Four years after an armed confrontation with a federal agent, a prominent Linden-area farmer agreed to plead guilty Monday in a deal that allows him to escape prison time.
Andrew Watkins, 49, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of assault of a federal officer and will have to pay a fine of $10,000 to $25,000 and remain on federal probation for four years under the deal, which still faces approval by U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan. Watkins also is prohibited from carrying a firearm outside his home while on probation, under terms of the agreement hammered out with federal prosecutors.
The plea deal allows Watkins to resolve the case without going to trial on a felony count that could have netted him up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“The entire case arose out of a really confused, early-morning mix-up, and this kind of a resolution of this case, I think, is appropriate,” Watkins’ attorney, William Portanova, said after a brief hearing in federal court in downtown Sacramento.
Watkins faces sentencing March 21 in the incident, which his attorney has said stemmed from a case of mistaken identity as Watkins confronted a man he saw walking on his family’s farmland in February 2012.
The man turned out to be a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent conducting an investigation into possible Endangered Species Act violations, and Watkins was accused of threatening the agent with a pistol and telling him he was being placed under citizen’s arrest, even after the agent identified himself.
“Things got heated, he drew down on me,” Special Agent Sean Mann later told a colleague in an exchange recounted in court documents.
Watkins’ attorney has denied that the farmer initially knew Mann was a federal agent, saying the Watkins family had been victimized for years by metal thieves, methamphetamine addicts and other troublemakers who loot farms and ranches of virtually anything of value.
Portanova has previously said Mann was driving an unmarked vehicle and wearing civilian clothes when the confrontation began, and that Watkins was blinded as he looked toward Mann into the rising sun.
But in a “factual basis” for the guilty plea entered Monday, Watkins agreed that “he knew, or had ample objective reasons to know” that he was confronting a federal agent.
That document describes Watkins as refusing to put his weapon away even after the agent pulled out his credentials and badge, and yelled that he was a federal agent.
“We will prosecute persons who attempt to interfere with or intimidate federal law enforcement agents in the performance of their duties,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a statement issued after Watkins’ plea.
Tensions between the federal government and area ranchers and farmers are a common complaint in the area, where agents go onto properties to investigate reports of Endangered Species Act violations stemming from plowing of vernal pools and other habitats.
Watkins had been accused in 2009 of damaging habitats for fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander, sparking an investigation that led to the confrontation.
Watkins was indicted in April 2014 on a felony charge of assaulting a federal agent with a deadly and dangerous weapon, but that indictment was replaced with the misdemeanor charge after the two sides agreed to the plea deal.
The agreement came as federal officials in Oregon are facing an armed standoff with militia members there who have seized a remote federal building in what they say is a protest against overreaching by the federal government, but Portanova said the government’s willingness to offer a deal to Watkins was not related to issues in Oregon.
“It’s been a long, hard road for everybody in this case, and I don’t recommend it to anybody else because there’s a financial cost, there’s an emotional cost and there’s a time cost, and that’s time away from your family when you’re spending time with your lawyer,” Portanova said. “So, when in doubt, give the feds the benefit of the doubt.
“And when you think you have a trespasser, take a minute and make sure before you act.”