Southern Oregon Mining Community Supports Ron Spears at Trial

On Sunday, April 5th, 2009, Ronald Eugene Spears, a long time miner of Canyon Creek in the Josephine Creek Mining District, was involved in an altercation with a large group of individuals driving Four Wheel Drive vehicles. The group entered the mining claim of SWOMA member Cody Nelson, upon which Ron had lived and mined for some great length of time. By day's end, one member of their group, Gary Graybill of Gold Hill, was being transported to a hospital by helicopter after being seriously injured by a shotgun blast and Ron Spears was lodged in the Josephine County Jail. Since that time, Graybill has lost a portion of his arm, while Spears has spent nearly two years in jail awaiting trial.

Ron Spears in much happier times, showing where he took out a rich pocket.

Tales from the Trial
notes by Kerby Jackson

Note: The following information was posted for the benefit of miners at Oregon Gold Hunters and includes some commentary to questions asked, mostly pertaining to mining rights.

Day 1 - Feb. 8th, 2011

We all showed up at 8 AM, but the trial didn't start until 1:30, so come 11 or so we all took off for lunch at the Gold Miner on the corner of 6th Street and M Street. Good food and a good time. (You can't beat having lunch with other miners in a place where you are surrounded by old mining photos and assorted mining trinkets!)

We showed up to the trial in numbers, yellow shirts and all, and we also got the press there. Members of the 9/12 Project and Wake Up America also showed up to support Ron.

The court system was clearly alarmed, because there were 8 or 9 bailiffs roving around us. The volunteer bailiffs were nice guys, but the paid bailiffs seemed to do their best to exert their authority. (Their attitudes did not go over well with us). I had asked Commisioner Cassanelli about this because she also showed up and she remarked that this was by far, the most bailiffs she had ever seen at a case and said that clearly the court had mustered up every bit of manpower they could get.

Inside the court room, Ron was brought out by two armed county guards. He looked terrible and looked to have not had his hair or beard cut in months. I am sure that the jury thought he looked the part of how he has been portrayed by the media.

The prosecutor for the state then began his opening remarks, stating to the jury that this case was not about mining, mining shafts, mining claims or mining law and hinged simply on Greybill's injury. Overall, he came out very strong and there is no doubt that he had the jury convinced that Ron was a madman and guilty of all sorts of things.

The defense opened by stating that the prosecutor had already done of good job of judging Ron as guilty, but reminded the jury that this decision was up to them and that it was their place to decide whether he was guilty as charged, guilty of a lesser crime or not guilty. So far as opening statements go, he came out the weakest.

The state then opened with their first witness, in the guise of the victim, Graybill, who recounted his experience. He is missing his right arm from about the elbow down and waved the stump around quite visibly. There is no doubt that the jury was sympathetic and though not entirely conclusive beyond the fact that he was hit by the blast, some of the photographic evidence that the prosecution presented was quite damnining from the standpoint of garnering jury sympathy. Truth be told, you cannot help but to feel bad for the guy because he has lost most of his arm, lost his job as a master carpenter and his life has changed. Greybill recalled that they had six vehicles and when they approached the claim, the second three vehicles came to a halt, while the first three entered the claim. Graybill was unable to properly recount how they had reached the area. The first two proceeded over the claim. Graybill was in the third vehicle and reported hearing a shot (later confirmed even by all state witnesses to be a signal, opposed to anything intended to hit them) and were approached on the drivers side by Ron who although quite angry with them, held the shotgun in a safe position. Graybill was informed that their party was passing on the claim and were told not to enter for fear of collapsing the old adits. Graybill admits to having responded angrily, telling Ron that he had "only mineral rights" and that they were "allowed to be there". They pulled their vehicle away to look for the other two vehicles. Graybill and his pasenger reached the end of a trail and came to what they were reffered to as a "ravine" (probably an old mining ditch by the description). Graybill exited the vehicle (he was the pasenger and "spotter") to examine the ravine to see if they could pass it. He opened up a can of beer and drank it as he examined the area.  Further behind them, he heard another shot (which Graybill again regarded as a non threatening attention getter). He states that Ron appeared on a "burm" created by a doser scrape and came down the hill toward him at a slow jog. In the meantime, Graybill turned and moved toward Ron, who lowered the shotgun into the pointed position. At this point, it is clear that the two collided and that the barrel struck Graybill in such a way that it left a bruise on the right side of his chest. What happened next is what is open for debate. Ron's statement to the police is that Graybill grabbed the barrel of the gun and pulled on it, while Graybill states that Ron "shot him" at the same moment that he used a sweeping manuever with his left hand to push the gun away. Graybill was hit near the right elbow and goes on to recount the emergency effort and later surgeries. The defense attorney asked a few "softball" questions and failed to capitalize on Graybill challenging Ron's possessory right. That was a mistake, in our opinion, he should have come right out and asked why he defied ejectment from the claim. The prosecuter cross examined, as did the defense. To his credit, the defense asked a few hard questions this time, which clearly proved that Graybill and Ron had exchanged words. The defender also cited several statements that Graybill had made to a detective after the shooting, where in Graybill had stated that he was unsure if Ron had shot had shot him intentionally. Graybill stated that he did not recall this line of questioning from being "out of it" and he was quite combative with the defender, stating that it was always his position that Ron had "shot" him. He continued to defend his theory that he swept the barrel away opposed to grabbing the barrel. (This "sweeping maneuver" does not jibe with us in the mining community and after break, several people commented that the wound did not seem consistant with Graybill's account and that the position of the blast was more in line with Ron's version of Graybill grabbing the gun). Also, it was clear that Graybill had either lacked the sense to know not to tangle with an armed man or was perhaps impaired (he had admitted to drinking, but stated he only drank one beer).

