On the morning of August 28, Bill Stiffler, founder of Friends of Horses, a horse rescue facility in Centennial, texted Emily Klimas and Maria Lawson that he was about to take away their three horses and sell them at auction. Klimas immediately raced to the stables, where she found Stiffler.
“I’ll see you in court, you fucking bitch. Get out of here. Leave,” Stiffler said.
“I have the property under contract. I have a lease,” she responded.
“I have the property. And you can leave,” Stiffler said.
“Where’s the proof?” Klimas asked.
“Fifteen fucking years here, you stupid fucking cunt,” Stiffler replied.
The following day, Klimas returned to the property, this time with Lawson, the same recording device she’d used the day before, and an Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who soon called for backup.
Undaunted, Stiffler went on another tirade.
“See you guys in court. I guarantee the horses will be gone today,” he said.
“That would be theft. You know that, right?” Lawson shot back.
“They’ll be gone, or they’ll be fucking dead,” Stiffler replied.
That night, Lawson and Klimas, along with a sheriff’s escort that included three cars and a deputy armed with an assault rifle, moved their horses off the Friends of Horses property. They’re keeping them in a safe location until they can move them to an even better spot: Mile High Rescue, which they hope to put on the current site of the Friends of Horses stables. In July, the two women signed a contract to buy the property from Greensprings Baptist Christian Fellowship Trust, which owns the ten acres off South Peoria Street.
When the deal is done, they plan to rescue the horse rescue.
Bill Stiffler, a Littleton native who’ll turn sixty next month, founded the Friends of Horses Rescue and Adoption, as the 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity is officially known, in 2001. According to a 2014 IRS filing, Friends of Horses is “dedicated to community service, therapeutic riding and providing a humane alternative for abandoned, abused, unwanted, neglected or slaughter-bound horses.” While there’s a board of directors for Friends of Horses, headed by Stiffler’s wife, it’s Stiffler who runs the ranch and rescue.
Stiffler says he was inspired to start the rescue after he saw how horses were being mistreated, and often sold at auction to become horse meat. He found the property in Centennial, set up stables and other facilities there, and has been running Friends of Horses ever since. In addition to providing that “humane alternative,” Friends of Horses also boards horses, trains them, offers riding lessons and hosts horse camps for younger children and youth with developmental disabilities; Stiffler often shares photos of rescued horses and kids at horse camp on his Facebook profile.
According to IRS filings, Friends of Horses gets its funding from riding lessons, boarding fees, donations, fundraising events and horse sales.
There are livestock auctions frequently around Colorado. Every Wednesday, the Centennial Livestock Auction in Fort Collins attracts kill buyers — people who buy horses en masse and sell them to someone like Stiffler for a few hundred dollars more than they originally paid. According to Jacqui Avis, president of Drifter’s Hearts of Hope, another Colorado horse rescue, rescue horses are currently going for approximately sixty cents a pound at auction. Any horses that aren’t sold at auction are destined for slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, where they bring less as horse meat.
Stiffler says that it’s difficult running a horse rescue. Caring for the animals is expensive, and the charity is often strapped for cash. Today there are approximately 100 horses on the Friends of Horses property. About 80 percent of them are rescue horses; the rest are owned by people who board their own horses there.
Given its close proximity to Denver, Friends of Horses has had no problem attracting clients over the years. It’s lost plenty of them, too. Disputes between Stiffler and clients, employees and Arapahoe County officials crop up frequently. Many former clients are now members of a secret Facebook group, “I Survived FOH.”
Stiffler buys horses cheaply from kill buyers or gets them as donations, neglects them, then sells them for much higher prices to people who feel they are doing a good deed in rescuing a horse, claim former clients and employees alike.
“He’s pulling at people’s heartstrings, because these horses need rescuing from this rescue,” says Kylee Bunce, a former Friends of Horses trainer.
Friends of Horses is one of more than twenty horse rescues in Colorado, where they’re relatively easy to create. In this state, cat and dog shelters require licensing under the Pet Animal Care Facilities Program (PACFA). But horses, which are considered livestock, are not covered by PACFA. “There aren’t any specific laws, statutes or regulations that license a horse rescue,” says Nick Striegel, assistant state veterinarian at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
But Striegel’s colleague, state veterinarian Keith Roehr, is not sure that further requirements for licensing horse rescues would be feasible. “If there was a licensing structure that would have more specific requirements, it would be hard to cash fund a program like that because it would take a fair amount of resources for inspection,” he says.
