Horse Play

After seven days of deliberation in Arapahoe County -- the longest trial Judge Stephen R. Ruddick's courtroom had ever seen -- Bill Stiffler was acquitted on six counts of animal cruelty on June 21. Witnesses who testified to the neglect they had seen and documented at Stiffler's Denver-area horse rescue left the courthouse in shocked, red-eyed silence.

Stiffler testified that he created Friends of Horses Rescue and Adoption after realizing how many good animals get sent to slaughter. Since the nonprofit began five years ago, he said, he's saved over 400 horses from that fate. "This planet is being overbred," he said. "I didn't create these animals to bring them to my rescue. I'm not the one that breeds them." He paused, becoming choked up. "But I've taken in animals when people can no longer use or take care of them, and to this day I continue to do that."

About a year ago, a series of complaints about the rescue sparked an investigation by Keith Davis, a commissioned peace officer for the Colorado Bureau of Animal Protection. By September, several people had gone public with their concerns ("Beating a Dead Horse," September 29, 2005). Then in November, the state filed six counts of animal cruelty, a misdemeanor charge, against Stiffler.

At the trial, some twenty witnesses, including employees, volunteers and customers of the rescue, testified against Stiffler. The prosecution tried to show that Stiffler wouldn't treat or get vet care for sick or injured animals if they weren't "worth" the cost. "He didn't do anything until after the investigation started," said prosecutor Jacob Edson in his closing. "He didn't do anything until after [Davis and the assistant state veterinarian] came on the property."

Defense lawyer Caroline Cooley countered that "the reality is, animals die. Sometimes even our best efforts to try to save an animal don't workŠ. I submit to you Mr. Stiffler's actions were quite customary in the equine community."

In the end, jurors told Arapahoe County prosecutors Jamie Tholson and Edson that the evidence of cruelty wasn't there.

Still, Dawn Blakely, a vocal critic of Stiffler's treatment of animals and his business practices, vows not to stop her efforts. "The reason that we're here is we wanted the truth about the mistreatment of animals to be brought to the attention of the right authorities. I don't believe that the mistreatment is going to stop based on the verdict.

"I will continue to stand up for the voiceless animals until the abuse ends," she adds. "This was just six of many more animals he's mistreated. There is so much more going on under the cover of a horse rescue than was able to be addressed in court."

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Jessica Centers