Related topics

Doctor on Trial for Cow Killings

October 21, 1997

JOHN DAY, Ore. (AP) _ One fine fall day a year ago, Dr. Patrick Shipsey, his wife and two young daughters drove out to their 960 acres to plant grass along a creek that was healing from generations of overgrazing.

When Shipsey saw that his neighbor’s Herefords had gotten inside his fence again, he pulled out his favorite rifle, walked to within 50 yards of the cattle and with calm deliberation, dropped each of the eight cows in its tracks with a bullet to the base of the skull.

Shipsey, who goes on trial Wednesday, said he was less concerned about being caught than in spotlighting an open range law he considers ludicrous.

The law allows ranchers to hold others liable for the welfare of their cattle, no matter where they roam. The concept holds sway a century after its inception in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and parts of Texas.

It goes against much of American jurisprudence, but is well understood in cattle country.

``When you build a fence in this country, it isn’t to keep your cattle in, it’s to keep your neighbor’s cattle out,″ said barber Joe West as he trimmed the hair of John Hays, president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

Cattle still are herded down Main Street in this eastern Oregon town of 2,000. Hays said ranchers need open range to move their herds.

``It’s just the law of the West,″ he said.

The man with the dead cattle, Bob Sproul, sees Shipsey as an outsider threatening a traditional way of life. The two had argued for years over cattle getting through Shipsey’s fence and grazing in the creek bottom he had worked hard to restore.

``They love it here and want to change our history and laws,″ Sproul said. ``Why don’t they just stay away? The cattle and men who own them in these vast areas can’t protect a garden patch.″

Shipsey, a conservationist, is not so different from the locals. Raised in Klamath Falls, a community in southwestern Oregon, and in cattle and timber country like John Day, Shipsey feels a strong connection to the high desert.

Though his hair falls to his shoulders and his musical taste runs to rocker Neil Young, he owns 20 guns and breeds wolf-dog hybrids. Driving 80 miles from his home in Baker City, he goes to work at his medical practice here in a plaid shirt, jeans and a pair of moccasins with the toes chewed out by his dog.

People still remember that Sproul had his own day in court in the late 1950s. He was charged with murder for killing his brother-in-law, Link Williams, in a dispute over a road Sproul used to move cattle. The jury acquitted him after he testified that Williams fired first.

Shipsey expects no such understanding when he argues that he acted after Sproul repeatedly refused to round up his cattle.

Shipsey has been shunned in this town. His own patients say he was wrong to shoot the animals. Many left, and the lost income forced him to sell the land he defended with a gun.

If convicted of the 11 felony counts stemming from the deaths of 11 cattle _ he’s accused of killing three other animals in 1995 _ Shipsey could be sentenced to up to 55 years in prison and lose his medical license, as well as his guns.

His lone regret is that he shot the cattle as state residents were about to vote on a measure to force ranchers to fence their cattle out of streams that fail to meet federal clean water standards. Already headed for defeat, the measure was trampled.

Yet Shipsey appeared at ease as he rocked in a chair in his office.

``It’s just a matter of looking at the big picture rather than what is going to happen to my savings account,″ he said. ``The worse it goes for me, the more ridiculous that (open range) law is going to look.″

Update hourly