Former officer convicted of stealing horse, lying to Forest Service

Powell man found guilty of six felonies, cleared of nine others

Posted 12/14/23

When Ron Ostrom retired from the Shoshone National Forest in August 2021, the law enforcement officer turned in his badge and other government property he’d accumulated over a 30-year career. …

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Former officer convicted of stealing horse, lying to Forest Service

Powell man found guilty of six felonies, cleared of nine others


When Ron Ostrom retired from the Shoshone National Forest in August 2021, the law enforcement officer turned in his badge and other government property he’d accumulated over a 30-year career. But a colleague noticed something odd about the livestock Ostrom returned: There were “a couple horses that just were not making sense in my mind,” fellow officer Travis Haworth testified in federal court last week.

Haworth’s suspicions about the animals kicked off an extensive, multi-year investigation that concluded Ostrom had lied and surreptitiously made a switch — delivering two apparently less valuable horses in place of the ones he’d been issued by the Forest Service.

Last year, investigators seized a brown gelding and a blue roan mare from Ostrom’s Powell ranch that they believed to be the government’s missing horses, Reo and Roany. In the case of the gelding, a brand inspector concluded that someone had rebranded the animal, including placing an Ostrom family brand over one belonging to the Forest Service.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office ultimately filed a stack of 15 felony charges against Ostrom, alleging he’d stolen not only the two horses but thousands of dollars worth of ammunition and other government property.

Ostrom, 54, admitted that he’d turned in the wrong animals, but denied stealing anything.

Testifying in federal court in Cheyenne last week, Ostrom told jurors that the government’s Reo and Roany had died in backcountry accidents years before his retirement; he said he’d provided different horses in an attempt to avoid the wrath of his supervisor.

“I was threatened with being fired, being disciplined with very minor things and so … I decided that I better give them something,” Ostrom said.

As for the other property he was alleged to have kept, Ostrom said he didn’t have it or, in the case of the ammo, hadn’t realized he needed to return it.

Ostrom’s defense attorney, Ryan Healy, argued the case was a “witch hunt,” orchestrated by colleagues who were out to get Ostrom. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Elmore argued that if Ostrom really believed the Forest Service was out to get him, he should have been sure to do things by the book. Instead, “he committed fraud and then tried to hide it,” the prosecutor said.

Following roughly five days of testimony, evidence and arguments, the 12-member jury deliberated for roughly five-and-a-half hours before reaching a unanimous verdict. On Friday afternoon, the panel convicted Ostrom on six of the felony counts while finding him not guilty of the other nine.

Ostrom had all but admitted to four of the charges — two counts of false writing or documents and two of false statements — which related to his fraudulent representations that he’d returned Reo and Roany to the Forest Service.

Jurors also convicted Ostrom of felony counts of concealing/retaining government property and conversion of government property, concluding the former officer stole Reo.

However, the jury was unconvinced that the mare taken from Ostrom’s property was the government’s Roany, acquitting him of two counts that alleged he’d stolen that animal. The panel also cleared Ostrom of seven other charges that alleged he’d stolen the ammo, various equipment and two mules that Ostrom said had been retired from government service.

Following Friday’s verdict, Elmore sought to have Ostrom taken into custody, but a judge allowed the Powell resident to remain free while he awaits sentencing.


Battling for control

The bitter end of Ostrom’s time at the Shoshone National Forest contrasted sharply with its beginning. After getting his start as a seasonal employee in 1988, Ostrom was encouraged to become a law enforcement officer in 2001. His initial supervisor, Cpt. Les Pinkerton, tasked Ostrom with starting up a backcountry mounted patrol program to help improve compliance and public safety in the forest’s vast wilderness. Pinkerton said he appreciated Ostrom’s “tremendous” skills with livestock and gave the officer the freedom to develop and run the program. 

However, things began to sour following Pinkerton’s 2008 departure. Ostrom said he didn’t get along with Pinkerton’s replacement, and he particularly clashed with Cpt. David Hartley, who took over in 2016.

Hartley said he wanted to clean up some of the record-keeping, and the additional paperwork and oversight was a source of friction with Ostrom. Ostrom said the program didn’t work “with people … that don’t own horses, have never been around horses.”

He felt Hartley “wanted control” of the mounted patrol program, but it remained under the oversight of the region’s special agent in charge. Ostrom said that created a rift that left him feeling shunned and belittled by Hartley; he filed a trio of complaints against his supervisor.

The acrimony was mutual, as Hartley disciplined Ostrom multiple times for “conduct issues.” That included a three-day suspension in 2018 for what Hartley described as a failure to follow direction, followed by a more significant, 45-day suspension in 2019. There was little detail about the 2019 suspension provided at trial, but it apparently stemmed from an allegation that Ostrom had misused government property. According to Hartley, the matter was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but prosecutors declined to bring charges and Ostrom’s suspension was overturned in January 2021.

