by BETTER FARMING STAFF
A farm journalist who was covering the story is among four people facing criminal charges in connection with the removal of sheep from an eastern Ontario farm under quarantine for scrapie earlier this year.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced it had laid charges in connection with the April 2012 disappearance of 31 sheep from Wholearth Farmstudio in Northumberland county.
The farm’s owner, Linda Frances (Montana) Jones, 54, farm writer Suzanne Atkinson, 52, of Warkworth, Grey County raw milk activist Michael Schmidt, 58, and Robert Pinnell, 46,
who co-operates the farm with Schmidt, (see clarification below) face five charges:
• Conspiracy to commit obstruction of a CFIA inspector, conspiracy to transport or causing to transport an animal under quarantine and conspiracy to defraud the public of a service over $5,000 under the Criminal Code; and
• Obstructing a CFIA inspector and transport or causing to transport an animal under quarantine under the Health of Animals Act and Regulations.
According to the CFIA news release, Jones is also facing another charge of obstructing a CFIA inspector under the Health of Animals Act and Pinnell also faces a charge of attempting to obstruct justice and another for obstructing a public officer, both under the Criminal Code.
Jones’ farm near the village of Hastings has been under quarantine for about two years following a positive scrapie test for a sheep that had originated from the farm. Another sheep that died on the farm earlier this year also tested positive for scrapie.
Jones disputed the agency’s findings and protested its decision to destroy her sheep for further testing. She asserts that the sheep were healthy and their destruction not only jeopardized her business but also diminished the pool of the increasingly rare heritage Shropshire sheep breed.
When the CFIA came for the sheep they found a note claiming that the Farmers’ Peace Corp had taken them. In June, OPP found 26 of the sheep on a Bruce County farm, along with 11 ewes. All were euthanized and none tested positive for scrapie. The agency has not yet responded to a question from Better Farming concerning the whereabouts of the remaining five sheep.
Jones, who has repeatedly denied her involvement in the sheep’s disappearance, says today that there is no truth to the charges. “They’ve been saying this sort of thing all along,” she says. “I’m not surprised.”
All of the accused have been requested to turn themselves into the police by today, Jones says, and sign a promise to appear in court on Jan. 23, 2013.
Jones notes that she had been subjected to a search warrant. Police searched the farms of Jones and Schmidt as well as two others in August and seized items such as Jones’ computer and sheep related records from March 23 to Aug. 2. The agency has net yet responded to a Better Farming request to confirm if the people named in the search warrant were the same as those who were charged.
Jones says she welcomes the opportunity to air the saga of her sheep in the courts. “It’s never been just about the sheep,” she says, estimating that the agency has spent close to $1 million investigating the issue. With the charges, the price tag could go “much higher.” In contrast, she says, the agency has not laid any charges against the XL Foods Alberta plant that has been implicated in a massive E. coli outbreak. “Clearly CFIA has a mission and it’s not just the one they purport in their carefully worded press releases,” she says. “They are not pleased with me and obviously showing no signs of stopping.”
She says she still has two sheep on her farm that have been deemed scrapie-free. However, her barn remains under quarantine until she disinfects it. She says she has not received any compensation for the sheep the agency slaughtered. She has previously estimated that she is owed more than $40,000. “It’s not just 31 sheep; they’ve killed 65 sheep of mine,” she says.
While a fundraising event earlier this year helped her to avoid foreclosure on her farm, Jones says that she is once again struggling financially.
Schmidt, contacted today while on the road to Cobourg, says he will issue a statement after he has turned himself into police.
Atkinson did answer a telephone call from a Better Farming reporter but hung up after being asked for comment on the charges.
“I actually don’t know anything about charges,” says Paul Mahon, editor and publisher of Ontario Farmer, a weekly paper serving the province’s farm community. Atkinson is a long-term contributor to the publication and has also provided it with coverage of Jones’ situation. Mahon says Atkinson had not informed him of the charges.
Scrapie does not pose human risk but can have serious impacts on sheep and goats. It is in the same class of disease as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). The disease is federally reportable and can only be detected through tests on brain tissue. The Canadian sheep industry and the federal government have made eradication of the disease a priority because of its impact on export markets. BF
Clarification: Michael Schmidt says in an email today that Robert Pinnell is not a member, co-owner or farm worker on his Durham farm operation.
UPDATE: 7 December 2012
Lisa Gauthier, a Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson, says in a Dec. 6 email the CFIA have executed multiple warrants during its investigation of the missing sheep. She says the agency is unable to release any information regarding those named in a warrant because it is protected by the Privacy Act. “We understand that some individuals may have made the contents of warrants executed at their properties public; this is their choice,” she writes.
Gauthier notes that five of the 31 sheep that disappeared are still missing. The agency’s investigation continues, “including work to confirm what happened to the other five sheep,” she writes. BF
Editor's note: In an email to Better Farming Sunday night Dec 9, 2012 Karen Selick, lawyer for Montanna Jones, disputes CFIA's claim above that five sheep are missing:. "It is in fact erroneous (all 31 sheep have been accounted for)," Selick writes.
Editor's note: Comments have been disabled for legal reasons