While lobbying two law officers to cite four hunters with trespass for corner crossing last fall in Carbon County, Elk Mountain Ranch Manager Steve Grende asked the lawmen, who were reluctant to charge the hunters, how much their supervisors knew about his boss.
“Do they realize how much money my boss has … and property?” Grende said.
A sheriff’s deputy eventually charged the four hunters with criminal trespass, setting off a cascade of legal activity over corner crossing — stepping from one parcel of public land to another at a four-way, checkerboard-pattern intersection with two private parcels. The hunters assert they never set foot on private ground.
The hunters have pleaded not guilty and public-land access advocates have donated almost $70,000 toward their defense. Grende’s boss, through his holding company, filed a related civil suit seeking legal fees and potentially other damages, and the hunters’ attorneys have sought dismissal of the criminal charges. The deputy county prosecutor asked a judge to add alternative trespass counts as the whole legal affair has blossomed into a closely watched test case about access to, and exclusion from, some 1.6 million acres of public land across the West.
Nothing in the flurry of developments, however, has answered Grende’s question.
But a WyoFile investigation shows that in addition to owning some 23,277 acres in and near Elk Mountain Ranch, Fredric Neville Eshelman has a history of multi-million-dollar philanthropy, a long track record of conservative political donations, a complex inventory of land transactions in Carbon County — including the donation of several conservation easements — and a willingness to litigate.
The North Carolina businessman, whom Forbes estimated had a net worth of at least $380 million in 2014, came onto the Elk Mountain scene in 2005 when he bought the ranch that covers much of the 11,156-foot wildlife-rich peak. Because of the checkerboard land ownership pattern, the ranch blocks public access to some 6,400 acres of federal and state property under any interpretation of trespass laws that make corner crossing illegal.
One real estate listing described the ranch as covering “an area of more than 50 square miles,” which would be some 32,000 acres. The property was listed for $19.9 million, apparently by the pre 2005 owners. Court rulings, the listing stated, give the ranch owner exclusive access to the enmeshed public land, much of it in isolated mile-by-mile sections.
Don’t fence me out
Despite ranch manager Grende’s urgings, the Game and Fish and Sheriff’s officers who met with him last Oct. 1 did not cite the four Missouri hunters who were camped nearby. In a 16-minute conversation recorded on Sheriff Deputy Alex Brakken’s body camera, he and Wyoming Game and Fish officer Jake Miller explained their agencies’ positions to not cite people who corner cross.
Wyoming Game and Fish Commission policy shuns trespassing-to-hunt-charges in corner crossing cases. Wardens are to refer the matter to the local county attorney, Miller explained in the video. Brakken opined that corner crossing was not automatically a criminal trespass citation but would be considered by County and Prosecuting Attorney Ashley Mayfield Davis.
Several days later, however, at Davis’s behest, another deputy returned to the roadside camp on public U.S. Bureau of Land Management property and wrote the four men up. He cited hunters Zachary Smith, Phillip Yeomans, Bradly Cape and John Slowensky for criminal trespass, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum six-month sentence and $750 fine.
The hunters allege that Grende illegally harassed them while they were hunting on public land, but only they face charges. A trial is set for April 14 in Carbon County Circuit Court in Rawlins and could include a trespassing-to-hunt violation prosecutors seek to add against three of the defendants.
Even as the corner-crossing case was developing, the financial resources to fight a legal battle emerged as a key issue. Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers launched a GoFundMe campaign so the four could make their case in court without regard to their wealth. “We feel it imperative to not limit the scope of the legal proceedings to the financial resources of the defendants,” Wyoming BHA stated in a position paper.
Despite Grende’s assertions that his boss’s wealth, power and influence perhaps should play a role in stimulating a criminal case, Davis stated in court filings that her decision is based on a long-held policy. “The idea that corner crossing is illegal…has been a consistent policy of the Carbon County Attorney’s office at least since 2008,” she wrote.
Meantime the Elk Mountain Ranch owner, Iron Bar Holdings LLC — which lists Eshelman as its manager — sued the hunters in Carbon County District Court, bringing Eshelman’s resources to bear. Iron Bar seeks a declaration that the four Missouri men trespassed and asks for damages such as attorneys’ fees and costs.
‘Can’t look at hobbles’
“When I drive onto that ranch, it’s like a transformation,” Eshelman was quoted saying in a 2016 article in Triangle Business Journal. Among other pursuits out West, he told the publication, “I like to hunt mountain lion.”
Neither Eshelman’s company, Eshelman Ventures, nor an attorney representing him responded to WyoFile messages seeking an interview. A person answering the phone at Elk Mountain Ranch would not comment on the corner crossing case and another call to the ranch was not returned.
A successful career as a pharmaceutical industry entrepreneur after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1972 appears to have given Eshelman and Iron Bar Holdings the means to buy Elk Mountain.
University accounts, Forbes and other sources sketched the following career. Eshelman earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Cincinnati and graduated from the Owner/President Management Program of Harvard Business School.
Eshelman founded consulting firm Pharmaceutical Product Development in Maryland in 1985, and thus launched a successful, independent and lucrative career in the drug and health business. PPD went public and eventually sold for $3.9 billion in 2011, Forbes reported.
Eshelman also founded Furiex Pharmaceuticals in 1998, which sold in 2014 “in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately $1.1bn” Pharmaceutical Technology wrote. His current enterprise Eshelman Ventures is an investment firm focusing on healthcare companies.