The next witness for the state was Olsson, who was driving the vehicle that Graybill was riding in. Like Graybill, he also seemed clueless on how they had reached the claim. Olsson recounted the events, stating that Graybill had argued with Spears when they arrived on the claim, but even though he was sitting between this argument, he did "not recall" the details apart from Graybill insisting to Ron that they "had a right" to be on the claim. The defense did not cross examine.

The third state witness, was a Mr. Tracy. He was driving the 2nd vehicle and had followed after a Mr. Hood who was leading the party. Like the others, he did not seem to know the way into the area. Hood, he stated, was the "leader" and was not in court because he had committed suicide about a month after the incident. He glared at Ron as he said it, seeming to blame him for Hood's suicide and called Ron "a lunatic". He began to recount how he followed Hood. He stated that Hood had brief contact with Ron, where in Ron instructed Hood that they could not be on the claim. Hood told Spears that they "had permission from the owner" (I assume he was reffering to Cody Nelson, who's family has owned these claims for decades). Ron informed Hood that he was "the operator" of the claim and he ejected Hood and party from the claim. Hood then sped off down the trail moving deeper into the claim, as the witness followed. This witness stated that they had moved roughly 1/4 mile of a mile down the trail, but that Hood was not in view. Finally he came to a point where he saw Hood's parked vehicle. As Hood was not inside and his vehicle blocked the trail, he shut down his vehicle. He recounted hearing two gunshots, one in the distance, followed by another which was much closer some time after. He could not see anyone and did not see the shooting. He stated that within about 20 seconds of the closest shot, Hood and Graybill walked into view. Hood was helping Graybill to a vehicle. He did not know that Graybill was wounded and stated that he assumed Graybill was feeling ill from a tick bite that he had received the day before. He like others in the party, had not felt that they were in physical danger.  The defense began to lightly cross examine the witness and presented a number of photos of the scene to him in an effort to establish the scene of the shooting. The witness stated that they had driven across the "road" that was indicated by a pair of tire tracks in the photo. The defender questioned him as to whether this was a road. The witness said he did and that he had been careful to avoid a pile of pipe on the claim, making reference to "property" several time. Though the defender is a powder puff and was only trying to establish where Mr. Graybill was injured, the witness began to grow rather animated and stated "I am not very well educated, so I do not know the difference between a road and a trail". Upon seeing several other photographic views, the witness grew even more agitated and said "I did not see those claim signs. I would not have went there if I had seen them. I was just trying to get away from Spears' camp". He then turned into our direction and addressed the miners in the audience in a bit of a panic and said to us "Have any of you ever seen me on your property? I know that I am not to go onto mining claims and I stay away from places which are marked by signs. I don't go on your property!"

The judge instructed him that he was not to address the audience.

My impression of his outburst was that the "penny had dropped" and that this guy had just realized for the first time that Hood had led him onto a claim, that they had been legally ejected and opposed to leaving the claim, had actually moved deeper into the claim.

The prosecutor promptly asked to approach the bench and to convene with the defender and requested an evening recess, which was granted.

Ron Spears
Ron Spears displaying a pair of doré bars from his mining efforts.

Day 2 - Feb. 9th, 2011

Back from Day 2. I won't bore you with the details as the day was mostly spent listening to garbled audio and listening to the forensic people talking about how they lift prints. The State has rested and the case against Ron is not looking very strong. Obviously, it has been established that Graybill was hit with a shotgun round from Ron's Remington 870, but it is more or less Graybill's word against Spears that he shot him on purpose. It's also Spears' word against Graybill's that Graybill attempted to disarm him and discharged the round by jerking on the weapon.

