Corner-crossing defendants wait for their trial to begin in Rawlins on April 27, 2022. They are Phillip Yeomans, second from left and partly obscured; John Slowensky, foreground in the front row, Bradly Cape, second from left in back row and Zach Smith, right. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Four Missouri hunters who successfully fought criminal and civil trespassing cases after they corner crossed to hunt public land in Carbon County described disbelief, shock and fear experienced during their nearly three-year ordeal.

They didn’t set out to prove a point when they stepped through the airspace above a corner of the Elk Mountain Ranch to hunt public land beyond. They never expected to be criminally cited because they never set foot on the 22,045-acre Carbon County property.

They were scared and sweating as they stood before a Carbon County jury that then declared them not guilty. Then billionaire ranch owner Fred Eshelman sued them in civil court, claiming $7.75 million in damages for devaluing his property.

They stalked elk in 2020 and 2021 across some of the 6,000 acres of public land enmeshed in a checkerboard of square-mile parcels on Elk Mountain Ranch. In corner crossing, they stepped across the point where two public parcels and two private ones met, all without touching the private land.

“The message to the public is: ‘It’s your land.’”

Bradly Cape

It’s unsettled whether corner crossing is illegal, so the cases could influence public access to 8.3 million acres of public land considered “corner locked” across the West.

The hunters, from the day they set out from Steelville, Missouri three years ago, held that Eshelman can’t block the public from the public land that’s just a step away, keeping its bounty to himself.

“The message to the public is: ‘It’s your land,’” said Bradly Cape, one of the hunters who owns a fence building company. “It’s your land — go hunting and don’t be bullied.”

The 2020 hunt

During a hunting trip to Wyoming in 2019, Cape, his employee Zach Smith and Phillip Yeomans, a military veteran and traveling mechanic, took a side route past intriguing Elk Mountain. The peak rises to 11,156 feet, its ridges and draws climbing above sagebrush and hayfields in a sweeping pine-clad ascension. 

The 51-square mile ranch, including public and private land covering Elk Mountain is “equivalent to a national-park like landscape,” according to a real estate agent’s description posted before Eshelman bought the ranch in 2005. The land, littered with arrowheads, is home to 950 elk. History took place there, too. Big Nose George Parott’s Powder River Gang murdered two lawmen on Rattlesnake Creek in 1878, a shootout that lead to his vigilante lynching on Rawlins’s Front Street.

The odds of drawing a license for Elk Mountain Hunt Area 125 were good, too, in part because of the preponderance of private land and a longstanding practice of deterring corner crossing.

Elk Mountain along Carbon County Road 400. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Driving around the mountain in 2019, “we ran into a local elderly lady that said they had problems with the elk getting in their hay piles,” Cape said. “She talked about how nobody goes up on the mountain because the rich guy won’t let them.”

As the owner of the airspace above his property at the corners, “we should have control of who crossed the private land,” Eshelman, a North Carolina pharmaceutical businessman, said in a deposition. The hunters, however, believe an 1885 federal law prevents him from blocking the public from corner-crossing.

Back home in Missouri in 2019, “nobody could fathom that crossing without touching land could be an issue,” Cape said. Yet, the real estate listing stated that two settled lawsuits “protect the ranch from public access.”

Cape found both suits irrelevant.

“There was no such case,” he said. “There really wasn’t a law against it. It was just people’s opinions.”

So the three men set off for Wyoming in 2020, planning to corner cross in bishop-like chess moves from public to public sections. They would use the onX Hunt GPS app to locate corner monuments, then cross without touching Elk Mountain Ranch.

From their camp on public land just off a county road they could see their first corner in the sagebrush a few hundred yards away. Two fence T-posts and no-trespassing signs straddled the common point of federal sections 14 and 24 and private sections 13 and 23.

