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Family feud in Brule County: Ranch disputes lead to multiple court cases

A barn in Brule County is the latest subject of a family disagreement that's resulted in two court cases. Bret Healy says the ladder and barn wood leaning against the side of the barn show it is still being dismantled. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)1 / 2
Bret Healy asks the Brule County Commission to do something to keep people away from the Healy Ranch barn at the July 17 commission meeting. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)2 / 2

PUKWANA — A Brule County man is upset about what's happening with his family's 99-year-old barn, and he's taking any means necessary to try to save it.

Bret Healy's family disagreement, which involves the barn, is a little more complicated than most — so much so that he's spent more than a year in the midst of two legal battles against family members, and he may be gunning for a third, as well as for the Brule County State's Attorney's Office.

Healy, 53, is involved in a civil case that aims to determine just how much of a claim he has to that barn, the land it sits on and other Healy Ranch property.

Although any result of that case will determine that he has some interest in that property, the other case he's involved with keeps him from setting foot on the land where the barn is.

For Healy, the barn isn't just an old building, but a representation of his family's history, which is the reason he's invested so much time and money into defending it.

"There's ongoing property destruction, and nobody has taken action," he said. "I've taken every reasonable means I can."

The barn is on a parcel of land about 3 miles west of Pukwana and 2 miles north of I-90 around which Healy said decades of fraud, forgery and family conflict have revolved. For Healy, the fate of the barn concerns not just tension among family members, but what he believes to be a decades-long corruption scandal.

On Nov. 27, 2017, Judge Chris Giles ruled in summary judgment that Healy's claims of conversion, fraud, punitive damages and conspiracy to commit fraud could not be prosecuted because his complaint aligned with the court's definitions of malicious and frivolous cases, and it was filed outside the statute of limitations for property cases.

"The judge said that to believe that he had a claim of the nature that he made is utterly ridiculous," said Jack Hieb, the attorney representing Healy Ranch Partnership and Healy's mother, Mary Ann Osborne. "Any reasonable person would have known that he had no basis for a damage claim against those people at this point in time."

Healy was also ordered to pay the defendants' attorneys' fees, which totaled $83,295.42. He put up a cash bond for that amount and an additional 10 percent, bringing the total to more than $91,000.

Exactly one month after Giles' decision, Healy appealed the civil case to the South Dakota Supreme Court. It is not yet known when the appeal will be argued, although he recently requested an injunction to prevent the destruction of the barn or any other Healy Ranch property.

The barn was built by his great-grandparents in 1919, and his grandparents kept the ranch going through the Great Depression, raising enough livestock in that barn to eventually put all five of their children, including Healy's father, through college.

"I'm trying to protect my family legacy and that 99-year-old barn that represents that legacy," Healy said.

Cynthia Srstka, the attorney representing Healy in the civil case, declined comment.

Over the course of his civil case, Healy has amassed thousands of pages of documents, some of which he obtained as public record and many of which he submitted to anyone he thought might listen: the circuit court and state Supreme Court, the police, the Brule County Commission and title insurance companies he thought might also have been affected by the corruption he so strongly believes to be permeating the Brule County legal process.

Healy has devoted countless hours to trying to make things right, as he sees it, on the Healy Ranch and in the state's attorney's office, but has not yet found acceptable resolution. No matter how much Healy talks or how many people he talks to, no one seems particularly interested in listening.

Deputy State's Attorney David Larson said that Healy's conflicts lie with his family.

"Unfortunately, he's trying to drag a lot of other people into it," Larson said.

Healy adamantly disagrees. He thinks both his family and the state's attorney's office are out to get him, and that each has compounded the odds against him stacked up by the other.

"Because of a false charge that the state's attorney's office keeps prosecuting ... one of the folks that's destroying the property filed for a protection order," Healy said. "I can't be within 500 feet of that barn."

The not-so-simple assault case

On Tuesday morning, Healy implored Brule County commissioners to take action to keep the barn from being taken down. Commissioners sat largely in silence as Healy repeatedly asked them, with increasing frustration and volume, whether they were going to do something. When Healy eventually got so uproarious that Larson suggested he be forcibly removed, Healy left.