Despite a lack of regulations for horse rescues in Colorado, animal-welfare laws are still enforced by Bureau of Animal Protection agents from the Colorado Department of Agriculture. But animal-welfare inspections only happen when there is a complaint. And even then, allegations can be difficult to prove.
In 2005, Stiffler was charged with six counts of animal cruelty by Arapahoe County; he was eventually found not guilty of all charges.
Joe Stafford, director of animal law enforcement at Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, has been checking on the welfare of horses at Friends of Horses for eight years and says he’s never witnessed anything illegal there. “That’s not to say that you or someone else might go out there and not find something that’s absolutely horrific,” he adds. “It’s in no way, shape, or form how I would take care of my horses. Therein lies the problem.”
“Anybody can become a 501(c)(3) and start a horse rescue. But not all horse rescues are created equal,” says Garret Leonard, director of the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center, an animal shelter located in Denver. “It has nothing to do with the amount of money you have. It has to do with the care that you provide.”
Kent Weber, who runs the Mission: Wolf sanctuary in Westcliffe, takes horses that Stiffler brings in after all available treatment options have been exhausted. If the horses can’t be saved, Weber and his staff euthanize them and feed their meat to the wolves. Asked about allegations regarding Stiffler’s treatment of people and animals, Weber responds, “After about two to five years, people have physically, mentally and financially exhausted themselves. It becomes what appears to be callous. I have observed this at a lot of other sanctuaries.”
“If people want to criticize the way we do things, yeah, if a horse is dead or needs to be put down, I’ll send it down to Mission: Wolf, where they can utilize its carcass,” Stiffler says. “That’s not a crime.”
But is it the humane alternative that Friends of Horses promises?
Terri Massey, who runs the Facebook page for Carter Livestock Horses, a business that sells horses to Stiffler, says this of some rescues: “They wrap the rescue blanket around themselves, but they’re nothing more than horse traders.”
Avis, of Drifter’s Hearts of Hope, sees irony in the Friends of Horses name. “Usually a horse in a rescue is already safe,” she says. “When people adopt from Friends of Horses, it really is like saving a horse.”
Still, some of the horses that have been reported as saved or “adopted,” as Friends of Horses likes to call it, have not turned up in forever homes. A section of the Friends of Horses website called “Happily Ever After” shows horses that supposedly were adopted. According to former clients, G2, a horse in the Happily Ever After section, was actually sent to Mission: Wolf to live out its days before becoming food for the wolves. Chuckles, another horse listed in the section, was never adopted out and still lives at Friends of Horses.
Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputies have been coming out to the Friends of Horses property for well over a decade, investigating reports of everything from alleged check fraud to harassment. “He’s not a good dude and is probably pretty dangerous,” says Thomas Sandoval, a deputy in the sheriff’s office, of Stiffler. “He has no regard for law enforcement and has gotten in my face a couple of times. He’s going to be a problem in the future, unfortunately.”
He’s been a problem in the past. In 1990, Stiffler pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in Arapahoe County. More than two decades later, he wound up back in court.
On August 10, 2016, Felix Sanchez and Stefanie Newcomb walked into Stiffler’s office to dispute their final paychecks after their jobs had ended. “Get the fuck off my property. Get the fuck out of here,” Stiffler said.
“Come on, Felix. You wanna do something?” The two stayed where they were while Sanchez called the police. Stiffler then stood up, picked up the wooden handle of an axe without a blade, and yelled, “Get out of here!” Stiffler started pushing Sanchez and a fight ensued, but the video that documents the incident, taken by Newcomb, cuts out at this point.
According to an Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office report, deputies arrived following the fight. After taking reports from all parties involved, deputies were standing with Sanchez and Newcomb on the main road at Friends of Horses. Out of nowhere, Stiffler came speeding toward them, aiming his red Jeep directly at Sanchez. “Get out of the fucking road, you faggot!” Stiffler yelled. Stiffler swerved at the last second as Sanchez jumped, narrowly avoiding getting hit by the car. The deputies then arrested Stiffler, and Arapahoe County later charged him with reckless endangerment; he successfully completed the terms of a deferred judgment, and the court dismissed the charge this past March. Sheriff’s deputies also investigated charging Stiffler with third-degree assault based on the incident, but Sanchez stopped returning phone calls from the sheriff’s office, so those charges were never pursued.
Bruce Bowker was the ranch manager at Friends of Horses at the time of the incident; he’d been there since 2008. Mary Braud, who boarded her horse at Friends of Horses from May 2014 to December 2016, says that the place ran well when Bowker was there. “Bruce had been definitely way more diligent in making sure that the work got done,” she says. But Bowker and Stiffler parted ways in September 2016, and things didn’t go as smoothly after that.