Ranch manager Steve Grende had erected the T-posts a few feet apart from one another on the private parcels and chained them together about chest high. Sticking out of the ground a few feet under the chain, a monument about the diameter of a soda can bore a cross marking the infinitesimally small point common to the four sections.

The men grabbed the posts, swung around them, and went hunting.

The mother of all corners

One hundred forty-two years before the three Missourians crossed their portal, surveyor L. M. Lampton and his crew set a granite cuboid about the size of two shoeboxes to mark the corner. A single notch faced east while three notches marked the face looking south.

Regardless of whether Lampton was nervous or rushed — he heard the Powder River Gang’s murderous fusillade eight days earlier — the stone marked a point that would never change. The marker stood until 1967 when federal surveyors replaced it with a thick stake topped by an inscribed brass cap. They buried the original stone beside it.

Camo-clad, the hunters in 2020 stepped over the threshold, breathless for a chance at a wary, six-point, 700-pound ungulate that would yield 150 pounds of meat. By the end of their hunt they downed three elk, one five-point and two six points. They quartered their animals and stepped and swung their way back to camp.

The first corner the hunters crossed was marked by T-posts chained together, signs and a survey monument. (Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers)

Grende encountered them and said they had trespassed. Authorities showed up.

“You’re invading the airspace,” Deputy Roger Hawks said. But, “I can’t say anything’s going to come of this.”

“There was no citation,” Cape said. “They told us we were good to go.”

Before they returned in 2021, this time with John Slowensky, Cape’s brother-in-law, the fence builders went to their shop.

“We got pieces of pipe and started laying them out on the floor,” making two A-frames,” the beginnings of a ladder, Cape said. “Then we discussed how wide the steps needed to be. We welded … and we had ourselves a stile.”

They built the portable structure “so we didn’t have to touch the T-post,” Cape said. They only needed it at the first corner and laid it down nearby.

The group spent several days in 2021 hunting with bows and then rifles, had new confrontations with Grende and were questioned by a game warden and sheriff’s deputy.

Grende lobbied for authorities to act, asking the lawmen: “do they realize how much money my boss has … and property?” A game warden wrote a report, and Grende took his case to County Prosecutor Ashley Mayfield Davis.

“At that point we had our own knowledge and research,” Cape said, “plus we had the law tell us that what we were doing was good. We all are faith-based men and tried to do what’s correct.”

Prosecutor Mayfield Davis ordered criminal trespass citations. “We never thought we were gonna get cited until we did,” Cape said.

Each faced a misdemeanor charge of trespassing, counts that carry sentences of up to six months in jail and $750 in fines. That brought a reckoning.

“We actually considered for a fair amount of time whether or not we would fight it,” Yeomans said. “We’re not attention hounds.”

An avenue opened, however, as Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers launched a fundraising drive for their defense. Podcaster Steven Rinella advanced their cause on The MeatEater.

“Things just started falling in place,” Yeomans said.

Facing Carbon citizens

Summoned back to Wyoming for their misdemeanor trial in the spring of 2022, the Missouri four faced 58 potential jurors during voir dire. Lottery drew the citizens from towns that saddlebag the Continental Divide, separated by the North Platte River and stretching from the Seminoe Reservoir to a 12,015-foot Snowy Range summit.

They assembled in Rawlins, a windburned interstate crossroads of western agriculture and energy development, home to the state penitentiary and Frontier Prison. A few of the prospects could have ridden out of pages of “The Virginian,” Owen Wister’s Western set a half-day’s ride up the trail in Medicine Bow.

Carbon County Circuit Court Judge Susan Stipe confers with a clerk while 58 members of a jury pool were excused from a temporary courtroom where they were being questioned for bias during the jury selection process in April 2022. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./ WyoFile)

Many wore jeans. There were rodeo belt buckles, embroidered snap-button shirts, hoodies, Filson vests, Carhartts, Stetsons and Resistols. Some had on work boots, others battered tennies, high heels. There was a skirt, a tie. Judge Susan Stipe silenced a blabbermouth, dismissed a rancher with corner-crossing entanglements. One prospective juror didn’t believe in a defendant’s right to remain silent. 

