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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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