Beating a Dead Horse
Bill Stiffler sits on the front porch of his office, his sun-crisped face shaded by the wide brim of his white cowboy hat. He's watching over the ten acres that are home to Friends of Horses Rescue and Adoption, the nonprofit he started in 2001. A decade earlier, he had gone to an auction with his brother and discovered how many horses get bought by "killer buyers," those who sell them to slaughterhouses. After that, he began buying slaughter-bound horses on a small scale, training and selling them for adoption.
Post-9/11, Stiffler's meeting-and-events business began suffering, and he wanted to do something more meaningful. So he turned his energy to creating Friends of Horses.
Since then, Stiffler has been a vocal critic of the way slaughterhouses brutally kill horses, even criticizing Colorado State University for auctioning horses to known killer buyers. Over the past four years, Stiffler claims to have rescued and adopted out close to 400 horses. He says he's broke, bankrupt even, but persists because he loves animals. "I know what it is that I'm supposed to be doing, and I know why I'm supposed to be doing it," he says. "I'm not a religious fanatic, but I do believe in God, and I don't think he'd like his creatures treated this way."
But not everyone sees Stiffler the way he sees himself. People who have worked with him or attempted to adopt from him describe a man who cares only about the sale, a cowboy who rides lame horses, neglects his animals and lies to potential adopters about their condition. He's even been accused of drugging the stock to cover up any discrepancies.
These complaints sparked an animal-cruelty-and-neglect investigation by the Denver Dumb Friends League that is still ongoing, though the league has never filed charges. The Colorado Department of Agriculture's Farm Products Division, which deals with bonding and licensing, is also investigating Friends of Horses. Last year, the City of Greenwood Village issued a summons to Stiffler following a number of zoning and animal-abuse calls. He settled out of court with the city after agreeing to move himself and his business out of town and to never do business again within city limits. He now has five locations, including his main headquarters in Englewood, which a church in California purchased for him last year for $1.4 million.
Leaning back in his chair, Stiffler smiles as he prepares to defend himself against the allegations. With his deep, hoarse voice, he tries to discredit the people he feels are simply spiteful and out to get him. He says his troubles began with a "spoiled, bitter bitch" named Dawn Blakely, whom he told to get "her motherfucking ass off my fucking property."
Blakely and her daughter, Toree, started volunteering at the rescue in February. Toree fell in love with a big, red horse named Rusty that Stiffler said he'd rescued from a killer buyer. She and her mother agreed to adopt him and another older horse for $1,900. Stiffler told Blakely that both horses were sound and rideable, so she paid half the fee and called Stiffler's veterinarian for a check.
The vet told Blakely that the older horse was lame in three legs and that Rusty had a hip problem and would only be rideable for another year. So Blakely told Stiffler that she would pay only $950 for Rusty and that she didn't want the other animal. Stiffler backed out of the deal and sold Rusty to another family for $1,800. Blakely eventually got her deposit back -- after one bounced check.
Later, Blakely and her daughter learned that Rusty was back at Friends of Horses. Terri Randolph returned the horse because his condition had again been misrepresented. He was not "kid-broke," as she'd been led to believe, and no one had told her about the hip problem or the fact that he had strangles, a strep-like infection that can be deadly. Stiffler refused to return her money, so she eventually accepted another horse.
Ashley Leary, a sheriff's deputy in Douglas County, reported her experience with Friends of Horses to the Department of Agriculture after attempting to adopt a horse this summer. She told them that volunteers and employees, including Stiffler, didn't seem to know anything about horses. Pens were overcrowded. Sick and injured horses were outside without shelter. When Leary decided she wasn't going through with the adoption, she asked for her money back, but Stiffler never returned her calls. She disputed the charge with her credit-card company, and it, not Friends of Horses, refunded the money.
Last month, Regina Prevosto, of the Trail of Hope Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation in Sedalia, got a firsthand look at the condition of Stiffler's animals at an auction he was holding to raise money to pay off a killer buyer before the man reclaimed his horses. Prevosto had sent out a mass e-mail before the event, asking for donations so she could adopt. "You normally don't rescue horses from a rescue, but these horses were in as bad or worse shape than horses I have rescued," she says.