Eshelman gave nearly $38 million to the pharmacy school at UNC through 2014, according to Forbes. That year he pledged another $100 million to the institution, which is now named the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. The university bestowed an honorary doctorate on him in 2017.
He’s also donated millions to conservative Republican candidates running for federal offices. In the 2008 election cycle he pumped $5.5 million into Rightchange.org, Eshelman’s “527” tax-exempt organization “formed primarily to influence a political election,” according to Open Secrets.
That public interest coalition tracks Federal Elections Commission reports and other public sources, like the IRS, that hold information regarding political contributions. The 2008 election contributions, which included $1 million from the president of PPD, launched “a barrage of attacks against Democrat Barack Obama during his presidential campaign,” Open Secrets stated.
From 2009-2010 Eshelman was the second top individual contributor to “outside money organizations” involved in elections during that period, donating $6.3 million, Open Secrets reported. Since the 2008 election cycle, Eshelman and PPD contributed at least $28.5 million to conservative and Republican federal political candidates, according to calculations made from the watchdog group’s website.
‘Where the West commences’
In Wyoming, Eshelman and Iron Bar Holdings executed a series of ranch purchases, sales and conservation easements starting in 2005 across tens of thousands of acres south of Interstate 80 in Carbon County
After buying the Elk Mountain Ranch in 2005, Iron Bar expanded its holdings, purchasing more than 7,000 acres from the McKee family in 2006. That property lies about 4 miles east of the Elk Mountain Ranch.
In 2007 Eshelman’s name appeared for the first time as president of the Basin Ranch Co., according to reports filed with the Wyoming Secretary of State. The Basin Ranch lies about 5 miles south of the Elk Mountain Ranch, abuts the Medicine Bow National Forest and appears to cover almost 12,000 acres, according to Carbon County property documents
The Basin Ranch borders a federal parcel that the Office of State Lands and Investments and water developers have identified for exchange to Wyoming. That swap would give Wyoming a holding inside the national forest to enable construction of the West Fork Reservoir above the Little Snake River in Carbon County.
In 2008 Eshelman signed three documents donating conservation easements in Carbon County to the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust. They cover about 22,438 acres across the Basin Ranch, the McKee Ranch and the Vickers Complex and preserve the tracts from substantial development, property documents show.
If voluntarily donated, a conservation easement “can qualify as a charitable tax deduction on the donor’s federal income tax return,” the Land Trust Alliance explains.
A story published in High Plains Journal in 2009 quotes Eshelman describing the goal of the easements.
“Ranch lands are vital to preserving open space and view sheds for future generations,” the Journal quoted Eshelman saying. “Development that occurs throughout the west [sic] is not an option. Continued agricultural operations and conserving the ranch lands for wildlife are a primary goal…”
Eshelman and his companies appear to have sold most of the holdings outside Elk Mountain Ranch since filing the 2008 easements. In December 2021 Eshelman signed a warranty deed turning over Basin Ranch property to Silver Spur Land and Cattle Co., a Colorado corporation owned by the John Malone family, estimated to be the largest private landowner in the U.S. Basin Ranch Co. dissolved at the end of last year, corporate papers show.
In 2021 Eshelman sold the McKee Ranch to trusts associated with Michael and Kerri Abatti, who list a California address. The conservation easements remain with the properties Eshelman and his companies deeded away, still protecting them from development.
The many transactions leave Iron Bar with the Elk Mountain Ranch, site of last fall’s corner crossing
‘Just turn me loose’
After officials cited the four hunters, and after they pleaded not guilty in Carbon County Circuit Court, Iron Bar filed its civil complaint in Carbon County District Court seeking, among other things, damages from the four hunters.
“To the fullest extent,” Iron Bar said, “the Court should require Defendants to pay the attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses incurred by Plaintiff in this litigation, as may be allowed by law.”
Because of where the trespass is alleged to have occurred, the court should penalize the defendants even more, the suit suggests. “The Court should provide other just and appropriate relief to the Plaintiff, the premises considered,” the complaint states.
The businessman and ranch owner is not a stranger to litigation. In 2019 he won a $22.3 million jury verdict in a defamation suit against Puma Biotechnology, an award since reversed on appeal and returned for a new trial on damages alone.
Eshelman also sought a variety of damages in 2020 in a suit filed after he donated $2.5 million to an effort to overturn Donald Trump’s loss in the presidential election. Eshelman had donated that amount to True the Vote, a Texas-based group, his suit states.
True the Vote “had organized its Validate the Vote 2020 effort to ensure the 2020 election returns reflect one vote cast by one eligible voter and thereby protect the right to vote and the integrity of the election,” the suit states. Widespread reporting about numerous efforts to overturn the presidential vote results has found no significant violations of election integrity.
By dismissing several of its own lawsuits, True the Vote failed to live up to obligations made in exchange for his “conditional gift,” Eshelman’s suit contends. Eshelman shifted court venues, a law firm representing True the Vote stated.
“[A]fter the attorneys representing both Eshelman and True the Vote had a conference with the federal judge, who cast doubt on his claims, Eshelman voluntarily dismissed that case and immediately filed the identical case in state court,” the Bopp Law Firm said in a post.
Meantime Eshelman seeks to “be by myself in the evenin’ breeze … listen[ing] to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,” as the song about the wide-open West goes.
Many of the hunters’ backers on social media see his high-noon showdown as one that could resolve the unsettled corner-crossing issue.
As of Thursday, Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ GoFundMe campaign had raised $68,905 to support the hunters’ day in court in the hope that someday they, like Roy Rogers, might “wander over yonder … underneath the western skies.”