Witnesses Describe Malnourished Horses At Animal Cruelty Trial - The Caledonian-Record - St. Johnsbury, VT
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The Caledonian-Record | St. Johnsbury, VT

home : top news : top news July 28, 2015

3/14/2013 9:15:00 AM
Witnesses Describe Malnourished Horses At Animal Cruelty Trial
Jennifer Hersey Cleveland
Staff Writer

HYDE PARK -- An animal cruelty case that is serving as the lynchpin for a proposed change in the laws regarding forfeiture of animals in cruelty cases went to trial in Lamoille Superior Court-Criminal Division Wednesday.

Richard Fletcher, 52, of Jeffersonville is charged with six counts of animal cruelty by depriving his six horses of food, water or medical care.

Since the horses were seized by the state police, they've been housed by private foster care providers -- at the expenses of the foster parents and PETS of the Kingdom, a rescue organization that investigates cruelty cases.

On the first day of what is expected to be a three-day trial, Vermont's Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, who with his wife, Kim, is fostering two of the mares at his home, made a brief appearance to show his support of the people who brought the case to trial.

In his official capacity, Flynn has also supported proposed legislation that would require courts to hold forfeiture hearings within 42 days of the seizure of the animals or post a $5,000 bond for each animal to pay for their care while awaiting trial.

Since the horses were seized in Jan. 2011, 14 months ago, their care has cost more than $25,000. That kind of expenditure puts the very existence of groups like PETS at risk, according to founders Renee Falconer, who testified during the trial Wednesday, and Vickie Connor.

"The abuse and neglect of animals is a public safety issue," Flynn wrote in a statement read at Humane Lobby Day at the State House Feb. 28.

Prior to the jury coming into the courtroom Wednesday, Lamoille County Deputy State's Attorney Christopher Moll told Judge Gregory Rainville there is a dispute between he and defense attorney Marc Eagle regarding showing the jury photos of "what horses should look like."

Eagle said he was moving for dismissal of one count regarding a mare named Joy who was later euthanized due to a medical condition.

If Fletcher is acquitted, Eagle said, he is entitled to the return of his horses, but Joy can no longer return to Fletcher's home.

Moll scoffed at that premise, saying murder charges are not dismissed because the victim can't come back home.

Rainville denied the motion to dismiss, and Moll withdrew his request to show the photos of how the horses looked four months after seizure, saying he didn't want to open the door for Eagle to ask questions about Joy's euthanization.

Deferring to an earlier decision from Judge Dennis Pearson, Rainville also denied a motion to consolidate the counts, which Eagle argued could mean "stacked convictions" in violation of Fletcher's right to avoid double jeopardy or multiple punishments for the same offense.

In his opening statement, Moll told the jury that the attention of state police Sergeant Julie Cooper was drawn to Fletcher's horses after veterinarian David Sequist received complaints that the horses were being neglected.

Moll said the horses -- which were without adequate food and water - were substantially underweight with matted coats. Despite multiple attempts by Sequist and his vet tech Becky Williams to help Fletcher get the horses back up to their proper weight, Fletcher continued to deny the horses hay, supplemental feed, or pastures upon which to graze over the next several months.

While the jury needed only to concern itself with whether Fletcher denied the six horses food, water and medical care on Jan. 8, 2012, the day they were seized, Moll said, "But certainly this did not happen out of the blue."

Eagle named the horses in his opening statement, saying Fletcher has raised them since they were young.

The allegation is that he denied the horses essentials, Eagle said. "You'll learn from Mr. Fletcher that he supplied all of them -- maybe not to the degree other individuals would like."

The jury would be shown photos of the horses, Eagle said. "You'll see these horses in what would appear to be very good health."

The state is seeking a conviction for what might happen to the horses in the future, Eagle said. Fletcher was making good progress when the horses were seized, he said.

"Mr. Fletcher was making reasonable efforts to take care of these horses," Eagle said.

One after another, the state's witnesses described Belgians as much as 400 pounds underweight, with ribs, hips, and backbones sticking out due to the lack of flesh and muscle on the horses' bodies.

They described cracked and overgrown hooves that had not been trimmed in quite some time and distended bellies due to malnutrition and parasites.

Witnesses said on multiple visits, horses were not provided with water, hay, supplemental feed, or pasture land. There was not evidence that the horses had been fed, like remnants of hay bales. Some witnesses said the horses were eating branches off birch trees because there was no other food available.

Witnesses included Debra Loring, administrator of the state's animal cruelty reporting system, former state veterinarian Peggy Larson, veterinarian Richard Bartholomew, Falconer, and Williams, who wrote a petition in support of the change in forfeiture law.

Loring said the first complaint about three Belgians and one cross on Junction Hill Road and a Percheron being kept confined with a goat and sheep in a tennis court in the downtown of Jeffersonville came her way in July 2011. It was not until October that she learned about a sixth horse on Canyon Road.

Larson testified that she graded the horses' body conditions using a scale from one to nine, which indicates an overweight horse. She graded three horses at a two, meaning they were severely underweight, and one at a three.

Larson said she offered the Percheron inside the tennis court some grass she'd picked. "Oh my God. He just went nuts. He was literally shaking in his boots to get some grass," Larson said.

The horses she viewed, while not starving to death, were not in good enough condition to survive a winter outside, she said. "When a horse resorts to eating birch branches, they're hungry," Larson said.

Upon cross examination, Eagle showed Larson a photo of Amy, one of the horses, in which her bones were not obviously protruding.

But Larson said she wouldn't expect to be able to see bones since Amy's winter coat, however poor it was due to malnutrition, had started to grow in and camouflage her bone structure.

Williams, who has 33 years experience working with Sequist, spent a great deal of time with the horses and spoke about the recommendations they gave Fletcher to get his horses back up to a proper weight.

Williams said Sequist even offered to find homes for the horses if the financial burden to care for them was too great for Fletcher.

"They're his horses. He'll care for them the way he does. They're his," Williams said was Fletcher's reply.

Both believed Fletcher would comply, but when they returned about a month later, "They were thinner. They were much thinner," Williams said. But Fletcher believed the horses were looking better.

Fletcher made some effort to care for the horses, Williams said, like getting some to good pasture land and de-worming one horse, and Sequist was hopeful they'd be up to weight for the winter.

By October, Sequist was getting frustrated.

Moll asked if Williams was frustrated at that point as well.

"Oh, I was frustrated months ago, months ago," Williams said.

By January Sequist and Williams were convinced the horses had to be seized to save their lives.

Thursday's evidence will begin promptly at 8:30 a.m. The state is expected to rest by noon, but neither party seemed hopeful that the jury would have the case in its hands before Friday.

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