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

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"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.
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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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