Crying fowl

Wildlife activists claim that the managers at Samuell Farm Park are abusing the land, its animals, and anyone else who gets in their way

This incident was the final straw for Brunson, who says he is through with Samuell Farm and will not be submitting a bid to renew his city contract. "As long as Doug's out there, we don't want to be out there," he says. "They've worn us down and chased us out."

Meanwhile, Culp and the rehab volunteers were also feeling unwelcome. Melton sent a memo to the center accusing volunteers of leaving gates open. He changed the locks without telling them and began enforcing a by-the-book policy, insisting that all volunteers be off the premises by 10 p.m. Park department Director Paul Dyer denied a petition from Karen Outland, the newly placed director of RWRC, for occasional 24-hour access to tend to sick, injured, and baby birds. Melton also required all rehab volunteers to keep a copy of their driver's licenses and insurance cards on file with the farm. The Civil War re-enactors, however, who came out to the farm to practice roughly two weekends each month, never received such a mandate, and the farm has no driver's licenses or insurance records on file for them.

In October, Pat Melton, a former Dallas broadcast journalist and nature lover (and no relation to Doug Melton) joined the rehab volunteers. She began bringing her teenage children, who were fulfilling school community-service requirements, to the farm each weekend. She was appalled by the animal problems she saw and by the stories she heard.

On December 2, she filed a complaint with Donna Blumer, her city council representative, about unfed animals and a lack of hay. Eight days later, Doug Melton called Pat to assure her that everything was fine, that the animals were being well cared for every day. Dyer also sent her a written response the same day, reiterating the farm manager's claims and adding, "We are pleased to announce construction of new public restrooms and a maintenance barn."

"It's interesting, then, that only 10 days later," Pat Melton wrote in a complaint delivered to the park board in January, "we saw empty feed troughs, green standing water in the water troughs...no hay for bedding, and animals standing in six inches of mud. Such conditions are not indicative of recent daily care." She sent her son to Wal-Mart to buy a disposable camera. "At first I assumed someone would be along later in the day to remedy these situations. But after subsequent visits, I noticed that this type of care was the norm, not the exception."

After a call from Ralph Mendez to assure her again that the animals were fine, Pat Melton visited on January 3 at 12:30 p.m. It was below freezing, and the water troughs were frozen over, ice unbroken, which meant that water was unavailable. She discovered a large sheep lying on its side. The downed ewe's legs were twitching. She paged Mendez, unsuccessfully, and then reported it to a trail-ride staffer, who informed Dale Johnson of the problem. Pat Melton followed up with Doug Melton two days later. He assured her that she was mistaken about the frozen water. The ewe, the farm manager told her, had a low body temperature and would have to be put to sleep.

She went back to the park board with her photographic evidence of dead and dying animals. Mendez took issue with her accusations, as did rookie park board representative Ralph Isenberg, who interjected that as a real estate developer, he was familiar with staged pictures and said that the photos looked staged.

Alienated by their attitude, Pat Melton began calling other agencies--the USDA, the SPCA, the EPA, and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. She also introduced herself to the city of Dallas fraud investigators.

Officials in the city auditor's department had already been tipped off about some possible misdeeds involving the Sons of the Old West gunfighters. In the sleeve of his notebook labeled Samuell Farm, senior investigator Hector Collazo has a business card for the "volunteer" group. On the front is a picture of Melton, Johnson, and other farm employees dressed in their Wild West best. Bold letters on the back spell out "GUNS FOR HIRE." The card indicates that the group has been in business for three years and lists the Samuell Farm phone number and an 800 number paid for by the city.

A separate investigation was already under way. Thanks to a hot-line call from Kathy Rogers, the Dallas Police Department's Public Integrity unit was asking questions of John King, the assistant farm manager.

For low-level criminals sentenced to perform a certain amount of community service, Samuell Farm is a court-approved site for working off those hours. Dallas police caught John King allegedly trading community-service hours for computer equipment for the farm. The police have since turned the case over to the district attorney, who plans on presenting evidence to a grand jury in March. Paul Dyer, however, insists the case is closed. "Since it wasn't for personal gain, they [the police] looked into it and told him he shouldn't be doing that."

But at least a few people say Samuell Farm's system of barter justice was well known among the "hooligans," as farm employees called the 200 or so people sent there by the courts each year. Four years ago, Bill Wilson was sentenced to 24 hours of community service. He had already been volunteering at Samuell Farm with his 9-year-old daughter, so he was excited when he learned it was a court-approved place. A portrait photographer by profession, Wilson did leatherwork as a hobby. "Doug Melton told me he needed some holsters for the gunfighters, and that he could sign off my hours for them," says Wilson. "I made a couple of real nice ones for him." Melton denies any involvement with Wilson. "I don't remember that at all. That never happened. It wasn't me," he says.

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