“It was pretty intimidating having all those people watch you,” Smith said.

What would Carbon County justice look like to this pool?

“You could sure tell the ones that you didn’t want on the jury,” Cape said. Looking at the sea of faces, he wondered: “do these people think I’m a bad guy?”

Prosecutor Mayfield Davis opened the trial saying, “In life there are boundaries everywhere.” Hunters’ attorney Ryan Semerad likened Eshelman, a hunter himself, to a feudal lord claiming “the king’s deer”  when that wildlife actually belonged to the state.

After two and a half days of trial, the jury of six — “good, normal people,” as Cape saw them — began deliberating. Faster than a hungry man could eat a taco salad from Rose’s Lariat café down the street, they returned with a verdict.

“My heart was in my throat and I was sweating like crazy,” Slowensky said.

The suspense debilitated Yeomans. “I couldn’t think,” he said.

“You’re standing there in a room full of people in front of a judge and a jury of your peers and you don’t know,” Cape said. “It’s scary.”

Slowensky had come to some peace before the hunters’ acquittal of all charges. “People know who I am in my heart,” he said, “and [that] I would never put myself in a knowing position to ever do anything wrong or, especially, illegal.”

$7.75 million in damages

While they were facing the criminal charges, Eshelman filed a civil suit against the men, claiming their corner crossing caused $7.75 million in damages by devaluing his property.

“That was a shock to me,” Cape said about the civil filing. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”

“My worry at that point was we’re gonna have to go through this all over again,” he said. The potential penalty, “it scared some of the others but it never scared me. It was an unrealistic number.”

A federal judge on May 26 granted most of the hunters’ summary judgment dismissal requests against Eshelman’s suit. The ranch owner owns the airspace above his property, Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl wrote, but that ownership comes with some restrictions.

“Where a person corner crosses on foot within the checkerboard from public land to public land without touching the surface of private land and without damaging private property, there is no liability for trespass,” he wrote.

A survey marker at a common checkerboard corner near Elk Mountain Ranch. (James Hasskamp)

The checkerboard runs in a band 20 miles on either side of the Union Pacific rail line across much of Wyoming, a relic of the railroad grant era. Skavdahl’s decision has implications for public access to 8.3 million acres across the West that are considered corner locked by any interpretation that corner crossing is illegal.

Those implications have yet to shake out. Attorneys and observers anticipate an appeal of Skavdahl’s decision and the hunters will continue to fight, they said. Resolution of that would be necessary before the case sets a precedent across states in the federal 10th Circuit — Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Utah.

The legal wranglings “just instilled a bigger trust in how it all works,” Yeomans said. The hunters don’t hold a grudge, they said.

“We understand [Eshelman’s] point as far as wanting to protect what’s precious to him,” Yeomans said. “We respect his private property. That was the intent of the ladder.

“There’s no animosity,” he said. “I’ve got no ill will toward Mr. Eshelman or his team of lawyers.”

Eshelman’s attorney did not respond to a request for an interview with the landowner.

Cape remains curious about the gulch separating the parties. “I would still like to meet Fred and just sit down and talk with the guy.”

The case drew national interest, and Cape said credits the support it engendered with helping the hunters.

“We stood up for ourselves a little bit in the beginning,” Cape said, “but we would have never been able to do it without support.”

When you’re on the right side of something and win, he said, “that’s the way that America is supposed to be.”

This article used as reference court records, Government Land Office documents and “Big Nose George; His Troublesome Trail” by former Wyoming State Archeologist Mark E. Miller.

Correction: This article has been updated to exclude Montana from the list of states in the United State Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. It is in the 9th Circuit —Ed.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at or (307)...

