Ranch embezzlement trial in hands of Garfield County jury

Thomas Phippen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Bear Wallow Ranch is located on Canyon Creek Road just west of Glenwood Springs.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

For nearly a month, a Glenwood Springs jury has heard arguments alleging Charles “Zane” and Charla Farris stole up to $1 million from the Garfield County ranch they managed.

The jury will begin deliberations Monday after the complex trial concluded Friday with closing arguments from defense attorneys and prosecutors.

Prosecutors allege the Farrises treated Bear Wallow funds as their own and reaped the benefits.

The trial included testimony from the ranch’s former owner and Waffle House chairman Joe Rogers Jr., investigators, tax experts and local ranch vendors. The Farrises did not testify.

A large part of the evidence is recordings Rogers secretly made over three days in 2016 when he confronted the Farrises for the alleged fraudulent transactions. At multiple points, both the Farrises said they were wrong to make many of the questioned transactions.

“They said they did it. We showed you the records that prove they did it,” prosecutor Ben Sollars said during closing arguments.

Regarding one transaction, Charla told Rogers in the recording, “You’re right, we should have not paid that.”

Sollars pointed to a number of other times the Farrises assumed responsibility for the transactions.

“According to them, it’s all on them, and they can’t blame Joe,” Sollars said.

The Farrises are charged with theft of between $100,000 and $1 million from the ranch, but the jury has the option to find the couple guilty of stealing lower amounts.

The couple also is charged with tax evasion and theft of livestock.

According to the defense attorneys, the improper transactions were both outright mistakes and purchases they thought benefitted Bear Wallow.

One theory of the defense is that Rogers had given permission for the Farrises to pay for certain personal items as bonuses to avoid payroll taxes.

“This isn’t about income, this isn’t about W-2s. This is about a ranch that is shutting down, and about finding another way to survive. During that time Zane and Charla commingled everything,” Sollars said.

Andrew Ho, Charla’s defense attorney, argued that there was no intent to defraud Rogers. Many improper transactions were mistakes, and the jury had a duty not to punish mistakes, Ho said.

“We’re not expected to be robots. We’re expected to make mistakes, and again, mistakes aren’t crimes,” Ho said.

Ho also argued the theory that Rogers used the Farrises as scapegoats to avoid liability in a potential audit that could have, according to Ho, revealed under-the-table business practices at Bear Wallow.

“The entire prosecution in this case, the entire theory, is premised on the idea that Bear Wallow Ranch was a normal, above-board business,” Ho said.

Ho brought up a memo that said the ranch would pay for a truck that Zane would use, as a bonus, and another from Rogers’ wife Fran Rogers, who initially discovered the Farris’ suspected theft.

Zane “worked his butt off for the benefit of Bear Wallow” and tried to save the ranch money, his defense attorney Kathy Goudy said.

The Farrises “believed their expenses were paid for by Bear Wallow” as a “quid-pro-quo” for their hard work, Goudy said.

Many of the allegedly fraudulent transactions involved the Farrises paying businesses they owned for Bear Wallow work, or paid for repairs and appliances on property the Farrises owned.

Those checks were sometimes miscoded and entered in the books Charla maintained for the ranch with different amounts.

“You’re aware of what you’re doing when you’re hiding things in the books,” Sollars said.

Sollars said it defied logic to view the miscoding of those sorts of transactions as mistakes.

“Every mistake they make benefits (the Farrises), personally. They don’t ever make a mistake that benefits Bear Wallow,” Sollars said.