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.

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Jessica Centers