LIBERTY — A cowboy preacher and one of his elders were found guilty of simple assault for attacking a fellow church elder, and a charge of livestock theft against the pastor was bound over to the grand jury on Wednesday in Amite County Justice Court.
Brushy Creek Ranch owner Chris Kimball, 40, who is also pastor of Outlaw Ministries, was found guilty of assaulting Mark Ross in a meeting on April 22 at the church located at the guest ranch east of Gloster.
Judge Roger Arnold also found Paul Punzo, 51, guilty of the same charge after a 21⁄2-hour trial Wednesday.
Arnold sentenced them to six months in jail, suspended after 15 days, and set their bond at $683 each.
“Do you know what a church means?” Judge Arnold asked Kimball. “It’s God’s house. People draw together in God’s house to draw strength from one another.”
After pronouncing sentence, Arnold added, “Maybe things will get to where it’s normal and it will run like a church.”
Alfred Felder, attorney for Kimball and Punzo, said they will appeal.
In a separate hearing, the judge heard testimony that Kimball sold a horse belonging to Lorri Bullock of Osyka without her permission.
He sent the case to the grand jury and allowed Kimball to remain out of jail on $10,000 bond.
In the simple assault trial, witnesses gave conflicting versions of what happened at the April 22 meeting that led to the assault charges.
Ross testified that he and Kimball had not been getting along, so Ross called a meeting of the elders and deacons in the rustic wooden chapel at the ranch, located in the Homochitto National Forest.
“I was stating my concerns when it blew up with a lot of shouting and yelling,” Ross said. “When the shouting match happened, Chris came from the front and Paul came from the back. ... We yelled back and forth and that’s when (Kimball) got violent. He just pushed me open hand on the chin and mouth. Mr. Punzo came from behind and hit me on the back.”
Ross said he was not injured by the blows.
The argument continued outside.
“I pointed at (Kimball) and I said in anger, ‘I will burn you down,’ ” Ross said. “Not the church, not the chapel, but him because that ministry was my life.”
Ross said Punzo then ran up and hit him again. Ross also said Kimball had threatened to cut his throat in his sleep.
Ross’ wife, Stacey, said she was outside the church when the meeting occurred and heard yelling. She said she and her husband went to their camper, then returned toward the chapel where “Paul came up and hit Mark on his right side.”
Ross’ 15-year-old son, Braden, said he was watching from a doorway when “Chris comes up over the hay bale and open-handed pushes him like this and Paul came up and hit him in the back of the head.”
Braden also said Punzo followed Ross out and struck him again. Braden said he heard Kimball tell his father he would slit his throat in his sleep.
Several eyewitnesses testified for the defense. Michael Pifer said tensions erupted when Ross insulted Kimball’s 9-year-old son.
“I heard Mark Ross call Titan a sorry, lazy POS and that’s when the parties exploded,” Pifer said.
People present got up to intervene and prevented violence, Pifer said.
“I didn’t see any contact between any party,” he said, nor did he see Punzo strike anyone.
However, under questioning from prosecutor Sara Hemphill, Pifer admitted he could not be 100 percent sure Kimball did not push Ross.
“That is a possibility,” he said.
Jason Mones of St. Bernard Parish, La., said “after the words were exchanged, I saw a little shuffle of hands. I didn’t witness anything more than a shuffle, just like them shoving at each other’s chests.”
Mones said he saw Punzo lunge toward Ross, “and that’s when I grabbed him and pulled him out of the situation.”
Meghan Pifer said the Rosses had been asked to leave the ranch on the day of the meeting but refused. She was outside the church and after the meeting saw Ross and Punzo approach each other but said she saw no altercation.
Billy Baldree of Brandon said he got between Ross and Kimball when the ruckus started.
“I was staying in front of Chris because they were both upset and jawing at each other,” he said, adding he never saw anyone get hit.
Outside afterward, Punzo and Ross approached each other.
“Mark kind of tossed Paul to the side like a rag doll, really,” Baldree said.
Punzo testified that Ross said he did not feel welcome at the ranch and Kimball agreed that he wasn’t. Ross also told Kimball that Punzo was a liar, Punzo said. Then Ross insulted Kimball’s son.
“That’s when Chris blew up. Chris stood up. Mark stood up. You could tell the people were getting ready for an altercation,” Punzo said.
Punzo said he was going to separate Ross and Kimball when Mones threw him down.
At one point during Punzo’s testimony, Judge Arnold admonished him for using vulgarities.
“I’m tired of your filthy remarks,” Arnold said. “You’re an elder? That’s a fine example.”
During cross examination, Hemphill asked Punzo, “Would you do anything to protect Mr. Kimball?”
“Absolutely,” Punzo said.
Kimball testified there had been friction between him and Ross “daily, for months.”
At the meeting, after Ross insulted Kimball’s son, “I snapped,” Kimball said. “My son was there and he was looking at him. I stood up and went toward him (Ross) and he stood up and came toward me. He reached out and I reached out and we made contact with a push but there was never a strike. The push was barely enough to alter his body weight. He never actually touched me. He reached for me.”
Kimball said Punzo lunged toward Ross but Mones stopped him.
“The guys did a great job of de-escalating the situation and pulling us apart,” Kimball said.
In closing statements, Hemphill said Kimball admitted his guilt.
“Mr. Kimball testified to the court that he did with open hand shove Mr. Ross,” she said. “Nowhere in the statute does it say that closed fist is required for simple assault.”
Felder said Ross bears the blame and quoted a statute that says, “All words that lead to a breach of peace shall be actionable.”
Felder said Ross’ words about Kimball’s son started the ruckus and no fists were used.
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In the livestock case, sheriff’s investigator Danny Meaux said Lorri Bullock reported on May 13 that a horse she had left at Brushy Creek Ranch had been sold without her permission.
Meaux said Bullock showed him her bill of sale, veterinary papers and American Quarter Horse Association certification for the horse called Nugget.
A state Department of Agriculture agent went to pick up the horse from the purchaser, who refused to turn it over.
Bullock said she, her husband and daughter were regular visitors to the ranch and had left Nugget there for several months with Kimball’s permission. She said Ross told her he would take it to a Colorado ranch for the Bullocks to use when they visit there. She said she did not give anyone permission to sell the horse.
“He’s a family pet,” Bullock said.
Summoned as an adverse witness, Ross acknowledged texts he had sent to Kimball saying Bullock had given Ross the horse.
According to an April 17 text from Ross to Kimball, “Yes that horse was given to me. It if not their horse. It is my horse.”
Ross testified, “Lorri and I had made a deal on the horse before that.”
Kimball testified that he was under the impression the horse belonged to Ross. He said Ross was present at the sale and that Ross and another ranch hand split the $1,000 sale price.
Hemphill asked, “Did you ever see any paperwork between (Ross) and the Bullocks?”
“No,” Kimball said.
Judge Arnold ruled, “There certainly has been sufficient evidence to bind this over to the grand jury.”