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  1. It’s the appropriate time now to have the BLM to collaborate with outdoor organizations to delineate corner crossing sections that would best suit the public’s needs. Contract surveyors to do it in each state that contains the checkerboard system, two crews for each state. One crew starting on the eastern border, one crew on the western border of the state, sound familiar. Allow 30 ft. of easement at each of these corner sections to allow vehicle access to public lands. Cattle guards would also be needed. Kudos to Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl for his integrity for upholding the law in this state.

  2. Even though “ownership” of airspace must be mentioned in a legal document secluded somewhere, the concept itself is nebulous and requires reassessment. From the standpoint of NATIONAL security, I can understand a nation claiming such, but not so a private individual.

  3. I applaud the hunters the jury and the judge for his decision. The public land is public land. This greedy rancher who illegally has been blocking access to the public for decades, has not paid any taxes on that land as the public has been paying taxes to carbon county. I feel the legislature needs to put an automatic right of way where public land touches public land. I ran into an elk hunter years ago hunting from his truck as he is disabled. The Missouri hunters built a Latter and crossed I don’t think the general public Will do that and how does the disabled Hunter get to his property. I feel an automatic at least 10 foot easement on all these corners so we can drive our trucks and take our campers to our land.

  4. My take on Mr. Eshelman is not as charitable as Cape’s. Anytime someone is trying to take possession of something that isn’t theirs, I consider it theft. Mr. Eshelman knows he doesn’t own the public land in question or it’s wildlife, yet he attempted to deny reasonable use to those that do. If it was totally landlocked, that becomes a sticky issue. But in this case it wasn’t landlocked at all, yet Eshelman attempted to deny access. If the shoe was on the other foot, and someone was denying him access to property that belonged to him, I can only imagine the hell he would rain down until access was granted. It’s a perspective the ultra wealthy landowners need to consider. Further, it’s an issue the legislature needs to make crystal clear.

    1. Unfortunately, the Wyoming legislature is largely composed of these very landowners, that think they own public land by controlling access to that land. I do agree that the legislature should make it clear that blocking access to public land will equal jail time, not just fines.

  5. What a nightmare… I can’t imagine traveling hundreds of miles to hunt on PUBLIC, AMERICAN-owned land, then being harassed and sued for participating in an American tradition. It’s not just the cost of hiring an attorney, travel, lodging expenses and so forth, it’s three years of worrying that a trip to Wyoming would ruin them financially as well as the wear and tear on their psyche. The lawsuit-loving landowner should reimburse these men for the hell he unnecessarily caused them.

  6. Mr. Paul Burke, every time the Eshelman team suffers a big loss, you come on wyofile acting like you guys won. You didn’t and your 5 suggestions to the Missouri hunters hold no water other then giving us something to laugh about. Here’s a ‘suggestion’..just one, for you: 1) give it up

  7. Kudos to these hunters, the judge & jury! No public ground should be denied to us by rich landowners, especially out of state owners who don’t even live here. Congratulations! I am looking forward to seeing how this all shakes out!

  8. A lot of bad guys involved here that were never held responsible for their actions. Ranch Manager Grende, who illegally placed barriers at the property corner, also illegally harassed the hunters (where were you, Game and Fish, ss 23-3-405 ?). A corrupt and bought n’ paid for County Attorney who filed the bogus trespass charges, Fred Eshelman himself for orchestrating this charade and can’t forget realtor James Reinhart (who sold ranch to Eshelman) with his kooky and false listing description that “2 previous lawsuits absolutely made corner crossing illegal” just to make a sale and can’t forget the judge throwing out Reinhart’s silly affidavit professing that the public accessing landlocked BLM would “devalue the Elk Mountain Ranch by millions”. Yep, a whole bunch of nefarious characters and state agencies that were never held liable. We won’t forget who the bad guys are. Viva the “Missouri Four” !!! HOT OFF THE PRESS! Just read Paul Burke’s comments. Paul, looks like you’re a mouthpiece for Eshelman. My advice is, you lost, lost big and apparently you don’t know it. It’s over and again, you LOST

