Rancher Dan De Vaul cuffed, taken to jail

Rancher refuses probation terms, forcing judge to give him a 90-day sentence

nwilson@thetribunenews.comNovember 23, 2009 

Tenants of Sunny Acres ranch, which houses the homeless, applauded Monday in support of ranch owner Dan De Vaul, who was handcuffed and led away to County Jail after being sentenced to 90 days behind bars for refusing conditions of probation.

De Vaul, 66, who wore a red, white and dark blue shirt and donned a cowboy hat with a feather in the headband, would not agree to terms of probation offered by Judge John A. Trice that would have allowed him to bring his property up to code and not go to jail.

De Vaul was convicted in September of building safety and vehicle storage violations. As part of his sentence on Monday, De Vaul was fined $1,000.

The rancher has long argued that he was unfairly prosecuted. He has said he provides a valuable service in housing the homeless and running a substance abuse program to help people on his 70-acre farm.

Some of De Vaul’s supporters cried and held each other. Others clapped, and one woman yelled out, “We’re with you, Dan,” before De Vaul was escorted out of the courtroom to jail.

De Vaul read a statement in court before his sentence was handed down, saying that the law is open to interpretation and his case ran against public sentiment.

“What I am being told by the public and what I’m being told by the government is 180 degrees apart,” De Vaul said. “By my going to jail, it’s going to be put to a test that if the people have any input to the government, we need to find out if it’s government for the people and by the people.”

In explaining his reasons for sentencing De Vaul, Trice said that De Vaul has “good intentions” but that his argument was confusing the “social issues with legal issues.”

“De Vaul has not been a good steward of the beautiful property he has,” Trice said, adding that De Vaul has consistently ignored county inspectors and “such conduct can only be viewed as irresponsible and arrogant.”

Prosecutor Craig Van Rooyen said in court that he never wanted De Vaul to go to jail and was recommending probation conditions.

Van Rooyen said people living in the barn could have been hurt if a fire started, and that’s why laws are in place to avoid such problems.

“If Dan De Vaul goes to jail, he’s the one choosing that, and he’s not being forced,” Van Rooyen said. “He’s not complying with the law.”

The probation would have required mandatory checks every 45 days to see whether De Vaul was making progress on removing stored vehicles on his property.

The monitoring also would have made sure he wasn’t allowing people to live in his barn without the proper permitting. Tenants are no longer living in the barn, county officials say.

De Vaul — who has operated his facility for the homeless for about eight years — said that other properties in the county are in violation of code but have not gotten the scrutiny that he has received.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Stulberg argued that nobody was hurt, and no harm was caused through De Vaul’s actions, and that his client grew up in a different time when helping one’s neighbors was commonplace.

“This is an oddball criminal case,” Stulberg said. “We’re not talking about drug allegations or someone’s identity being stolen. Nobody was hurt, nobody was harmed, and there were no victims.”

Sunny Acres spokeswoman Becky Jorgeson said that De Vaul will continue to fight the case, and he will appeal. A notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days of sentencing.

“Dan is 66, but he’s a strong man, and he’ll never stop fighting this,” Jorgeson said. “People with good karma on their side will always prevail.”

Several supporters said they wouldn’t have a place to sleep if not for De Vaul. Jorgeson said the ranch will continue operating during the time he’s in jail.

County code enforcement supervisor Art Trinidade said inspectors will require De Vaul’s compliance with code when he’s out of jail, or will clean up his property themselves and bill him.

What’s next in the De Vaul Case

1. Dan De Vaul has the right to appeal his convictions within 30 days of sentencing.

2. If he appeals, De Vaul may post a bail amount of $5,000 (or $500 through a bail bondsman) and be released from County Jail.

3. County inspectors will allow De Vaul to comply with code once he’s out of jail, but if he doesn’t obey, they’ll ensure his property meets code, including physically removing any illegally stored vehicles, and send him the bill.

4. If De Vaul refuses to pay his bill in event of county inspectors enforcing compliance, the charges will appear on his taxes.

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