By KENNETH HART - The Independent
ASHLAND — Two men who pleaded guilty to killing 105 endangered Indiana bats at Carter Caves State Resort Park in 2007 were sentenced Thursday in federal court.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward B. Atkins sentenced Lonnie W. Skaggs, 31, of Olive Hill, to eight months in prison, to be followed by a year of supervised release, on two counts of violating the federal Endangered Species Act.
Skaggs’ co-defendant, Kaleb Carpenter, 20, of Olive Hill, was sentenced to three years’ probation on one count of the same charge.
Skaggs and Carpenter both pleaded guilty in December to killing 105 bats that were hibernating in Laurel Cave on Oct. 26 and 27, 2007, by crushing them with rocks, flashlights and their feet. Twenty-three bats were killed the first night; 82 the second.
The killings drew horror and outrage from wildlife-protection advocates, who said they could not have occurred at a worse time because the Indiana bat population had already been decimated by a disease known as White Nose Syndrome.
In sentencing Carpenter, Atkins noted that he was not involved in the second round of killings, and that his criminal history was not nearly as extensive as that of his co-defendant. Both those factors weighed “heavily” in Carpenter’s favor, the judge said.
Carpenter apologized for his actions, saying they were “idiotic.” Skaggs — a dark-haired man with a tattoo reading “Bad Ass” on one forearm — chose not to speak when given the opportunity to do so by Atkins.
“No thank you, your honor,” he replied when Atkins asked him if he had anything to say.
Skaggs’ court-appointed attorney, Michael Campbell of Morehead, said he initially had misgivings about taking the case because he had been involved in efforts to protect Indiana bats, which he said were the very first animal listed on the very first endangered species list 43 years ago.
However, Campbell said that after getting to know his client, he found him to be not a bad person, but a product of his upbringing, which he said was marred by abuse at the hands of a violent, alcoholic father.
Skaggs’ father, Ronnie Skaggs, would often brandish guns and chase Ronnie Skaggs and his mother, Bonnie Skaggs, into a cornfield outside the family’s home in Elliott County, where they would lie on the ground and wait for his rage to subside, Campbell said.
Campbell said the last time his client saw his father, about a year ago, a drunken Ronnie Skaggs gave his son “some fatherly advice.
“He advised him to get a pistol and blow his own brains out because he would never amount to anything,” he said.
Bonnie Skaggs also drank heavily while pregnant with her son, which caused him to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome that affected his cognitive abilities, Campbell said.
Campbell urged Atkins to sentence Skaggs to a term of home confinement with his aunt, who lives in Springfield, Ohio, and whom he said had been a stabilizing influence on his client’s life.
Campbell also said his client would be willing, under his guidance, to prepare a newspaper essay apologizing for his actions and making the public aware of the importance of protecting endangered species.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger West argued that such a sentence was “not the best deterrent” to preventing such crimes in the future.
West noted that Skaggs and Carpenter had not only done severe and irreparable damage to the Indiana bat population, but had deprived the public of the opportunity to observe the creatures in their natural habitat. Shortly after the killings, gates were constructed to keep the bats from being disturbed during their hibernation.
West, a Boy Scout troop leader, said he had shown a picture of Indiana bats to his troop members and asked what they thought should be done to someone who harmed them. “Put them in jail” was the response, he said.
Atkins said that Skaggs had an extensive record of misdemeanor convictions, some of which resulted in jail sentences as long as six months. His criminal history, he said, indicated a lack of respect for the law.
The judge also said Skaggs’ record, combined with other factors, made him ineligible for probation.
On the other hand, Atkins said, Carpenter’s record was relatively clean. He also said he was impressed by the fact that Carpenter worked as a volunteer for an Olive Hill-based charitable organization that raises money to help sick children.
Carpenter started working for the organization before being charged in the killings in June of last year, which Atkins said indicated to him that the defendant was “community-minded” and that his involvement with the group wasn’t just a ploy to make himself look better in the eyes of the court system.
Also, Atkins noted that after applying the federal sentencing guidelines, the maximum prison term Carpenter could’ve gotten would’ve been four months. The judge believed the interests of justice would be better served by probation because it would allow the courts to monitor Carpenter’s progress for three years.
The case marked the first time in U.S. history that individual defendants have been sentenced for killing Indiana bats. It was also only the second criminal prosecution conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Kentucky that involved the killing of an endangered species.
KENNETH HART can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2654.