Middleburg Horse Seizure Highlights Difficulties Posed By Repeat Abusers

Apr 3, 2008 - 10:00 PM

The Dennis Danley case proved that monitoring horse neglect isn’t an easy or surefire process.

Not once. Not twice. Three times.

That’s how often law enforcement has interceded on behalf of horses under the care of race horse trainer Dennis B. Danley, who was under court orders not to own or care for horses when 48 neglected Thoroughbreds were seized from a farm Danley’s training partner leased near Middleburg, Va.

The horses are now safe in the custody of Loudoun County officials. Their conditions are improving, and they’re being readied for re-homing. But questions remain—how did someone twice convicted of animal abuse come to be responsible for the care of four dozen Thoroughbreds, including stallions and mares in foal?

And how, for a third time, did animals in his care need to be rescued by humane officials?It’s been a long, slow climb, but animal abuse cases today are increasingly taken seriously by local law enforcement, instead of being brushed off as unimportant and offenders punished only with a slap on the wrist. In part this is certainly due to the tremendous public outcry over any case involving mistreatment of an animal, but also because research has shown that there’s a correlation between abuse of animals and abuse of people. Many individuals who eventually commit crimes against their fellow humans first abuse animals.

Lawmakers in all but seven states have moved to make animal abuse a felony instead of just a misdemeanor. (Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Missouri, North and South Dakota, and Utah are the remaining states without felony provisions for animal abuse.) When individuals are convicted, their sentences or plea agreements often dictate that they must seek psychiatric counseling or submit to home inspections by animal control officers. In many cases, individuals are actually barred from owning or caring for animals for a period of time.

But the Danley case illustrates just how difficult it can be to apply and enforce those protections. The priority given to animal abuse cases varies among local jurisdictions, as does the manpower dedicated to them—skinny horses in a field may not rank high on the to-do list in a particular locality, or there simply may not be enough investigators to thoroughly follow up on a complaint. For those who have already been convicted, it’s usually up to parole officers to monitor their compliance with the terms of theirprobation, if monitoring is conducted at all.

If a convicted abuser manages to slip through the cracks, animals may again be at risk.

A Trail Of Neglect

Danley, of Charles Town, W.Va., has more than 30 years of experience breeding and training race horses, according to a biography posted on the website of his business, Shenandoah Equine Investments, in 2006. (The business, founded in May 2002, was terminated in August 2006, according to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.) He stood the stallions Stately Cielo (Conquistador Cielo—State, Nijinksy), Zizou (Quiet American—Starstruck, Soviet Star), Sandlot Star (Seattle Slew—Lady Madonna, Chief’s Crown) and Jo Jo Dancer (Boones Mill—Dance For Jan, Citidancer).

Danley’s wife, Bonnie, was also involved in the business. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 1965 with a degree in agriculture and minor in animal science. A former schoolteacher and retired Marine Corps captain, she owned and showed the 1981 and 1982 World Champion Morgan western pleasure stallion, Green Bay General. “Under Bonnie’s care, management and nurturing, he lived to the ripe old age of 31 years,” noted the Shenandoah Equine Investments website.

Despite the Danleys’ decades of experience and knowledge, Dennis has multiple convictions for mistreatment of his horses. He was first convicted of one count of cruelty to animals in Loudoun County, Va., in 1997.

The second instance was in early 2007, when concerned local residents convinced Jefferson County, W.Va., authorities to investigate the condition of horses Danley kept at Blakeley Farm, near Charles Town, according to a 2007 report from WHSV, an ABC television affiliate.

Residents made multiple complaints to the Jefferson County sheriff’s office over the course of several months.

Authorities finally visited the farm in March with a veterinarian, who said that about 10 of the horses were malnourished. All of the horses’ ribs were visible and many suffered from rain rot, Cpl. Vincent Tiong of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department told the Herald-Mail newspaper. Several horse carcasses were also found on the property, left along a fence line to decompose.

Danley cooperated with the investigation, according to the Herald-Mail, but when the conditions on the farm did not improve, he was charged with 10 counts of animal cruelty. Danley’s wife defended their actions to the paper, blaming financial troubles, not malice, for the horses’ conditions: “Financially, we are strapped. We’ve been doing everything we can to take care of those horses. We’re just
flat-out broke.”

Danley agreed to plead no contest to a single charge of animal cruelty in August, accepting a suspended 90-day sentence and a year of unsupervised probation.

Under the terms of his probation, Danley was allowed to continue working as a trainer but was not permitted to own or care for any horses for five years, according to Hassan Rasheed, Jefferson County assistant prosecutor. But because Danley’s probation was unsupervised, West Virginia authorities were not monitoring whether or not he had any animals under his care. (Prosecutors do plan to file a motion to revoke his probation, Rasheed said, based on the violation in Loudoun County.)

In September, in the wake of his plea agreement, Danley was indefinitely ejected from the track at Charles Town in a decision by the management company, Penn National Gaming Inc., according to Danny Wright of the Charles Town stewards’ office. Racing records show that Danley has not run a horse at any track since March 2007.

