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Published: Saturday, 7/17/2004

Dairy farm controversy escalates to scuffle

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A man who once served 11 days as Paulding County sheriff has agreed to plead guilty to a disorderly conduct charge for a fight in which a farm contractor's eyeglasses were broken.

The incident is believed to be one of the first physical confrontations in an ongoing controversy between immigrant European dairy farmers and local residents opposed to the farms.

Tony Gray, who was Paulding County's interim sheriff in 1992 and a full-time sheriff's deputy from 1985 to 1993, plans to plead guilty Aug. 3 in Paulding County Court and pay a $150 fine related to the Jan. 13 fight on a road near Zylstra Dairy Ltd., his attorney, E. Charles Bates, said.

The fight broke out after Mr. Gray was involved in taking pictures of a dairyman spreading manure on frozen fields. Applying manure to frozen ground was newly prohibited last winter unless farmers received permission from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and Zylstra Dairy had not requested that.

"We had no problem going to a trial," Mr. Bates said. "It's just anytime you go to trial, there's expense and risk. But we felt pretty strongly he was out at the property with the right purpose: to prohibit these people from spreading manure on frozen fields, which is prohibited."

The plea deal would reduce charges of assault to disorderly conduct against Mr. Gray, of Latty in central Paulding County.

Mr. Gray, 55, drove Robert D. Thornell to the dairy southwest of Antwerp that day to photo-

graph Willem J. Zylstra spreading manure. Mr. Zylstra, who came to Paulding County from the Netherlands in 2000, is a partner in the dairy with other family members.

The former sheriff parked his pickup on a public road, and Mr. Thornell took pictures with a camera the Ohio Environmental Council gave to Paulding County First, a local group that opposes large new dairies, according to Susan Studer King, a spokesman for the 2,400-member environmental council.

After about 30 minutes, Mr. Zylstra pulled his tractor and manure spreader onto the road and walked around to the driver's side of the pickup to ask what was going on, the farmer said.

He said the former sheriff jumped out yelling, asking the farmer who he thought he was and saying, "This is America." The former sheriff began to physically attack the 28-year-old farmer, Mr. Zylstra said, adding he responded by grabbing Mr. Gray's hands to prevent him from hitting.

The one-time lawman pinned Mr. Zylstra against the hood of the pickup, with the farmer still clenching Mr. Gray's hands, Mr. Zylstra said.

About that time, David Albers, a mechanical contractor who was working on the farm, drove up and became involved in the struggle, the farmer said. The former sheriff hit Mr. Albers, knocking his glasses off and breaking them, Mr. Zylstra said.

Mr. Gray described the confrontation differently.

Mr. Gray said he rolled his window down when Mr. Zylstra approached, and the farmer reached inside, grabbing his coat on the left shoulder, saying, "What you do?"

Mr. Thornell replied that they were taking pictures, and the former deputy said he struggled with the farmer to get out of the truck. Later, Mr. Gray told him, "I'm going to hurt you if you don't let go of me," the former sheriff said. "I kneed Zylstra in the groin, and just as he let go, someone jumped on my back."

That was Mr. Albers, the 38-year-old mechanical contractor.

"I didn't see him coming, and he jumped on my back and was choking me," the former sheriff said, admitting that he broke Mr. Albers' glasses.

Mr. Thornell, 55, also of Paulding County and a member of the environmental council, did not get out of the truck because he did not want to jeopardize his lawsuit against another large Paulding County farm, Mr. Gray said. Mr. Thornell could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Gray said during the confrontation he made it clear to the farmer that spreading manure on frozen ground was not allowed. Mr. Zylstra said the issue never came up.

The Paulding County Sheriff's Office investigated, and the case was presented to the grand jury, which did not indict Mr. Gray. But a special prosecutor was appointed, Defiance County Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh, who filed misdemeanor assault charges March 24 against Mr. Gray.

On the issue of spreading manure on frozen ground, the Ohio Department of Agriculture sent warning letters to Zylstra Dairy on Jan. 27 and again on March 8. Mr. Zylstra said he had not known about the rule change that required permission for applying manure to frozen ground, which does not immediately absorb it.

Zylstra Dairy, which has 680 cows, began milking in August, 2000, and is building facilities to expand its herd to 1,400.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-724-6102.



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