June 14, 2005

Woman will vacate home

DESERT: Connie Connelly loses her fight with the National Park Service and is going to Wyoming.

By MICHAEL FISHER / The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, CA

Threatened with jail, a Mojave Desert woman has agreed to vacate her remote home of 32 years this week -- bound for land and a mobile home that the National Park Service bought for her in Wyoming.

"If I'm not out of here by (Friday), I am subject to arrest," said Connie Connelly , who was scrambling Monday to figure out a means of moving her belongings, 11 dogs, a cat and a horse from her rustic five-acre home within the windswept Mojave National Preserve.

Connelly has spent years battling efforts by the National Park Service to evict her from the venerable Ivanpah general store her family turned into a homestead in 1966. The house sits near the California stateline, about 23 miles from Primm, Nev.

At a hearing last week before a federal magistrate, prosecutors agreed that if Connelly leaves by 1 p.m. Friday , they will dismiss a trespassing charge pending against her, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

But if Connelly does not move by the deadline, prosecutors will instead seek a warrant for her arrest that afternoon, he said.

As long as she vacates her house, prosecutors will not object to her staying temporarily with friends on other property within the 1.6-million acre preserve if she cannot orchestrate the move by Friday, Mrozek said.

For Connelly, this week could mark the end of her long fight with National Park officials.

"I'm just frantic here," said Connelly, who is struggling to find vehicles to pull trailers loaded with her possessions and animals. "It's down to the wire."

Connelly, 44, says that her father bought their six-room house when her family moved from Hemet in the 1960s. She disputes a contention by park officials who say the family leased, but never owned the land that sits within the Mojave National Preserve, created in 1994.

Connelly's father died in 1990 and her mother died about three years ago.

Authorities argue that Connelly's name is not on the lease, and she is not entitled to live on the land.

Connelly was cited last year for allegedly trespassing on federal land. She pleaded not guilty and her trial, scheduled for last week, was delayed a month.

If convicted, she faces up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Connelly said she ultimately had no choice but to agree to move.

Under a deal reached last year, the Park Service bought Connelly a double-wide mobile home on 3 acres near Lovell, Wy., about 145 miles east of Yellowstone National Park. Escrow closed earlier this year.

"It was a pretty extraordinary deal and the intention was for her to move to the property obtained for her by the federal government at some cost." Mrozek said.

But Connelly's plans to move stalled during the past several months as she struggled without success to obtain a health certificate needed to transport her horse to another state.

Connelly said she intends to leave in the coming days, if she can find help from friends or sympathizers who can aid her in transporting her belongings and animals to Wyoming.