Danley’s attorney told the Herald-Mail at the time of his plea that the horses had all been nursed back to health and sold to a farm in Virginia.

Strike Three

By November 2007, about three months after Danley’s sentencing in West Virginia, a caller concerned about the condition of horses under Danley’s care on the Virginia farm had alerted the Loudoun County Department of Animal Care and Control, according to spokeswoman Laura Rizer. Animal control officers made several visits to the farm, working with the horse’s caretakers—Danley, Pablo Cosme and Donald Cutshaw—to improve the animals’ conditions. The officers were aware of Danley’s previous conviction in West Virginia, Rizer said.

But by late January, “the horses had declined really dramatically,” said Rizer. A veterinarian was brought in to examine them and said their condition warranted removal. The 48 Thoroughbreds, which ranged from yearlings to seniors and included stallions and pregnant mares, were seized on Jan. 23. None scored higher than a 3 out of 9 on the Henneke body condition scale, Rizer said.

At a hearing on Jan. 30, Cosme, who owned five of the horses, relinquished his ownership. He told the Leesburg Today newspaper that a recent injury left him unable to work or care for the animals. “I would like to have them back though,” he told the paper.

Cutshaw, who owned one horse and leased the Middleburg farm where all the horses were kept, also relinquished his ownership.

Danley was not in attendance at the hearing, having requested a postponement that was denied. Loudoun County Animal Control and Care Director Tom Koenig told the Leesburg Today paper that when animal control officers last spoke with Danley, he was working in Lafayette, La.

Ownership of all the horses was transferred to the county. Some of the horses have additional part-owners, Rizer said, and officials are attempting to contact those individuals. If they can prove ownership and have not been involved in the care of the horses, they can petition to get their horses back, she explained.

One such part-owner was present at the hearing. Richard Rutherford, who owns a share of the stallion Sandlot Star, told the local CBS television affiliate WUSA that the son of Seattle Slew was among those confiscated and that he hopes to regain ownership. He said that shareholders paid Danley to provide the horse with good care.

“That man has no business even owning horses in the state of Virginia, the state of West Virginia…from what I understand, he’s in Louisiana now…He’s just looking for another racing program and another scam as far as I’m concerned,” Rutherford told the television station.

On Feb. 11, Danley was charged with 48 counts of animal cruelty, a Class I misdemeanor (the most serious). He will next appear in court in June, in a motion to have the case dismissed, but his trial is still currently scheduled for Aug. 4. If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum sentence of 48 years in prison and a $120,000 fine.

Danley is also prohibited from owning agricultural animals ever again in the state of Virginia, while Cosme and Cutshaw are banned from doing so for two years. All three men must reimburse the county for the cost of caring for the horses, which had already reached about $13,000 by the time of their indictments.

According to The Washington Post, Danley claimed he stopped working on the farm in November, owns no horses and is not responsible for their condition.

Keeping Tabs On Abusers

Like a violent murder in a sleepy suburban town, the Danley case rattled the equestrian community in Loudoun County, one of the horsiest areas of the country and home to many top riders and Olympians.

What is perhaps so unsettling about the Danley case is that he was still conducting business almost as usual within the horse community. Presumably, most of the individuals Danley dealt with were unaware of his abuse convictions.

Currently, there’s no official repository for this kind of information that a regular citizen can access. Even those within law enforcement might not be aware of convictions or probationary restrictions from another state.

“It really does get tricky when you get things crossing state lines,” said Dale Bartlett, deputy manager for cruelty issues with the Humane Society of the United States.

Mandates that offenders not own or care for animals are difficult to enforce anyway, and much more so when an offender moves, he explained. It often falls upon onlookers—someone who has an interest in a particular case—to keep tabs on the offender, if he or she is not on supervised probation. In some instances, it’s as happenstance as someone at a humane organization recognizing a particular name in the news from a previous case and connecting the dots.

There are efforts underway to change this, however. In Tennessee, a law has been proposed that would create an animal abuser registry, just like the sexual offender registries that now exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Proposed by state senator Doug Jackson, the bill would require those convicted of aggravated animal cruelty, bestiality or dog fighting to keep a current address on file in an online database.

Any concerned citizen could use the database to see if there are any convicted abusers in their neighborhood, or to check up on a potential trainer, boarding barn manager or farm sitter to ensure that they don’t have any abuse convictions.

The concept is already in practice at Pet-Abuse.com, a website that maintains an online “cruelty database” that contains almost 13,000 cases. Users can search by keyword (like a person’s last name), location, species, type of abuse, or other factors to turn up news stories and reports of abuse, uploaded by other users of the website. The data is unofficial and incomplete, but information on Danley’s West Virginia conviction has been in the database since he was charged in March 2007.

There are also provisions within the sport horse world to exclude those convicted of crimes against animals from participating in competition. The U.S. Equestrian Federation has rules allowing the Hearing Committee to suspend those charged with abuse, or those suspended by other sports organizations. Again, it usually falls to concerned citizens or humane groups to notify the USEF of such individuals, however.

Category: Legal

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