After Healy left the meeting, Larson said he would be referring the issue to the attorney general.

"What he is asking (the commissioners) to do is make a legal determination of what these people's rights are, and quite honestly, (they're) in no position to do that," said Larson, who advises the commission at times. "He needs to go to the proper authorities and have it done. And what's happening is, he's unable to obtain that remedy there, so he's coming (here) as a way around it."

Both Healy and the attorney representing him in the criminal case, Chris McClure, said that they found it unusual that Larson threatened to have Healy removed without the commission having first made any complaint.

Healy says he has an interest in the property on which the barn sits, and that because he hadn't given permission for the barn to be taken down, the fact that part of it had been dismantled and that future destruction could take place would mean a crime had been committed. The county commissioners said that if that's true, Healy should simply put up a "no trespassing" sign near the barn. But Healy said it's not that simple.

Brandy Healy, who is married to Bret's brother, Barry, accused Bret of bursting into her house angrily and pushing her against a wall on April 25, 2017. Bret Healy was charged with simple assault and was ordered not to have contact with Brandy or Barry and to stay 50 yards away from the house where they live — a house that's about 65 feet from the barn. Bret Healy, however, said Brandy Healy exaggerated what happened, and that he had simply come to the house that night to talk to Barry about information that later became involved in the civil case.

More than 15 months after the night Healy came to the house, his other brother, Bryce Healy, made Facebook posts stating that it was about time for the barn to come down and asking if anyone was interested in getting some barn wood. Bryce Healy made an additional post that showed some of that barn wood burning in his fire pit.

McClure said he thinks that much of this incident was aimed at trying to provoke and intimidate Bret Healy, and that the entire feud is about land and the ranch, which the other Healys reportedly could sell in total for $4.8 million.

Both Bryce and Barry Healy declined to comment, and their attorney, Lee Schoenbeck, could not be reached for this story.

Bret Healy, who is legally not allowed to set foot near the barn, has spent the last two weeks frantically turning to anyone he can think of in an effort to make sure the barn, which he said has historical value and is well-recognized throughout the community, stays intact.

Bret Healy said he reported the issue to the Brule County Sheriff's Office, where the case was turned over to Brule County Deputy State's Attorney Kimberly Zachrison, who is also representing the state in the criminal case against Bret Healy. He said Zachrison decided not to pursue an investigation. Multiple attempts to reach Zachrison for comment were unsuccessful.

A question of relevance

Much of the conflict in the criminal case and in the issue of the barn revolves around whether details of the civil case are relevant.

Bret Healy first filed his civil suit in May 2017, but the events leading up to the conflict over the land in question began in 1986.

Bret Healy, a college student at that time, replaced his grandmother, DeLonde Healy, and joined his mother, Osborne, as a partner in what is referred to as Healy Ranch Partnership. Previously, the members of the partnership were DeLonde, Osborne and Healy's father, Robert Healy, who died in a tractor rollover just before Bret Healy made an agreement with his grandmother.

At that time, the official complaint filed by Bret Healy's attorney, Steven Sandven, says that it was understood Osborne owned 75 percent of the interest in the partnership and Bret Healy owned the other 25 percent.

In January 1989, according to the complaint for the civil case, DeLonde tried to publicly record that she was giving all her interest in the partnership to Bret Healy with a warranty deed and a bill of sale. These documents were created and notarized by Brule County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Fox, but Fox allegedly never recorded them or told Bret Healy they existed.

In March 1995, Osborne decided to transfer some of Healy Ranch Partnership's real property to her corporation, Healy Ranch, Inc., using a warranty deed. DeLonde Healy, who at the time was 81 years old and was being tested for Alzheimer's, Bret Healy said, was taken to Fox's office, where she signed the warranty deed as a partner without Bret Healy's knowledge, despite Fox having had her sign a document in 1993 swearing that she no longer had any interest whatsoever in the Healy Ranch.

Bret Healy said he believes that because Healy Ranch Partnership owned all the real property comprising Healy Ranch prior to his involvement in the partnership, he assumed partial ownership of that property when he, his grandmother and his mother agreed he would enter the partnership in 1986.