The forensic findings on the shotgun were very interesting in that they discovered only one viable print on the gun and ... that print belongs to NEITHER of them (and they don't know who it belongs to!)

The bottom line is, I don't think that it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ron "shot him", just as it cannot yet be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Graybill grabbed the shotgun and he was shot accidentily. That said, things are probably more in Ron's corner in that his multiple testimonies to authorities have been far more consistant than those of the State's witnesses.

I guess we find out tommorrow. I think provided the defender doesn't blow it (and he really did much better today), at the very least, Ron will face less severe charges and possibly be credited with time served. That would not be a victory, but it would certainly be better than the alternative

The real downside of this is that the lives of both of these guys have changed as a result of this. Graybill has lost part of an arm and has lost his livlihood as a carpenter. Ron has spent two years in jail where his health has went downhill and of course, he has to live with the fact that he has changed this guy's life. I spoke very briefly to one of the guy's in Graybill's party after he had left the court room and we both agreed that it was a damn unfortunate thing and should have never have happened. He knows people who know Ron and said "I know that he isn't a bad guy" and it turns out that he knows a guy who is very active in SWOMA. And to take matters further, one of the guys in Graybill's party is now a miner. (And Graybill stated that he had done some mining in the past). The fact is, we are really supposed to be on the same side, as these 4 X 4 people fight equally for their rights as we do and their rights to travel on roads and to keep them open originate through our mining laws. Needless to say, it is damn important that regardless of the outcome, that this isn't used to beat up on all of us and used as an excuse to close everything down.

Ultimately, I think what happened here is that you have two guys who both thought they were in the right and both were willing to stand up for what they thought was right. I think it's damn unfortunate that the two didn't meet under a better circumstance.

As for the why of Ron attempting to halt access on the claim. He repeated over and over again that he was the caretaker for Cody Nelson and was entrusted to protect Cody's interests in regards to a number of degrading adits that honeycomb the claim. These adits are old and are punched into the old channel and consequently, are very dangerous. Ron felt that trucks going over these old adits created a serious safety issue and also potential liability issues for Cody if someone was injured by a collapse. I know Cody and he has mentioned in the past that some of these adits are so old that he won't step foot in them. I also happen to know that Cody isn't a hardass about people on his claim as he once told me that he wanted to find a claim that he could open up to public mining. As he has supported Ron the whole way, it's clear that despite not being the territorial type, he agreed with Ron's ejectment. In fact, I happen to know that he contacted the Josephine County Sheriff's Department with a trespass complaint against the party, which was ignored by that agency.

The Drift Mine into Ancient Channel
This is the entrance of one of the drift mines that Ron Spears did not want the vehicles driving across. 
As can be plainly seen, this is a very old adit punched into cemented gravel and is shored up by old log timbers.

Beyond that, since the issue has been brought up, a claim owner (or his/her agent) DOES actually have the right to stop others from crossing a claim. Though some argue that a claim is Public Land, this is not really the case. A claim is considered Public Domain which is a somewhat different classification from Public Land. Basically, once appropriated through possession, what was previously Public Land is converted to Public Domain and remains so unless abandoned. (Then it goes back to the Mineral Estate and may be re-appropriated).

As Kinny describes it (1912): "Strictly speaking, the term, "public domain" includes all lands the title to which is still in the United States, or in some State, although the right of possession is in individuals or companies".

That's a good, precise definition. 

Further, the actual body of our mining laws (30 U.S.C.) states that the owner has the right to exclusive possession and enjoyment of the surface of their claim and that their possessory rights are as patent.  "As patent" means property rights more powerful than your average private property (most people's homes are under simple warranty deeds which have very little in the way of real rights).

The legal definition of a patent, in relation to land law is:

"a grant by the government of title to public lands"

What's a title?

"The coincidence of all the elements that constitute the fullest legal right to control and dispose of property or a claim"

What is exclusive possession?

Obviously, to possess something is to have something. And if your possession is exclusive, that means it is YOURS, not mine.

So if you have as patent rights and exclusive possession, does anyone else really have the legal right to be there? The answer, is of course, no. Though this may seem on the surface, like a really hard-line position (some say that it's even a myth), it is however, THE LAW and this language is repeated over and over and over again, not to mention THOUSANDS of times in the case laws ranging all the way from State courts all the way up to Supreme Court. There is NO DEBATE about this, regardless of what BLM, USFS, the enviros, attorneys or others say. The language in the law is so simple that anyone can understand it, IF they bother to read it. Don't just take my word for it - go READ it.

And for those non-miners who ARE reading this (I know there are some), this is not a matter of miners being given some sort of special treatment. You see, they are YOUR RIGHTS too. Congress granted these rights to ALL U.S. citizens and those who have declared an intention to become citizens. To enjoy them, all you need is the initiative to take part and claim your fair share. 