Stiffler promoted Rex Adkisson to manager, but he lasted only three months. In December 2016, Stiffler fired Adkisson and filed a lawsuit against him, charging that the former ranch manager owed Friends of Horses $4,822 for “unpaid truck and trailer rental, boarding of Plaintiff’s horses, sixteen bags of feed for Plaintiff’s horses, a 2000 Cadillac, and housing.” Stiffler said he and Adkisson had a verbal agreement that Adkisson was responsible for the outstanding amount. Adkisson denied the existence of any such agreement and countersued Stiffler for unpaid wages.
At a hearing in Arapahoe County Court in August 2017, Stiffler called a number of witnesses to testify on his behalf, including Victor Cruz, who’d just been promoted to ranch manager although he’d previously worked in the hospitality business, primarily restaurants. He told the court that he was aware of the verbal agreement between Adkisson and Stiffler, “even though his employment with Plaintiff did not begin until almost two months following the alleged agreement,” according to the judge. He determined that Cruz was not credible and found in favor of Adkisson.
“I went and I lied,” Cruz admits. “I was like, he’s my boss, he’s my landlord, and I love what I’m doing. If he needs me to lie, I’ll lie.”
Stiffler declined Westword’s interview requests “due to pending litigation,” he said. But he’s continued to answer some questions through texts and by phone. For example, he says that Cruz is lying about lying, and points out that the man was homeless when he hired him. Stiffler frequently hires people fresh out of jail or living on the street.
“He’s actually a really good dude. Anytime I’ve needed help, bam, he’s there for me,” says Pablo Pacheco, a former employee whom Stiffler hired after Pacheco got out of prison six years ago.
Cruz worked at Friends of Horses from November 2016 until February 2018. He started out optimistic, excited for an opportunity to work with horses for the first time. “I had never worked at a ranch before,” he says. “I felt encouraged, thinking I could make a positive change. So I put in more effort. But as time went on, I quickly realized that it’s a rescue by name, but not the way Bill runs it.”
If employees and clients think that Stiffler treated them badly, they really worry about the horses.
Christina Morlang started visiting Friends of Horses about three years ago, when her daughter wanted to lease a horse. The water troughs in the horses’ pens were often empty, even in summer, she says; sometimes dead mice would be floating in the water. In the winter, when the water in the troughs froze, she and others took action. “I would set my alarm for 5 a.m., go up there and break water with a hammer or a shovel,” she recalls. “Turns out I got frostbite. My toes were just ungodly ugly. By the time you break all the water, they’d be frozen again until the sun came out in full force.”
Some of the stalls that were at the bottom of a hill would often fill with rain water, Morlang adds. Horses would get stuck in the mud that developed, and that sometimes led to horses developing abscesses on their feet.
Kirk Stanley, a horse farrier, has been trimming horse hooves for the past fourteen years. A client of his adopted a horse named Moses from Friends of Horses. According to Stanley, Moses, who’d been there for nine months, had the worst feet of an Arabian horse that he’d ever seen. “That horse had to have been pretty severely neglected to get into that condition. I’ve never seen one that far out of sorts,” he says. “I’d be surprised if that horse had had his feet trimmed in the last year.”
Horses hooves should be trimmed every six to eight weeks, according to most vets. Adequate foot care that prevents a horse from becoming lame is required by Colorado’s animal-welfare laws, according to the state veterinarian’s office.
According to both former clients and employees, when horses get sick in the night, Stiffler waits until morning to call the vet; they say he doesn’t want to pay the extra money for emergency nighttime care. Sometimes it takes longer.
In July, a horse named Gunny stepped on a nail. The on-site veterinary technician treated Gunny’s injury, but the wound became infected, and Gunny’s leg swelled up beyond recognition. Clients complained, but Stiffler waited two full weeks before getting a vet to look at Gunny, they say. Not long after that, Gunny had to be put down.
“A horse shouldn’t die from neglect,” says one boarder. “Nothing was done.”
But simply questioning something like how often a horse’s hooves are trimmed or asking for a vet can be an expellable offense at Friends of Horses.
According to Morlang, if you question the way that things are done, you are asked to leave. “The rules are, often you could not change your horse’s water,” she recalls. “The reason behind that was because water is expensive. If you changed your water, cleaned it or filled it up, you would be asked to leave. If you brought in a water heater and plugged it in, you’re breaking the rules, and you’d be asked to leave. And because you broke the rules, you wouldn’t be allowed to purchase the horse, and your horse would be left behind.”