Things only got worse with Hartley, Ostrom said, and he put in for retirement. The decision was based in part on the internal “turmoil,” Ostrom testified, but mostly to help his ailing father.

In mid-August 2021, Ostrom learned he’d been cleared to retire at the end of the month. That kicked off a long list of to-dos that Ostrom said he hurried to complete.

On the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, Ostrom delivered his government-issued livestock to a forest pasture in Sunlight Basin. Among the animals were a dark buckskin gelding and a gray mare; Ostrom signed a pair of forms saying the animals were the government’s Reo and Roany.

But Officer Haworth — who had his own turbulent relationship with Ostrom — said he knew the mare was not Roany, while the gelding was “just an entirely different horse” from Reo.

The region’s acting special agent in charge authorized an investigation.


Investigating the case

One of the first steps was to have “Reo” and “Roany” examined by a Cody veterinarian and a Powell brand inspector. They concluded the animals didn’t match Reo and Roany’s records.

The lead investigator on the case, Laramie-based Special Agent Hannah Nadeau, ultimately learned the horses’ true identities by digging through a slew of brand inspection records and conducting several interviews.

She determined the gelding Ostrom provided in lieu of Reo was a horse named Dollar. According to testimony at trial, he’d purchased Dollar in late 2020 from a Cody woman; she’d acquired the quirky, skittish horse from a neighbor for $1. Dollar was several years older than Reo and in poorer condition, the government said.

As for the mare, Nadeau determined it was Lulu — a horse that had been born on a hermit’s property near Two Dot, Montana, before being rescued by an animal lover. Ostrom eventually bought the animal in 2020 and gave it to his then-girlfriend, veterinarian Tori Steinmetz-Lewis. Unlike Roany — a “bell mare” that served as a pack string leader — Lulu was wild and unridable, according to the government.

Nadeau didn’t learn Lulu and Dollar’s identities until later in her investigation, but she’d gathered enough evidence by March 2022 to get a search warrant for Ostrom’s property. A team of 15 to 20 law enforcement officers combed through his 100-acre property south of Garland.

They seized a mare they believed to be Roany, plus other pieces of government property: over 10,000 rounds of ammunition, Forest Service saddle pads and blankets, horse equipment with federal logos, two trailers with government plates and two former Forest Service mules.

In May 2022, Ostrom was indicted on one felony count of theft of government property, which encompassed all the items. That October, however, Nadeau received an anonymous email that said investigators had missed something.

The writer claimed Ostrom still had the government’s gelding, Reo, and indicated he’d recently rebranded it. The author said Ostrom planned to claim that Reo had fallen off a trailer and died, but had seemed worried his ex-girlfriend — apparently Steinmetz-Lewis — “might not back up his story.”

The writer added that Ostrom “said he didn’t really need to worry about any of this anyway because the government never goes to court and they will eventually settle for whatever he wants.”

The email account was set up in the name of Ostrom’s current girlfriend, but she denied creating the account and Nadeau said the true author remains a mystery.

Regardless of who sent it, the tip proved valuable to the government. Agents conducted a second search of Ostrom’s property in November 2022 and seized a gelding that matched Reo’s description.

Inspectors and investigators concluded that an Ostrom family brand — 6 Bar J — had been placed in the same spot as one for Forest Service law enforcement; additionally, an unregistered Circle J K brand that Ostrom identified as his father’s appeared to have been etched on top of a brand for the Durbin Creek Ranch, where the animal was originally purchased.

Ostrom testified that he knew nothing about any rebrandings. He suggested a mistake might have been made years ago during the countless training sessions he hosted on his property for law enforcement officers.


A disputed death

It was Ostrom’s testimony that the gelding in government custody is a family horse named Brown and that Reo died some time ago. He said that while he was helping Steinmetz-Lewis one day, Reo fell down a hill and was fatally wounded by a sharp object.

“On the way home you could hear him fall in the horse trailer,” Ostrom said.

Steinmetz-Lewis gave the jury a similar account of the accident. However, she recalled the horse being a white-and-black paint rather than a brown-and-black bay like Reo.

As for Roany, Ostrom testified that the mare died not long after her 2014 purchase. He said the mare got spooked while learning to hobble and picket and suffered a career-ending injury to her shoulder; Ostrom said he euthanized the animal.

The incident happened before Hartley became captain, he testified, and he said he told a prior supervisor about the mare’s death.

However, emails show that in February 2017 — several months after Hartley took over the position — Ostrom sent an email updating Roany’s age and confirming he still owned her; he also updated Reo’s age while noting a mule named Ruby was “gone.”

Ostrom included Roany and Reo on his inventory in June 2018, too, providing a couple of photographs of animals. The images didn’t raise any red flags at the time, but the relatively lush vegetation in the shot of “Reo” later struck Agent Nadeau as odd. Her research revealed the photo was a stock image from

At trial, Ostrom said he didn’t report Reo’s death because Hartley had already threatened to fire him, and he was “scared to death.”

