Ron Swift and Randall Hatlee -- the Echo Valley Ranch owners being charged with three counts of animal cruelty -- will have their six horses returned to them as the prosecution continues. In a probable cause hearing on April 10, Park County Judge Brian Green found that the horses wouldn't be in substantial danger if they remain in custody of their original owners. On February 23, six Echo Valley Ranch horses were seized by the Park County Sherriff's after one horse died from a bacterial infection near the heart, and six others were found emaciated.
Undersheriff Monte Gore wrote in a press release following the seizure, "It was an infection that killed the horse, however, we feel that the owner's of the horses should have contacted a qualified veterinarian much earlier then they did."
Gore added that the six horses showed improvement in health after they were placed under the custody of the Park County Sheriff's Office and given food and water.
So why did Judge Green order to return the horses to their owners? Park County DA Steve Sullivan, who is acting as the main prosecutor in the case, describes the case as a "somewhat complex legal decision" involving two components.
Under Colorado revised statute, Judge Green was looking for probable cause to believe (1) Swift and Hatlee had violated an act of animal cruelty, and (2) if kept in their custody, the horses' health would be endangered.
According to Sullivan, Judge Green did find evidence to support component one of the statute, but did not find evidence to support component two. "Judge Green concluded there was not probable cause to believe that as a result of animal cruelty, the animals were endangered," Sullivan says.
The April 10 hearing included a medical opinion by a veterinarian that influenced the judge's decision to return the horses. "The opinion was that the horses had been left out to pasture for too lengthy an amount of time without feed--so the horses were essentially neglected." Sullivan says. "But, at some point [Swift and Hatlee] did decide to bring them in from pasture in a more localized setting."
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Sullivan says Park County Animal Control will have "unfettered access to the horses" upon their return to Swift and Hatlee, where they will continue to monitor the horses' health.
Theprosecution is ongoing and the owners will return to court for a pre-trial conference on May 15 at 1 pm.
Look below to see photos of Little Big Man after he was seized, and click here to view an entire slide show of images.
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Video: Wild horse roundups featuring burros being 'hotshotted' are kinder, gentler?"