Horse cruelty trial: Was toxic weed responsible for sickening animals?

Update: This morning I spoke by phone with Randall Hatlee, one of the two ranchers found not guilty on misdemeanor animal neglect charges in the much-scrutinized Park County case involving several ailing horses, described in my original post below.

While Hatlee expressed some frustration with the investigation he and Ronald Swift went through, he also wanted to warn others about the toxic weed that he believes sickened his horses.

"We were falsely accused of a lot of things," says Hatlee. "It was a hard thing for us. We're still looking for answers."

Although animal control officers temporarily removed seven emaciated horses from the Echo Valley Ranch, even Hatlee's accusers concede that there were numerous other horses on the property that appeared to be well cared for. Hatlee says the ailing horses were also well-fed, but were younger and may have not had the same resistance to illness. "Those horses were definitely sick," he says. "As close as we can tell, they got sick with a toxic poisoning."

Hatlee suspects the culprit was hoary alyssum, a weed that has flourished on his ranch in recent drought conditions: "We've lost two-thirds of our pasture land because this weed is so prominent. We will be spraying for the next three years."

He and Swift were in the process of figuring out the safest way to transport the sickest horses to Colorado State University for testing, he adds, when Park County officers seized the group -- and incurred $8,000 in vet bills for treatment that a judge later ruled must be paid by the county, not the ranchers.

Continue for my previous coverage of this story.

Original post, 8:50 a.m. March 5: In a case that's been closely watched by animal-rights activists and has bitterly divided some elements of the local community, a Park County jury has found Randall Hatlee and Ronald Swift not guilty of misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges more than a year after seven emaciated horses were seized from Echo Valley Ranch near Bailey and one died of a bacterial infection.

Authorities said the horses showed obvious signs of neglect, and some, including Little Big Man (pictured below), were so weak they could hardly rise without assistance.But a judge later ordered all but one of the horses, which had gained weight substantially while in foster care, returned to Swift and Hatlee.

According to this account in the Park County Republican & Fairplay Flume, 11th Judicial District Attorney Thom LeDoux summed up his case by stressing experts' testimony on the poor condition of the seized animals and showing photos documenting how the horses improved under others' care. But defense attorney Darrell Campbell insisted his clients had been properly watering and feeding the horses and suggested that consumption of toxic weeds might have been a factor in their deterioration.

Hatlee and Swift, Campbell told the jury, "have a passion for their horses."

Gene Ferraro, a retired corporate investigator who followed the trial, which concluded late last week, told Westword he was surprised by the verdict. "Animal-abuse cases are tough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," he notes. "This one was particularly difficult, because there were other horses on the property that appeared to be doing quite well."

Ferraro adopted one horse from Echo Valley who'd been found in a stall covered in feces, suffering from pressure sores and too weak to stand. "While there could have been doubt about what caused his condition, I believe the owners did have a duty to seek help for him and the other horses, and they didn't do that," he says.

Continue for our previous coverage of the Little Big Man case, including more photos. "Photos: Horses seized after alleged neglect ordered back to original owners" By Kylie Horner Published April 12, 2012

On Saturday, Evergreen-based horse rescuer Monika Courtney organized a benefit concert for six emaciated horses seized by the Park County Sheriff's Office from owners Ron Swift and Randall Hatlee of Bailey. The event was a success, raising $7,800, and participants assumed the horses (including one named Little Big Man, seen here and in photos below) would soon be adopted into better homes. But that was before an unexpected -- and, to Courtney, unhappy -- turn. As Alan Prendergast reported last week, Swift and Hatlee were charged with three counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. But during a hearing on Monday, a Park County judge ruled that the horses should be given back to their original owners.

Courtney was shocked. "Nobody in their right minds expected these animals to be going back to Swift," she says. She describes the judge's decision as "outrageous," adding, "These animals were severely starved and neglected. I think this man should never get these animals back. It's not common sense."

In light of the judge's ruling, Courtney says she is withholding the money raised at the concert, which was earmarked to cover the vet fees. "It's going into an account for safekeeping," she says. "We were going to pay the vet bill, but right now I don't know what to do. So I'm going to wait for the latest developments."

After the hearing, Park County Animal Control Sergeant Bobbi Priestly sent an e-mail to Park County Undersheriff Monte Gore expressing concern over the situation. Here's an excerpt:

This is a very difficult e-mail for me to write. While at the Bond Hearing today, I was not sure what was going to happen and I am appalled as to what did happen. The Judge ruled to give the horses back to the owners. I do not know why this happened. We had probable cause on the warrant to seize the horses, but the Judge stated that he thought since the owners had a licensed veterinarian treating the horses prior to the seizure we should have left them there. We, the Sheriff's Office, are going to be responsible for all the bills and have been ordered to pay the owners back for what they would have paid to care for the horses out of the bond all ready posted.

I think the District Attorney should have mentioned the facts of the case better. The fact that Maggie [one of the horses] died was only brought up briefly and this should have been driven home. A horse died on the property and Chance the sickest of the six seized was unable to rise without assistance. It was not driven home that the only thing that the horses have been given is food and water to improve. I simply cannot believe this has happened. We will be at the ranch weekly I assure you keeping a close eye on the horses. If the horses start to drop weight we will seize them again. So many facts that jump out at me were not brought up at this "Preliminary Hearing" as that is what it was.

More evidence that the horses hadn't been receiving sufficient care prior to their seizure: According to The Flume newspaper, the six horses began gaining weight after they were seized.

"If that vet claims they were okay, that vet should not have a vet's license," Courtney says. "These horses needed immediate help -- that's obvious to me and many others."

Westword has placed an interview request with the Park County District Attorney's Office. We'll update this post with any response.

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?"

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