But Bret Healy's mother and brothers now argue he doesn't have a case, because he didn't do anything to assert that interest within six years, which is the state's statute of limitations for civil cases involving the recovery of real property. Bret Healy says he couldn't have asserted his interest within that time frame because he didn't know about the 1995 warranty deed until April 3, 2017.

The civil case, which concerns the ownership of the land and who has (and doesn't have) the rights to do what they want with it, has now been argued through several thousand pages of documents: deeds, title insurance, maps, emails and more, with each side responding to any new addition with new documents of their own. And because some of the parties involved in the civil case — Bret Healy, Barry Healy and the state's attorney's office, for instance — are involved in the criminal case in some way, the overlap between the two cases confuses things even more.

In a document written on Wednesday in response to the defense's evidence in the criminal case, Zachrison wrote that the majority of the evidence the defense has presented — most of which both focuses on trying to prove that Bret Healy owns an interest in the land where the house and barn are and is also being presented in some form in the civil case — is irrelevant to the criminal case.

"Defense's original argument related to Count 3 Trespassing is that he owned part of the land, therefore he could not be trespassing," Zachrison wrote. "State's response is that Barry and Brandy Healy have been residing at that residence for 10 years. The Defendant has no interest in their home or the surrounding land."

She also wrote that she plans to have Barry Healy testify that he and Brandy had been paying rent on the land where both their house and the barn sit since January 2017, and that on April 5 and April 24, 2017, prior to the alleged assault, Barry Healy said in emails and text messages to his brother Bret that he did not want to talk in person.

Zachrison argued in her response and in various other documents filed throughout the course of the criminal case that these are the details that are relevant in determining whether a trespass occurred in April 2017.

"This is why Barry believes that he can destroy the barn," Bret Healy wrote in an email on Wednesday, "and (it) shows that the State's Attorney office is so vested in going after me that they will willfully ignore crime."

An underlying scandal

On top of the litany of litigation he is currently bringing against members of his family, Bret Healy argues that multiple people in the Brule County State's Attorney's Office and his family members have participated in years of fraud.

Among other things, Bret Healy and the prosecution are accusing Fox, Barry Healy and Bryce Healy of falsifying documents from Healy Ranch stockholder and directors board meetings — meetings which, in some cases, have been demonstrated to never have taken place — of backdating meeting minutes and falsifying the company's annual Secretary of State reports.

Fox is the only non-Healy to be a defendant in the case, but Bret Healy filed a memorandum to a title insurance company Monday implicating David Larson, who was state's attorney from 1987 to 1993, has been a deputy state's attorney since 2013 and co-owns Brule County Abstract Company with his wife, on at least 11 fraudulent title documents drafted between 1990 and 2017.

In addition to Fox and Larson, Bret Healy alleged that State's Attorney David Natvig had a conflict in the criminal case because Natvig previously drafted warranty deeds for him and his family. Natvig said he hadn't had contact with the family and that he had been working under instruction of a title company, but Bret Healy argues that for the deeds to have his signatures on them, there must have been some contact.

In mid-June, Bret Healy filed a motion in the criminal case to disqualify the Brule County State's Attorney's Office on the grounds that Natvig, Fox and Larson had all had dealings with the family in some form over the years and that Fox was concurrently a defendant in the civil case. Bret Healy said it's a conflict of interest for anyone who worked with himself or his family in legal matters to also be involved, but Larson said that in small communities like Brule County, it's not uncommon for people to have multiple roles.

Fox, Natvig and Fox's attorney, Kara Semmler, were unable to be reached for comment.

Bret Healy's motion to recuse the state's attorney's office from the criminal case was withdrawn, and Zachrison, who Larson said was chosen to represent the state because her position is funded by a Violence Against Women Act grant that permits her to work in multiple counties, the victim of the alleged assault was a woman and "she has the least connection through Brule County," continues to prosecute.

More than a year after charges were filed and more than seven months after Bret Healy pleaded not guilty to all charges, a jury trial has been set for Sept. 24.

Meanwhile, Bret Healy believes plans to take down the Healy Ranch barn are moving forward.