Animal cruelty case: Shelter upset at deal that returned animals to part-time Santa Bill Lee

Last week, we told you the latest in the case of Bill Lee, an Idaho Springs rancher and mall Santa whose animals were seized in a cruelty investigation. Lee has agreed to plead guilty to one count of animal cruelty and has been granted a two-year deferred judgment -- meaning that if he complies with a set of conditions for two years, he won't be convicted of any crime.

But one of the animal shelters that housed some of Lee's seized animals as the court case unfolded is unhappy with that resolution.

Denkai Animal Sanctuary in Grover housed thirteen of Lee's donkeys, as well as several llamas, alpacas, sheep and goats, after they were seized from Lee's ranch. Late last year, while reporting our story on Lee, "Santa is Grounded," we spoke with Denkai president Floss Blackburn about Lee's animals.

Of all the animals, she said the donkeys were in the worst condition. While some were healthier than others, she said many had overgrown teeth and were "covered in lice," several had hoof problems and about half were too skinny. The other animals were better off than the donkeys, she said, though some were also on the thin side.

Since arriving at Denkai, she told us that the animals were receiving veterinary care and that most of them were improving. However, one eighteen-year-old donkey, Horace, had to be euthanized because his teeth were in such bad shape that he kept choking when he ate.

Lee was originally charged with 32 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty in four separate court cases, and more than one hundred of his animals were seized.

But some believe the charges against him were inflated. For instance, Lee says that some of the reindeer that animal control officers alleged were being abused were simply older animals with natural old-age health problems that he was allowing to live out their lives. As for the allegedly abused donkeys, he explains that six of them were wild burros that he'd taken from someone who didn't want them anymore. It's true that they had some issues, but Lee says he was working to resolve them.

Two of the four cases against Lee were dropped in February. The plea deal he cut this month requires the county to return all of the animals it seized from him that were not sold or adopted out and pay him $15,000 in compensation for those that were.

Last week, per that deal, the county returned eighteen animals to Lee, including several dogs, donkeys, sheep and reindeer, as well as a llama, an alpaca and a horse. They joined sixteen other animals that were returned to Lee when the two cases were dropped in February and two reindeer that a friend bought back for him in November.

Some of the returned animals had been housed at Denkai, according to an e-mail alert sent by the shelter last week. And Denkai isn't happy about it. "Many of the animals returned to Mr. Lee have special needs and we have concerns that those will not be addressed and will lead to poor health and suffering for these animals that took the better part of a year to fully recover after coming to our facility," the e-mail says.

It goes on to ask recipients to take action by contacting the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency through which Lee holds a license to exhibit some of his animals, and tell them "it is not right that a person who has plead guilty to charges of animal neglect be allowed to continue to be licensed through their program."

We've left several messages for Denkai and Blackburn about their concerns but haven't heard back. We'll update this post if and when we do. In the meantime, read the text of Denkai's e-mail below. (Note: The number of total charges against Lee, and the number of charges to which he agreed to plead guilty, are incorrect in the e-mail.)

Continue to read the e-mail from Denkai. Denkai Animal Sanctuary e-mail:

Many of you will recall that in January of 2012, Denkai took on and housed 13 donkeys that had been seized by Clear Creek County Sheriff's Department here in Colorado. Later last year in June, Clear Creek Seized more animals with a grand total of over 100 pulled from Mr. Lee's Laughing Valley Ranch due to neglect.

The evidence of neglect more than spoke for itself in these animals. Of the donkeys that arrived at Denkai, there were two that could not even walk off the trailer due to weakness from starvation and two others who could barely stand. All of the donkeys were covered in lice and riddled with internal parasites. Six were skin and bones.

One of the thirteen donkeys housed by Denkai, Horace, as Mr. Lee named him, was only 18 years old and had only a small amount of teeth left in his mouth. He was unable to properly chew hay and because of that choked. He was put on a mash diet of senior feed after our veterinarian saved his life. He made it four days before he choked again on a diet of senior feed mash. The veterinarian involved in this case on our end determined that there was nothing more we could do for him since there was no way he could maintain. Upon inspection of Horace's mouth, The vet found that his teeth had severe malocclusion with bilateral wave, in a nutshell, Horace's bottom teeth were grown so long they were into his upper gum line. He also struggled with string halt most likely due to malnourishment.

There were two donkeys in particular with elf shoe hooves because they had not been trimmed, because of this, we have had to pay for x-rays so that we can properly trim them back, they have tendon issues causing them to high step because of improper care.

Recently, Clear Creek County Courts dropped two of four open animal cruelty/neglect cases against Mr. Lee over a technicality, his "right to a speedy trial" had not been exercised. Within those cases dropped were the donkeys, llamas, sheep and alpacas that had been housed at Denkai for the past year or better. Today, every one of these animals has been returned to Mr. Lee's property due to a court order.

There were still two open cases against Mr. Lee after the above two had been dismissed. He pled guilty to ONLY two counts out of a total of 35 counts against him.

Many of the animals returned to Mr. Lee have special needs and we have concerns that those will not be addressed and will lead to poor health and suffering for these animals that took the better part of a year to fully recover after coming to our facility.

There is something you can do to make a difference for these animals. Mr. Lee holds a license with the USDA APHIS office for the reindeer, llamas, alpacas and sheep, all animals which he makes a profit off of at their expense. Current inspection paperwork dated February 7, 2013 shows several violations. Please read the report provided on the USDA's website listed below.

Please CALL the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Mr. Lee holds a license with them, it is not right that a person who has plead guilty to charges of animal neglect be allowed to continue to be licensed through their program.

Voice your concern over this situation, the only way we can help these animals now is through a public outcry.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "RiNo odors lawsuit: Judge throws out dog-treat-factory complaint against city, neighbors."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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