Men say they thought signs were posted by anti-snowmobilers
Four Wyoming snowmobilers, charged with removing boundary signs at the entrance of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, then driving away when uniformed U.S. Forest Service officials tried to stop them, pleaded innocent in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Wednesday.
Walter Tom Phipps, 43; Ryan A. Eskeli, 26; Vince J. Kalkowski, 32; and Paul J. Leroux, 31; all of Cody, entered the innocent plea through their Missoula attorney, Thomas Orr.
On April 2, the four men were ticketed and fined $500 each for operating a vehicle within a national forest wilderness area. John Janek, a USFS officer, said the men admitted to riding their machines to the Goose Lake Overlook north of Cooke City, according to their federal violation notices.
After hearing and seeing snowmobiles inside the wilderness, Forest Service officers Janek and Larry McGee blocked the way when the machines were leaving the area and tried to wave down the four men. While the men slowed initially, they then accelerated away, wrote Janek.
Officers were able to catch up to Phipps, but the other three men kept going.
Phipps, who owns a snowmobile dealership in Cody, said eventually he recognized law enforcement insignia on the sleeve of one of the officers, although their snowmobiles were unmarked, and stopped. The other three men continued to the trailhead east of Cooke City.
The area in question was closed with five signs posted on stakes about a half-mile from the overlook.
The men told officers they removed the signs because they'd previously ridden in the area and thought the signs had been erected by an anti-snowmobile element.
"We looked at these signs and said, 'How can this be? We were riding here just last year,' " said Koslowski.
Phipps and Koslowski said they were told that notice of the closure was posted in Cooke City, but the men said they wouldn't have been aware of them since they entered the area from Wyoming to the southeast.
That's disputed by Special Agent Duane Moe.
"They knew exactly where they were and what they were supposed to be doing and not doing," he said. "This was just another malicious act to violate a federal regulation."
In an interview after Wednesday's court hearing, Orr said his clients do not admit any wrongdoing.
"They assert that they are innocent of all this," he said. "The facts will prove this."
U.S. Magistrate Leif Erickson consolidated the four cases and set a jury trial for May 30.
Reporter Mick Holien can be contacted at 523-5262 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.