  9. I was arrested at the Coatesville VA for protesting against John Kerry. Cuffs, backseat of cop car, holding cell. Friendly officers looked for the least serious charge in the book. Posting an unapproved notice on Federal property; $25 fine. Appeared before a Federal Magistrate (personal friend); guilty!! Found a local lawyer to appeal from Constitutional protection of free speech. Five appearances over 7 years finally acquitted. Huge laugh after ten years: Dept of Treasury billed me for $41 ($25 fine and $16 costs). Congressional representative’s office got me a personal telephone call from Treasury apologizing. Illegitimi non carborundum.

  10. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Where will the stockgrowers side on this ? Times are changing. Public land users are being attacked, they need the ally in the hunting/fishing corner on their side. If ranching and extractive resource groups would propose voluntary access points or corridors through their deeded ground to public ground, that would further validate the 1885 law. If BHA and TRCP were to take a more conservative stance, we would all be pulling in the same direction. The new BLM rule will negatively impact every one who utilizes public land. Thank you for the outstanding reporting.

  11. I agree that the air space issue cannot be grounds for trespass charges otherwise every floater fishing through private property would be trespassing!

  12. seems to me that the hunters went looking for trouble.
    there were a # of things they could of done to avoid trouble.

    1) hire a local guide
    2) called & asked for permission to corner cross.
    3) got a dear/elk tag for a different region,plenty of good hunting through the state.
    4) stay at elk mountain hunting lodge & hunt all they wanted.
    5) stay in missouri & hunt,plenty of good hunting in the ozark mountains.

    1. Paul, you’re missing the point. It’s public land. They had no reason to avoid it, or pay to use it, it’s theirs (and yours too).

      1. Nathan your on the bullseye 🎯 and the 7plus $ million the rancher wanted was what he tried to take illegally from the American taxpayers , total arrogance of wealth entitlement on display and attempting to bribe the court

    2. The public land is our land and we should not be locked out. The ranch owner new the risks of buying that ranch at its inflated price because of this issue. He lost and we as citizens won.

    3. Paul, I mean Fred. You seem to forget that
      1. This still doesnt change the corner crossing argument, and is expensive
      2. Eshelman isnt a person you just call up and ask, he wants exclusive use of public lands and charges thousands to do so.
      3. Why cant they hunt on public land?
      4. This is thousands upon thousands of dollars, for 4 people its probably approaching 6 figures.
      5. This land belongs to the American people, why cant they hunt here?

    4. Paul. Use common sense for once. Average person can’t afford the guide scam. I figure all the game I hunt now comes out to about $25 a pound now. Paul thru this whole thing you have come up with hare brained things to say. Most of us hunt for the challenge/exercise/enjoyment. It really not that easy to drop elk or deer moose etc. This public land everywhere belongs to all of us. Not select few. It is our right to use it. Just as it is your right not to choose to. But don’t criticize the ones who choose to use it.

    5. Paul, let me address your ideas.
      1) A great idea for the rich. Won’t work for others.
      2) Should Eshelman ask permission of the BLM to corner cross public property?
      3) Why should they hunt another area? They hunted public land where they wanted.
      4) See #1 above.
      5) So we should ask all tourists to stay home. Ok. Got it!
      Paul, you obviously have abundant financial resources most others don’t, as many of your suggestions require a lot of money. The rich will always have an endless number of options that money can buy. Keep in mind that access to public lands isn’t about them.

      1. I notice Mr. Burke runs and hides when his ideas are addressed rationally. If you believe in your opinion you will defend it. Left seldom addresses any thing rationally/logically

    6. my bad.
      no such thing as a dear tag,i meant to say deer tag.
      the only thing i must of been thinking of is some guys in the platoon used to get dear john letter’s.
      never got 1 myself.