reasonable doubt, but Judge Christopher Wilson stopped him.
According to witness Brandon Horn, Christie’s employee, an unknown truck driver dropped off a load of live and dead animals at Jackson Ranch Road just a few hours before law enforcement arrived on March 19, 2018. Cogorno said none of the animals were necropsied so cause of death could be determined.
“Was it the defendant (who caused the death) or was it the prior owner?” Cogorno asked. “There’s no evidence that Mr. Christie did anything to harm cattle. That would be against his financial interest.”
Cogorno cautioned jurors about “counting witnesses,” as he only called two: the person who took the drone footage and Horn, who offered the defense of cattle being dropped off in the middle of the night.
“There was no need to put on any more than two witnesses,” Cogorno said.
Deputy District Attorney Adrian Kamada called numerous witnesses, including a state veterinarian who said up to 90 percent of a Christie herd he viewed was “very thin to dying.”
“The government witnesses gave an opinion,” Cogorno told jurors. “You don’t have to rely on it if it’s not supported by the evidence.”
As he has previously, Cogorno brought up the possibilities that dead cattle ate poisonous plants, were attacked by wild animals or were not Christie’s animals but had wandered onto his property.
Cogorno pointed out numerous times that cattle die all the time, have for “thousands of years.” “How would Ray Christie know that this cow was down at this point in time?”
He placed the blame on someone who might have seen the cow but didn’t use “common sense” and call Christie to let him know.
The defense attorney reserved his harshest criticism for sheriff’s livestock Deputy Travis Mendes, maintaining Mendes had been out to get Christie since he took the livestock job in November 2017.
He said Mendes knew Christie always attended the Wednesday livestock auctions in Fortuna, and “he knows he buys sub-par cows. He’s watching him. Watching him. He’s going to show Ray Christie who’s the boss.”
Cogorno suggested it was Mendes who caused the death of a birthing cow and calf by pulling on the calf’s protruding hooves and causing “internal damage.”
Mendes had testified it was Brandon Horn and his wife who pulled on the calf’s hooves. Cogorno went so far as to suggest that Mendes was somehow involved in Christie’s cattle escaping from his property. Mendes testified he was called out numerous times on reports of escaped cattle, particularly on property on Crannell Road.
“Shortly after he became the livestock deputy he keeps locating suspiciously loose cattle,” Cogorno said. “There was no evidence of any loose cattle previously.”
He also accused the deputy of evidence-tampering, suggesting Mendes placed a blue plastic eartag (which Christie used) next to a photograph of a cow skull. Mendes also took a photo of a cow carcass that had been dragged to the bank of the Mad River.
Upon close examination, Cogorno said, it can be seen that a leather strap was not wrapped around the animal’s leg but lying on top of it.
“Very suspicious,” Cogorno said.
During his roughly 10-minute rebuttal argument, prosecutor Kamada said Christie’s main defense seemed to be “those are not my cows, those are not my eartags … that’s not my cow, but if it is my cow it’s healthy.”
Kamada referred to a photo of one emaciated cow, which was too weak to stand up. A state veterinarian said the animal was almost dead and had no access to food and water. Cogorno has said that if officers would have followed up, they may have found that cow in good health.
“That is amazing,” Kamada said, “to come in and say it’s healthy.”
Kamada asked why the defense hadn’t called the mysterious truck driver to testify. He or she could verify that a load of cattle was dropped off overnight on the Jackson Ranch Road property.
If the truck did come in, Kamada said, Christie was in his house 100 feet away.
“If this is your business, you would notice.”
“How is Ray Christie supposed to know he’s got cows sick or dying?” Kamada asked. “You go there and check on them, or you hire enough people to do that.”
As to Cogorno’s claims about Mendes and his personal vendetta, “when you can’t talk about the facts you attack,” Kamada said.
Christie had a “wait and see” approach to dealing with dead animals, the prosecutor said. Wait and see until the land dries out. But his properties “get inundated every year,” Kamada said.
“The defendant fails to take any responsibility, the arguments are without reason. And I’m going to ask you to follow the law and go back and render a verdict of guilty.”
The jury was expected to begin deliberating again this morning.
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