Cheryl Ochs, who volunteered for years at Friends of Horses and spent much of her own money on supplemental hay for horses, says she was kicked off the property for reporting an empty water trough.
The typical retaliation from Stiffler would be a text message or an in-person argument in which he would tell the complaining party that they had thirty days to get any horse they owned off the property, several former clients say. If they were in the process of buying one, the deal was canceled.
Now two former clients are ready to challenge Stiffler on his own turf.
Maria Lawson, who’s 31 and originally from Las Vegas, has been around horses for most of her life. When she was thirteen, she got her first horse; she was soon competing in horse shows. After she moved to metro Denver, she started volunteering at Friends of Horses in January 2017. “They had so many horses on the property that needed care,” she remembers. “I wanted to help them all, so I kept on coming.”
At Friends of Horses, she met Emily Klimas, 32, a Colorado native and fellow University of Colorado Boulder alum. Klimas, too, has ridden horses competitively, and traveled around the country breaking and training the animals. Klimas started coming to Friends of Horses in 2016. “I needed something that was close and convenient to my everyday life so I could ride five days a week,” she says. Once she got there, she saw that many of the horses were in bad shape, and she tried to save as many as she could.
Lawson and Klimas worked together at Friends of Horses to save a horse named Rhett, who seemed destined for slaughter. After they were successful, they realized they might work well together as professional partners, says Klimas.
After observing all the problems at Friends of Horses, they decided to try doing it there, and contacted the owner of the property.
Carleton L. Briggs, a California attorney who’s head of the Greensprings Baptist Christian Fellowship Trust, which owns the Centennial property, says that the trust had leased the land to Stiffler free of charge because he thought “the work that Bill is doing in terms of the horse rescue and working with troubled kids was good, worthwhile work.” Until he spoke with Westword, he says he’d never heard any complaints about the conditions at Friends of Horses: “This is news to me. I had no idea that any such allegations were made.”
After Klimas and Lawson made the trust an offer, Briggs agreed to sell them the property; the deal is set to be finalized at the end of October. The partners have already registered their nonprofit, Mile High Rescue, with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
Klimas and Lawson say they’ve offered Friends of Horses the opportunity to continue operating the horse rescue if it reduces the number of horses it rescues and relinquishes the boarding and training aspects of its work. But Stiffler is intent on maintaining full control, they add, making a potential partnership all but impossible.
Stiffler is not giving up his horse rescue without a fight. He and his lawyer, Duncan Barber, have told Briggs that Stiffler will be suing him for breaking a 99-year lease. Briggs has asked Stiffler and his lawyer to show the trust the alleged 99-year lease; no document has been produced. (Barber declined to comment.)
Meanwhile, Stiffler appears to be adding to his war chest. This summer, Violet Blake took her two sons to horse camp at Friends of Horses. In July, on the last day of camp, Stiffler hired Blake as an employee. Stiffler frequently drove Blake to work, since she didn’t own a car. According to Blake, after only a few weeks, she and Stiffer decided that it would be appropriate for Blake’s 97-year-old grandmother, who is in the hospital with leukemia, to donate money to Friends of Horses.
Her grandmother had previously been sending money to a bird sanctuary in Africa. Blake and her parents had no idea if that organization was legitimate, so they showed her a Friends of Horses brochure and suggested she donate there instead. “I know that she definitely wants a lot of the inheritance and the estate to go to Friends of Horses,” says Blake.
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Blake had been working at Friends of Horses for only a short time, however, when things got contentious. A horse stepped on her foot, breaking some of her toes. Days later, Stiffler fired Blake in an email sent to her grandmother. In the email, Stiffler said he was disappointed in Blake’s work; he even took money out of Blake’s last paycheck because he’d given her kids lunch money for school one day, Blake says.
In the email, Stiffler also claimed that he never got any money from her grandmother, Blake says, adding that Stiffler must have received at least one check, because her grandmother’s bank statements indicate a check was deposited by Stiffler.
The rescue is currently under a Colorado Department of Agriculture lockdown — not because of any complaints regarding Friends of Horses, but because Colorado is in the middle of an outbreak of equine infectious anemia, which is a death sentence for any infected horse. Since one of the horses that was recently brought to the rescue may have been exposed to the sickness, no horses can go in or out of the facility until the sixty-day hold is over.
By then, Bill Stiffler himself may be out. Not only could the sale of the property to Klimas and Lawson be concluded by then, but according to a Bureau of Animal Protection official, Stiffler is once again being investigated for alleged animal neglect and cruelty.