Prevosto purchased six horses for $2,300, including a mare with a strangles abscess on its neck that was oozing puss, and its foal, which also had the highly contagious disease. Both animals were being kept in the same pens as other horses. Another of Prevosto's adoptees was an underweight pony that she later discovered was still producing milk because it had recently foaled. No one could tell her where the baby had gone. A final foal that she chose was lying on the ground, barely moving. According to Prevosto, none of the horses had been fed that day.
"Morally, it's reprehensible that the horses are in the condition they're in," she says.
When John West began volunteering in September 2003, he found that hay was often moldy and that there were no vet checkups done on the animals unless an adopter arranged and paid for it. Horses weren't being inoculated, and veterinarians were seldom called out, even for sick horses, because Stiffler was so in arrears with them, according to sources who wish to remain anonymous for fear of harm to themselves and their horses.
Since then, the Denver Dumb Friends League has issued Stiffler several warnings, requiring him to obtain veterinary care for certain horses brought to their attention by concerned callers.
"I don't encourage people to [adopt] there," says Dr. Lois Toll, a veterinarian with the Littleton Large Animal Clinic, which Stiffler owes at least $6,000.
For West, the saddest story was that of a horse named Excalibur. After years spent pulling carriages on the 16th Street Mall, Excalibur had joint problems, ringbone and forms of tendonitis, causing severe pain in his front legs. He wasn't rideable, but he was adopted out as such three different times, West says. "Each time he was brought back because either Bill had not disclosed the horse's health problems or gave them inadequate information.
"When you're running a rescue, you need to make sure the horse is going somewhere where it's not going to end up at another auction or dead due to neglect," West adds. "From what I've seen, Bill's only screening procedure is 'Did the check clear?'"
Stiffler admits there were times when one of his trainers, who no longer works for him, sold horses under false pretenses in order to make a bonus or a commission. But he is adamant that he always refunded money to anyone who brought a horse back, unless it was a horse he reclaimed for neglect.
When West confronted Stiffler with his concerns, he says Stiffler ordered him away. Since then, West has been trying to access the nonprofit's tax records, to no avail.
Stiffler claims that West is a radical, right-wing weirdo who creeped out the other volunteers and destroyed the rescue's database when he left. "He turns around and says, 'Bill, I want to see your 990s,'" says Stiffler, who has not yet filed an annual report with the state this year. "I'm like, 'Fuck you, John. Kiss my ass. Come over here, you piece of shit. He knows it's going to be difficult for me to get my 990s. I have to go back through bank statements and brand inspections, because I don't have the information any longer."
But this isn't the first time Stiffler's had financial -- or people -- troubles. He has been taken to civil court over unpaid debts at least a dozen times, including failure to pay child support last year. Reports from the special advocate in his divorce case described Stiffler as a man with a drinking problem who would start a fight at a public place in front of his children, a man whom the children worried would not take care of the family's pet dog if it were left in his possession.
At the September 29, 2004, sentencing hearing, Stiffler's attorney argued that his client did not have the money to pay his child-support obligations. The judge disagreed, saying Stiffler "dealt with the horse-rescue agency as his private pocketbook. He withdrew money from it at will for his own purposes. None of those purposes benefited the children."
Stiffler's own lawyer said his client had used the horse rescue's accounts to pay his mortgage for two or three months and "treated those accounts as personal in the past," but the lawyer said he advised Stiffler such actions violated 501(c)(3) and corporate-shield rules.
Still, Stiffler maintains that he hasn't used the rescue for his own purposes and that the adoption fees, which range from $500 to $3,000, have never covered his expenses. "When I say this is a nonprofit, it's a nonprofit," he says. "I'm in foreclosure. I'm filing bankruptcy. I'm so broke I can't pay attention. So if they think I'm absconding with all this dough, I sure wish they'd tell me where I put it, because I must have Alzheimer's.
"My intention when I started this thing was really to do something good," he adds. "I can be a very difficult person to deal with. I just don't like it when people screw with me."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.