In the paperwork, I learned the investigation into the Utah mink releases involved informants, cell phone records, search warrants, and more.
This article uses the case against Alex Hall and William Viehl as a case study in the anatomy of an Animal Liberation Front indictment: the evidence, and the lessons learned.
#1: Car key left at the scene
The most damning evidence was a car key found in the grass at the McMullin Fur Farm the morning after the raid. The key was later matched to Viehl’s vehicle. Viehl would later say the key had fallen from a shallow pocket while he was releasing mink.
#2: Cell phone records
The second most damning evidence against Viehl – and nearly the only evidence against Hall – is cell phone records placing them (or more accurately, their phones) near the mink farm in South Jordan around the time of the raid. Cell phone company records allegedly recorded the signals unique to each phone “pinging” off nearby towers before, during, and after the time of the mink release.
It should be well known at this point that every cell phone regularly broadcasts a signal which pinpoints the location of a phone. This leaves a nearly permanent record of the times and places of one’s travels (or at least the location of one’s phone). Cell phones also function as roving microphones, which can be turned on remotely and can pick up all conversation within earshot of a phone’s mouthpiece – even when the phone is turned off.
An informant named “Sarah”, believed to be planted in the Salt Lake City animal rights movement by the FBI, was revealed in the paperwork. She attended animal rights meetings, protests, and the Confronting Cruelty conference in the spring of 2008. Paperwork refers to her only as “CHS (Confidential Human Source)”. However, those familiar with her were able to determine her identity from details in the paperwork. Salt Lake City activists remember her as asking a lot of inappropriate questions, and taking extensive notes at meetings. FBI paperwork shows she provided information on numerous individuals in the local animal rights movement.
I can personally verify the existence of “Sarah”: she befriended me at an animal rights conference under the pretext of seeking help for starting a dog rescue in Guatemala. “Sarah” would later take me on an all-expenses paid weekend trip to Moab, Utah in the fall of 2008.
At least two other individuals consented to interviews with the FBI. The information obtained did not appear to aid the FBI’s case, but that in no way mitigates the seriousness of forfeiting your constitutional rights by talking to law enforcement.
#4: Being ID’d near mink farms
The pair had been stopped by police near Utah two mink farms in the weeks following the McMullin release.
Late one night in October 2008, a mink farmer who had stayed up all night to watch her farm (after two mink releases had occurred in the previous 6 weeks) in Hyrum, UT, followed a car she believed was suspicious. She claims the car pulled over after a short while, and approached her asking why she was following them. The farmer called police. Viehl and Hall were allegedly ID’d as the occupants.
Two weeks before 7,000 mink were released from the Lodder farm in Kaysville, Hall and Viehl were allegedly stopped by police near the farm. The officer alleged there had been burglaries in the area, and believed the two were casing homes. A subsequent search of the vehicle allegedly turned up ski masks and wire cutters.
#5: Warrantless bank record search
Without a warrant, Viehl’s bank turned over bank records showing (again, allegedly) Viehl hired a locksmith to open his vehicle in the days after the McMullin raid. Because a car key fitting Viehl’s vehicle had been found at the scene, this was used by the prosecutor to further indicate guilt.
#6: Vehicle search
The FBI obtained a search warrant to search a vehicle associated with Viehl. The key left at the mink farm was allegedly found to match the vehicle.
In the end, the car key found at the scene and cell phone record placing the phones near the farm the night of the raid provided the most incriminating evidence. The cell phone records are practically the only evidence being used in the (still pending) case against Alex Hall.
While evidence left at a scene and cell phone records cast one under a serious cloud of suspicion, they alone do not conclusively place the defendant at the scene. Evidence such as keys can be planted by the actual culprits to incriminate others, and cell phones being near a crime scene do not prove their owners were. However the supplemental, circumstantial evidence of the pair being ID’d near mink farms may have proven to be the deal-breaker in this case – or at least it provided much less wiggle-room in mounting a defense.
The indictment against William Viehl and Alex Hall is a combination of unfortunate errors and dumb luck on the part of fur farmers and the FBI. The evidence provides insight into the mechanics of FBI investigations, and how activists are apprehended for saving animals.
y future liberators learn from this case, and stay free to fight another night.
William Viehl plead guilty to the McMullin Fur Farm liberation, and in February was sentenced to two years. At the time of this writing, he is in transit to California, where he will serve his time at a low security prison in Terminal Island. Check back soon for a mailing address.
Alex Hall has plead “not guilty” and is still fighting the charges, with the flimsy cell phone records evidence being the only substantial evidence against him.
Alex Hall Inmate #2009-06304 Davis County Jail 800 West State St. Farmington, UT 84025