Minn. man gets 6 months for raid on ferret farm

Published 8:34 am Tuesday, February 15, 2011

DAVENPORT, Iowa — A Minnesota graduate student was sentenced to six months in prison Monday for working with other animal rights activists to carry out a 2006 raid on a farm where dozens of breeding ferrets were let loose.

U.S. District Judge John Jarvey ordered Scott Ryan DeMuth taken into custody immediately, over the objections of his defense attorney. U.S. marshals handcuffed the ponytailed DeMuth and escorted him out of the courtroom at the federal courthouse in Davenport, which was partially filled with his friends and family members.

DeMuth pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism under a deal with federal prosecutors in Iowa. In exchange, prosecutors dropped allegations that DeMuth was involved in a 2004 raid on a University of Iowa psychology laboratory where vandals released 400 mice and rats and destroyed years of research data.

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The 23-year-old teaching assistant and graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota admitted that he “conspired to disrupt and damage the Lakeside Ferrets Inc.,” in Howard Lake, Minn. in April 2006.

Prosecutors said vandals sneaked onto the farm in the middle of the night through woods, cut holes in a fence and opened cages to let ferrets loose. Vandals also tore up cards used to record breeding activity in each cage, and destroyed a net the owner tried to use the next day to recapture the ferrets.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clifford Cronk called the raid “an act of cowardice done under the cover of darkness” that contributed to the farm’s closure months later and destroyed the livelihood of longtime owner Eugene Latzig.

“They were there . . . for some cause they thought was greater than the livelihood of this old man,” Cronk said of those who carried out the raid.

Jarvey declined to order DeMuth to pay restitution, saying he mistakenly forgot to advise him at his plea hearing about that possibility and it wasn’t addressed in the plea deal. Latzig had written a letter seeking thousands of dollars in damages for the lost ferrets and property damage.

The plea agreement specified that DeMuth would get six months behind bars. But defense attorney Michael Deutsch asked the judge to allow DeMuth to serve his time on house arrest or in a halfway house, and to allow him to surrender to authorities at a certain date after returning to Minnesota with his family.

Deutsch called DeMuth “an outstanding young man” who has matured since the 2006 raid and has much to contribute to his community. He noted that friends, students, professors and family members had written letters supporting him.

Jarvey rejected requests for leniency and ordered DeMuth imprisoned immediately. After the hearing, Deutsch called that “an outrage” and said DeMuth was being treated differently than other defendants convicted of misdemeanors routinely allowed to surrender.

“It just shows the punitive, vindictive nature of the proceedings against him,” Deutsch said.

DeMuth’s mother, Laurene DeMuth of Minneapolis, said her son has been treated unfairly and called the government’s actions shameful. She said he pleaded guilty to “cut his losses” and move on with his life, and animal rights was not even his cause.

The Animal Liberation Front had issued a statement in which its activists claimed responsibility for the raid but mistakenly thought they had freed mink, a common target because of what activists consider the animals’ deplorable living conditions. The farm had been used to raise mink in the past and was the site of an earlier raid by activists, but had none on its property at that time. Instead, it was breeding ferrets to sell to pet stores.

Prosecutors linked DeMuth to the crime after authorities raided a Minneapolis home where he was living with other self-described anarchists who were protesting the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008. Investigators seized DeMuth’s computer, and a review of the hard drive found he had searched the Minnesota ferret farm using Google Earth weeks before the break-in.

The ALF statement taking credit for the raid — which Cronk read in court on Monday — was also on his computer.

Investigators seized DeMuth’s diary, and tried to use one 2005 entry in which DeMuth wrote that he was worried about federal scrutiny and that “it’s been almost a year since Iowa” to link him to the university lab raid that caused about $500,000 in damage. DeMuth was 17 at the time of that event, and has denied involvement. His lawyer said the Iowa reference was to a meeting of protesters in Des Moines.

The FBI considers the Animal Liberation Front a domestic terrorist organization, and describes it as a loosely organized movement whose members engage in crimes like vandalism and arson to damage businesses and intimidate their opponents.