Ostrom allowed that “maybe a mistake was made,” but argued “most of these supervisors aren’t horse people, so when you say that an animal was killed, they can’t understand that things happen.”

For his part, Hartley said he’d consider an on-duty animal death to be a regular part of Ostrom’s business and not something that would lead to firing.

Jurors determined that the seized horse is indeed Reo, finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Ostrom stole the animal.

However, the panel cleared Ostrom of stealing Roany. He presented documents indicating he’d purchased a similar roan named Roany in 2012. Ostrom said he’d often used that personal animal on Forest Service business, contending that’s why Haworth believed it was the government’s Roany.


A mysterious research center

Jurors also found Ostrom not guilty of stealing two mules named Rosy and Roxy. He testified he received permission to retire the aging animals in roughly 2016 and a Wyoming brand inspection indicates Ostrom transferred the mules to one of Steinmetz-Lewis’ businesses, Bridger Veterinary Services, in February 2018. The mules were apparently 22 or 23 years old at the time, which Ostrom said is a typical age for retirement.

In the same transaction, Ostrom also gave Bridger Vet a government horse named Coulter that had been assigned to Haworth. The animal had suffered a career-ending leg injury, Haworth said, but Ostrom had attempted to rehabilitate it at his ranch. When Haworth later asked what had become of Coulter, he testified that Ostrom wouldn’t tell him, which contributed to an acrimonious relationship between the two men.

In July 2020, emails show Cpt. Hartley took up Haworth’s cause and pressed Ostrom for information on Coulter’s whereabouts. Rather than providing the 2018 brand inspection that showed the horse had been transferred to the vet clinic, Ostrom told his supervisors the horse had gone to a “veterinarian research group from either Montana or Colorado” that specializes in “biocellular regeneration for equines.”

Months later, he submitted a transfer form indicating Coulter went to “Montana Equine Cellular Medicine” in Bridger, Montana; it was purportedly signed by the group’s office manager, Andrea Frost. However, Agent Nadeau found no evidence that Montana Equine Cellular Medicine exists and Frost — who worked at Steinmetz-Lewis’ Red Barn Vet clinic in Powell — said her signature had clearly been forged. Frost also testified that she stopped working for Steinmetz-Lewis about two months before the document was signed.

Ostrom testified that he knew nothing about the issue, saying he’d given the document to Steinmetz-Lewis and gotten it back with the signature; Steinmetz-Lewis was not asked about the document during her brief time on the stand.

She did testify that she returned the mules to Ostrom because she didn’t have enough hay to feed them, and he testified that he still considered Rosy and Roxy to be her property.

Prosecutors didn’t charge Ostrom in connection with the apparent forgery, but Elmore used it to support his argument that Ostrom has “a character of untruthfulness.”


‘It’s a set up’

Exactly what the jury made of Ostrom’s character is unclear, but outside of Reo, they rejected the other theft charges brought by the government. One related to a 1997 snowmobile trailer that was seized from Ostrom’s ranch, still bearing government license plates. Ostrom said he’d completely forgotten it was on his property and wasn’t sure he’d ever used it; photos indicated the trailer, which had a flat tire and no brakes, might not have been moved in over a decade. 

Prosecutors also accused Ostrom of stealing a $1,264 tent and $1,384 worth of horse gear, but they had no proof that the items were still in his possession. Ostrom testified he’d left the tent in a Forest Service warehouse after it ripped — Nadeau acknowledged she hadn’t searched that building — and that the horse gear had either worn out or gone to other officers.

The big ticket item was the more than 10,000 rounds of government-issued ammo found in Ostrom’s shop. Nadeau counted each of the rounds by hand and put the cache’s value at nearly $7,000.

Numerous Forest Service personnel testified it’s unusual for an officer to have that much ammo and that officers are expected to return their unused rounds when they leave the agency; one agent said Ostrom’s stash rivals the amount stockpiled for the entire region.

Hartley alleged that Ostrom denied having any extra .45-70 ammo when the agency was short, but Ostrom said he didn’t recall that conversation. Ostrom added that he was never asked to return the ammo, which was provided to officers once or twice a year.

The government’s case was also undercut by testimony that a retired officer in Custer, South Dakota, stored up a similar amount of ammo and only returned it after multiple requests from the agency. That officer was not charged with any crimes, according to testimony.

Healy, who represented Ostrom, told jurors that “this whole thing is a witch hunt, it’s a setup, it’s a frightening example of what the government can do to you if they don’t like you.”

However, Elmore called it “an abusive, egregious violation of trust, of United States property.”

“You should have no sympathy for him,” he told jurors of Ostrom. “It’s wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s illegal.”

Ostrom is set to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal on Feb. 21 in Cheyenne.