Agreed judgment reached in horse seizure hearing
Following a more than five-hour seizure hearing presided over by Justice of the Peace Harold Kennington, County Attorney Jas Wallace reached an agreed judgment with respondents Deanna Tierney and Patricia Sowka.
The civil proceeding held Friday in the Camp County District courtroom was in response to the June 27 seizure of 159 equines from Scarlet’s Legacy Equine Rescue. Tierney is the founder and president of the nonprofit organization, and Sowka, the owner of the 45-acre property on County Road 3324 that housed the animals.
They both agreed to, according to the court document, “relinquish any and all rights” to the 159 equines and that all the animals “be awarded to Safe Haven Rescue to be adopted out after 15 days from the date of this order.”
Tierney and Sowka did not have a lawyer representing them during the hearing. Tierney asked for a continuance; however, Kennington, who told The Gazette there was no attorney on record for them, denied the request for a continuance, saying the hearing would continue.
Among those who testified for the state were Camp County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) Chief Deputy Chris Clark, Dr. Daniel Kincaid, a veterinarian with Pittsburg Veterinary Clinic, and representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Safe Haven Equine Rescue and Retirement Home.
Clark testified about the timeline of the criminal investigation that led to Tierney’s June 6 arrest on five counts of cruelty to livestock animals and the June 27 seizure of the equines from the Camp County property.
Clark said the investigation began Oct. 15, 2015, when a citizen called the sheriff ’s office to report dead horses and others in poor condition at the rescue. A week later, Richard Fincher with Safe Haven Equine Rescue contacted the CCSO with similar concerns.
“Safe Haven had received calls, and after they drove by the property, they notified us of what they saw, not knowing that we were already aware of the situation,” Clark testified.
Clark said deputies met with Tierney on Oct. 26, 2018, and she allowed them to photograph the equine and the condition of the property. Due to her explanation that she received the animals from kills pens already in an unhealthy state, the department told her they would continue to monitor the nonprofit to ensure animal cruelty was not taking place.
“We continued to get more calls. On Jan. 6, 2019, we had another anonymous call requesting a welfare check on the horses, and on Feb. 6, we had a conference call with the United States Humane Society,” Clark said.
Dr. Mikaela Vetters, a veterinarian who works with the HSUS, testified that she visited Scarlet’s Legacy with the CCSO on Feb. 14 to conduct a preliminary overview of the property and an evaluation.
“I found a situation which I consider severe and in need of significant intervention,” Vetters testified.
During that visit, Clark testified that one horse could not get up on its own, and he and Vetters recommended that Tierney contact a veterinarian for immediate care for the horse.
“Was the vet contacted? Wallace asked Clark.
“No, sir,” Clark replied.
Clark also revealed during testimony that they made a shocking discovery.
“We found a large pit or a hole filled with numerous, numerous horse carcasses, equine carcasses. It was pretty disturbing,” Clark testified.
Clark estimated the number of carcasses that were in the pit to be around 50, and three or four on the ground around the mass burial site.
At that point during the hearing, Kennington asked Tierney and Sowka if they would like to view the photos taken by Clark before Wallace entered them into evidence. They said they would, and Wallace showed the graphic pictures on a large screen to the court while Clark described the images.
Clark said while the CCSO continued to build its case, six more horses were found dead on the property on March 14; two were visible from the road.
“Ms. Tierney advised us that she was down to 72 equines on the property and advised us that there were three dead, but Investigator (Calvin) Lamont found six dead instead of three,” Clark said.
It was April 3 when Susan Sarles, an owner of six horses boarded at Scarlet’s Legacy, contacted the CCSO with concerns about the welfare of the horses she'd bought from a kill pen in Kansas in December 2018.
“Ms. Sarles had received information that they had lost weight and appeared to be malnourished. She provided photographs of those six horses. One of the six had already died, and she was concerned about the remaining five,” Clark said.
The CCSO compared the photographs from December 2018 to those they took on June 5. Clark testified that one of the horses was down when they went to document their condition and Dr. Katheryn Juneau, a veterinarian at Pittsburg Veterinary Clinic, was en route at that time to check on the horse.
“We talked to Dr. Juneau about it, and she said the cause for that horse being down was most likely neglect by Ms. Tierney not providing the necessary nutrients. The horse was still alive at that point, but later died overnight,” Clark said.
The CCSO requested that Juneau perform a necropsy on the horse and then obtained a seizure warrant for Sarles’ remaining four horses.
“We executed five counts of animal cruelty warrants for Ms. Tierney, and we returned with a search warrant to get a correct and true number of horses on the property,” Clark said. “We felt like Ms. Tierney was deceitful on the numbers.”
That search warrant revealed that there were 163 equines on the property, and on June 27 after issuing a second seizure warrant, 159 were taken from the property and transported to an undisclosed location where they continue to be cared for by Safe Haven and the HSUS.
At 11:35 a.m., before the second set of photographs was to be entered into evidence and shown in court, Tierney and Sowka requested a conference with the prosecutor to reach an agreed judgment. The court hearing recessed until after lunch, and the agreement was reached at 1:42 p.m.
As part of the agreement, Wallace granted Sowka immunity from prosecution of the offense of animal cruelty regarding the 159 equines and Sowka agreed to cooperate with any pending investigations or prosecutions that may occur regarding the 159 equines, including testifying on behalf of the state.
