The attorney representing a Grand Junction anti-government zealot accused of attempting to defraud the federal government and various financial institutions described her client's actions as part of a quasi-religious belief system this week in federal court.
Grand Junction resident Rocky Hutson was indicted on multiple fraud-related counts by a federal grand jury in June 2016, and took his case to trial this week. Federal investigators believe Hutson — who in 2014 was barred from running for Mesa County sheriff because of a felony theft conviction — filed multiple claims with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to get the department to pay personal debts for himself and several acquaintances over several months in 2011 and 2012. Hutson is also accused of writing bad checks for large amounts of money.
Carbondale-based defense attorney Ashley Petrey told federal jurors during opening statements Wednesday that Hutson, who adheres to the "sovereign citizen" ideology, was participating in a "ritual" that's accepted among those who share his beliefs.
Members of the sovereign citizen movement generally don't recognize federal or state government authority.
Petrey said Hutson became convinced of his beliefs after attending a seminar led by Fred and Nina Gutierrez, who she described as well-known in sovereign citizen circles. She described Hutson's actions as part of a practice called "redemption," which she said is seen as a way to rid oneself of what sovereigns believe is a corrupt federal government.
"Rocky has sincerely held beliefs," Petrey said. "They are unpopular. They are obscure. But they are sincerely held."
Petrey said Hutson — a Texas native who served in the U.S. military, has lived locally since the early 2000s and recently retired as a long-haul trucker — is no criminal mastermind.
"The government wants us to think he is some sort of modern day Harold Hill," Petrey said in reference to the swindling band leader of the musical play "The Music Man."
She added, "That is not Mr. Hutson. He is a simple man. He has a GED."
U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger cautioned jurors not to consider whether Hutson's beliefs are religious after an objection to Petrey's statements by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Burrows.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pete Hautzinger told jurors in his own opening statement that Hutson is being tried for attempting to defraud the government and businesses out of massive amounts of money.
"This prosecution is not about Mr. Hutson's political beliefs or his ideology," Hautzinger said, urging jurors to "keep your eye on the ball."
Hautzinger described Hutson's alleged schemes as falling into two camps: submitting false claims to the USDA and writing checks from a bank account that he had long since closed.
In one scheme, Hutson allegedly tried to buy Red Cliff Pointe Shopping Center at 2650 North Ave, by filing a claim with the USDA for $9.5 million. In others, he allegedly tried to get the federal government to pay for cars, motorcycles, a home and student loans, mostly on behalf of other people.
While actual losses to institutions were minimal, Hautzinger said some people did suffer as a result of Hutson's actions. One man, who Hutson promised help in buying a home, lost $1,000 in earnest money when the money Hutson allegedly tried to garner from the USDA didn't materialize at closing. Others suffered blows to their credit scores, Hautzinger said.
"All of the people that the defendant claimed to be trying to help were people who were in financial distress," Hautzinger said. "They were all people who were in trouble."
Hutson's trial is set to resume Monday morning. Three other people who were indicted along with Hutson are in various stages of prosecution. Gunther Glaub was convicted at trial and sentenced to five years of probation and a $500 fine, according to U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Jeff Dorschner. Peter Miller entered a guilty plea last March and is set to be sentenced March 5 in Grand Junction. Prosecution of Nelson Scott is still pending; Dorschner said there is a competency issue in his case.