But ... that is not to say that someone cannot pass through a claim. Most established roads are public and to some extent, there are a lot of questions on how far that right of way exists around the road and its effect on minerals. Many claims have Public Right of Ways going through them (thanks again to our mining laws) and when these exist, ingress and egress is granted.

But ... at the same time, that doesn't mean that you MUST restrict others. It is yours and you have the right to choose (in this same way, you also have the right to choose to allow others to use your front yard. We just don't do that though, because it doesn't seem "normal".). MOST miners really don't mind if someone is on their claim, but let's face it, they don't want disrespectful visitors either. They don't want people breaking stuff, cutting down trees, stealing their gear, tearing up their road, shooting up their signs or making a mess (most people don't, by the way). So long as people don't do those sort of things, most don't mind if someone is on their claim. 

But at the same time, if you are actually occupying your claim, it's safe to say that you might like the ability to live privately. (That's probably why you'd do it anyway, right?) Much the same way, you don't want people falling down mineshafts or damaging old workings and hurting either themselves or maybe YOU as a result of damage to workings. And if you are really on a visible mineral deposit (like a rich pocket of gold or maybe a nice ledge of high grade copper) you probably don't want people on your claim until you can remove it either. There are undoubtedly, situations where even the nicest miner on the planet wouldn't want others on his/her claim.

In this particular case, even though Ron had the right to be totally unreasonable about allowing access, I think he was being reasonable in light of the situation. For starters, there is no public road traveling through the claim that is necessary to get people from Point A to Point B. The "road" that these guys were on was little more than old trail that led past Ron's camp and right off into a shallow hydraulic cut. That's not a public road. The ONLY thing it leads to is a partially worked ancient channel. That's a placer deposit and that's what we lay claim rights to (locatable mineral deposits, not land, but you are also entitled to the surface, including the use of the water, improvements like ditches, abandoned equipment and also dumps or tailings). These guys wanted to drive around down in the cut, dodge some boulders and crawl the bedrock back up to where the cut reaches the main road (the FS 11, I believe). Obviously, driving your rig through someone's workings or even their tailings can create damage. That's a form of trespass, because those are legally defined as mineral deposits and/or dumps and you can't let people do that. The adits are another story altogether. As can be seen in the photo, these are old drifts into the ancient channel that are braced by rotting timbers. They are probably 75 to 150 years old and I have been told, very unstable workings. Not allowing them to drive over these workings is a very reasonable demand and really seemed to be Ron's ONLY concern. According to his testinomy to police, Ron was willing to show these drifts to the group, along with a copy of the location notice. Graybill responded with "I know the law. I have a right to be here" and they continued on. Graybill admitted to this on the stand, but Graybill clearly didn't know the law and as we all know, ignorance is not considered a defense, even if well intentioned.

So ultimately, what we have is a miner on a claim who has issued an order in an effort to protect the claim (and probably the 4 X 4 ers too). When ignored, he issued an ejectment and regarded them as trespassers. This too was blatantly defied and in fact, challenged. Now they are legally regarded as hostile trespassers. It's a serious thing, because we are talking about a matter for the criminal courts.

And in the end, I have to agree with Kurt, that a little courtesy, a little civility and a little respect would have brought a very different ending to all this.

Day 3, Feb. 10th, 2011

End of 3rd day. Cody Nelson, the owner was the claim, was called to the stand and testified that he did not give the 4 X 4 ers permission to enter the boundaries of his claim. In defiance of the Mining Laws of the United States, as KLDR reported that: "Judge Baker stated the owner of the mine was not allowed to say he did not give the off roaders permission to be on the property." That is an OUTRAGE and clear proof that Baker lacks the knowledge to hear a case involving mining.

Baker also denied a request from the defense for an aquittal.

The defense rested and the prosecutor managed to keep mining law and mining out of the case (a total joke as this was a really central issue). Closing remarks are complete (both attorneys did well, but I thought that Ron's defender had done a good job of shooting a lot of holes into the state's case and had made strong arguments even against lesser charges). 

The jury began to deliberate around 4 PM. As of 5:30 PM, the jury was still deliberating. Someone walking past the jury room could clearly hear a loud debate in the jury room (through the wall), so clearly, the case is not as open-shut as the prosecutor would have liked. Nearing 6 PM, a bailiff told us that the jury had requested equipment to view video and that this meant that they would not issue a decision today. We left.

We should find out tommorrow.

Day 4, Feb. 11th, 2011

The jury weighed in their verdict (one juror abstained from voting) and found Ron guilty of both counts. Spears intends to appeal.

According to reports, Graybill feels no ill will toward Spears.

It is unfortunate that these two men had not met on better terms, as it appears that both men see the entire issue as unfortunate.


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