The order further states that Tierney and Sowka may not be involved in solicitation, screening of adoption applications, or have any decisions regarding adoption placements. The women, nor their relatives, friends, acquaintances, or third parties associated with them, may not adopt, receive, or care for any of the animals forfeited in the case, including their offspring. The same condition applies to anyone associated with Scarlet’s Legacy and Northeastern Nevada Equine Rescue, the previous name of the rescue.
The second phase of the testimony focused on costs that each entity had incurred, and Kennington ordered Tierney and Sowka to pay $42,018 in restitution to Pittsburg Veterinary Clinic, Safe Haven and the HSUS, plus daily expenses until the equines are adopted out.
Even before the hearing had ended, administrators had changed the name of the Scarlet’s Legacy Equine Rescue Facebook page to Horse Nation Rescue (HNR). The administrator posted that it had acquired the Scarlet's Legacy page on July 1. Over the weekend, all previous posts had been purged.
“No former admins, owners, or others have access to comment or post on this page. We had originally intended to leave the page whole and move forward, however, due to harassment and threats received by previous commentators on posts on that content, we have decided to purge the page,” the post stated. “Admins will not answer any other questions regarding the history of this page, it’s owners, founders or others.”
The Scarlet’s Legacy website address is still active, although the post stated that a new website would launch in 30 days.
“You will find information there at that time as to who we are and the future of what we are wanting to accomplish,” the post said.
A question posed from my personal Facebook as Lynda Stringer, and not identified with The Gazette, asked whether HNR would be using the same tax-exempt number as Scarlet’s Legacy.
“I can assure you that it will NOT be using the prior rescue’s 501c3 that will be rescinded when the requirements for disbanding are met,” the administrator replied.
By Monday, the revamped HNR page had also been taken down.
According to the bond conditions signed by Tierney following her June 6 arrest, she is barred from “acquiring any animals in any manner, including purchase, rescue, boarding, or donation until disposition of any criminal case the defendant may have pending.”
Tierney declined an interview with The Gazette following the hearing Friday.
Clark told The Gazette Friday afternoon that his office is satisfied with the part of the judgment awarding the equines to Safe Haven.
“The equines are no longer in the possession of Deanna Tierney and Patti Sowka, so we don’t have to worry anymore about cruelty, so that part of it, yes,” Clark said.
Clark said the CCSO had considered charges against Sowka because she was the property owner.
“That was a possibility. (Sowka) maintained that she was not involved in Scarlet’s Legacy Equine Rescue, although she did have knowledge of the horses that were on her property. So, part of the agreement the county attorney made – and he got with us to see if we were alright with it – was that she receive immunity, and become a witness for our side in lieu of criminal charges if she surrendered her horses, and I’m fine with that,” Clark said.
Audra Houghton, the director of operations for the HSUS animal rescue team, who testified Friday in the restitution phase of the hearing, told The Gazette after the court recessed that the HSUS was pleased with the outcome of the trial.
“We were just as concerned as everyone about making sure the horses get the best of care and Safe Haven has done a fantastic job at organizing ongoing care for them, and we were very happy to be able to support that,” Houghton said.
Asked how the Camp County case rates compared to others nationally, Houghton said it’s hard to rate a case of cruelty.
“They are all individual, but it was an impactful case, certainly. There were so many animals that were in poor condition,” she said. “(Personally), it’s not something that I could compare to another case, because I’ve never seen anything like it. This is what our organization exists for, to support other agencies that need help with these large cases so that we can help get these animals on the road to recovery.”
Clark said the criminal case is in the closing stages.
“Our main focus right now is to make sure the horses that we have are taken care of,” he said. “Rehabilitating these horses is a priority.”
The CCSO, according to the judgment, has 15 days to verify owners of any the seized horses. One of those owners is 15-year-old Celeste Leon, who raced to the scene on June 27 to find her horse, Precious, which she had boarded there, had already been taken.
“She is a local Pittsburg kid. I want to see her get her horse back. She proved ownership. Deanna (Tierney) has provided documentation where (Celeste) is the owner, and as soon as we get the Coggins test results back, then we’ll start releasing horses to verified owners,” Clark said.
Kerri Downs, a volunteer with Safe Haven, said after the hearing that the Gilmer-based equine rescue is “ecstatic” with the outcome.
“They get a second chance; they get another glorious life,” she said.
Downs said the horses under their rehabilitation care are improving daily, and despite losing a mini, which received a body condition score of .05 on a scale of 1-9, she is optimistic about the equines’ chances of survival.
“I am always 100 percent optimistic, but I am also a realist. If we need to, we call a vet, and we do everything within our power to give them every possible chance at surviving,” Downs said. “I would hope and pray we don’t lose any more, but I would never guarantee it.”
In a press release issued Monday, the rescue stated, “Safe Haven Equine Rescue continues its mission of rehabilitating the horses seized by Camp County Sheriff ’s Office on June 27, 2019. These horses are receiving fresh hay every two hours and have a constant supply of clean water. A team of volunteers is supplying basic medical care, i.e., grooming, bathing, cleaning cuts, treating rain rot, cleaning eyes, and giving medication per the veterinarian’s instructions. Another team cleans their pens daily. Horses are being rotated out of pens into large fields so they can stretch their legs and roll. However, some are being kept in single pens due to their special needs. Our farrier has started hoof care, but due to the horrific condition of the hooves, it is a slow process.”
The organization thanked donors and volunteers for their work in caring for the horses. To volunteer with Safe Haven, contact Volunteer Coordinator Judy Johnson at 319-850-7864 or email her at email@example.com. Donations can be made on the Safe Haven website safehavenequinerescue.com or by mailing a check to 4994 FM 2088, Gilmer, TX 75644.