The Grace Foundation’s rescue of 56 starving horses from the derelict Whispering Pines Ranch in Susanville last year has become the nightmare that Director Beth DeCaprio feared last fall, when the horses, many of which turned up pregnant, began showing signs of liver damage, likely from foraging toxic plants for food.
The normally joyous foaling season at the foundation ranch, located in Dorado Hills, south of Blackstone off Latrobe Road, turned into a sleep-deprived deathwatch. The emotional cost of seeing their charges, born and unborn, die in their care has been agonizing to the animal-loving organization.
The foundation has spent more than $800,000 thus far, leaving it buried in debt with no way to continue paying the cost of the high-risk foals and mares, which is currently running about $50,000 per month, according to foundation documents.
“The harm to Grace and the horses from this fraud borders on unimaginable,” said foundation lawyer Stuart Levison. “Not only is Grace teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, but the well-being of the horses has been significantly jeopardized’.
The financial burden of caring for 22 pregnant fillies with damaged livers and bellies full of dirt, many old enough to breed but too young to do so safely, pushed DeCaprio to file a lawsuit in El Dorado County Superior Court last week against the banks that asked Grace to take the horses, their representatives and Whispering Pines owner Dwight Bennett, seeking $20 million in both punitive and compensatory damages for failing to pay for services rendered, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and malpractice.
Bennett willingly gave up his first and worst-off 20 horses to the Grace Foundation in April 2011. Wells Fargo Bank took control of his property in July as a receiver, and asked DeCaprio to take the remaining horses in August.
In October 2011, the Mountain Democrat reported the horror local volunteers discovered at the squalid ranch — the rotting carcasses of 28 horses and three dogs in plain sight, the nearly feral survivors and the pregnancies. DeCaprio wondered at the time how the foundation would pay for the care of the huge influx of rescues plus their soon-to-be born and likely-to-struggle offspring.
Late in 2011 Bennett filed for bankruptcy. A judge overturned the receiver and made Bennett “debtor in possession” of the horses, leaving Grace responsible for their feeding and medical care but unable to make any medical decisions that would diminish the value of the asset, such as aborting foals or gelding stallions.
Attorney Tim Ryan of Orange County was working for the foreclosing banks, and was instrumental in getting them to pay Grace a total of $40,000 to offset the cost of caring for the horses. Lassen County was also supposed to contribute $10,000, which remains outstanding.
Ryan earned DeCaprio’s trust, attending legal proceedings in Lassen County and uncovering damaging evidence against both Bennett and Lassen County officials, who the pair jointly accused of knowing about conditions on the ranch since 2009.
Ryan seemed to be providing Grace with gratis legal service, but no formal agreement was ever signed.
With Ryan’s encouragement, DeCaprio remained optimistic that the bankruptcy court would throw Bennett’s case out, thus quashing his ownership claim and granting Grace full control of the horses. But the ownership of the horses remains in legal limbo.
Legal documents recently uncovered by foundation representatives indicate that Ryan’s advice served his bank clients at the expense of the foundation.
The foundation website alleges a “10-month trail of lies and deceit perpetrated by the banks and their legal intermediary in a zealous rush to increase their foreclosure assets,” and a “callous disregard for the lives of these innocent victims of the foreclosure frenzy.”
With constant veterinary care, 14 of the Susanville foals survived.
Despite the fact that caring for the surviving 48 horses has nearly bankrupted the foundation, DeCaprio remains steadfast in her commitment to preventing them from being returned to Bennett, who still faces 65 felony counts of abuse and neglect.
“This is a nightmare we cannot wake up from,” said DeCaprio, who accuses the banks of knowing that the horses were legally Bennett’s property, but turning them over to Grace anyway.
“They had no legal right to do so,” she said. “They did this simply to rid themselves of the liability. Now we have the horses and all the financial responsibility.”
The foundation has created a fund to continue operations, care for the Susanville horses and keep them out of Bennett’s hands. The foundation website, thegracefoundation.com, explains how to help out or learn more.