More details emerge in ‘Susanville 70’ case
Recent developments in the Grace Foundation’s rescue of 56 abused and starving horses from the derelict Whispering Pines Ranch in Susanville include evidence that ranch owner Dwight Bennett was also a foster parent to at least one child while the rotting carcasses of 28 horses and three dogs lay in plain sight on the ranch.
Two of the rescued horses have died from abuses suffered at the ranch. The most recent, Peanut, had irreparable liver damage, likely caused by foraging toxic plants.
Thus far, 23 of the fillies have turned up pregnant, the result of stallions mixing freely with mares, many of which were old enough to breed but too young to do so safely.
Grace Foundation Director Beth DeCaprio worries that more of the “Susanville 70,” born and unborn (the number is now higher than 70 with all the pregnancies), will suffer liver problems, further complicating what already promises to be a nightmare foaling season at the Grace Foundation ranch, located south of Blackstone off Latrobe Road.
“This didn’t need to happen,” said the plucky director, who alleges Lassen County officials were aware that horses were dying at the ranch as far back as 2009 and has raised the volume in her campaign to hold them responsible for their inaction.
In a sadly ironic coincidence, the first Whispering Pines horse to die in her care was owned by Lassen County Animal Control Officer Judy Walesch, who boarded her horse at Whispering Pines and has recused herself from the case.
Much of DeCaprio’s scorn has been aimed at Lassen County District Attorney Bob Burns, whose office was inundated with complaints after a disturbingly graphic YouTube video capturing the scene at the ranch went viral in October.
Burns defended himself, first claiming he wasn’t aware of the carnage until recently then calling her criticism of his inaction a “fundraising effort.”
In a Nov. 1 story titled “Burns responds to Grace Foundation fundraising scheme,” the Lassen County Times quoted Burns at a Lassen County Board of Supervisors meeting. “Absent any other evidence to the contrary, I’m left to conclude that this is some sort of fundraising effort for her (DeCaprio), an effort to increase the ranks of her volunteers and to foment interest where it might not otherwise be.”
The Times later retracted its headline as a misquote and pulled the story from the website.
Since then, an outraged DeCaprio, with help from attorney Tim Ryan, who represents a bank that’s foreclosed the property, have uncovered a 2009 sheriff’s report of a Whispering Pines horse confined in a stall with a dead horse. Both are still pressing for further investigation into goings-on in Lassen County.
While Burns was addressing his board, Lassen County sheriff’s deputies were conducting the raid that DeCaprio had been calling for. They reportedly discovered methamphetamine, marijuana, guns and confirmed Grace Foundation reports of the dead horses. Ranch owner Bennett, already embroiled in a prolonged legal battle over an ongoing foreclosure, was later charged with 70 felony counts of animal cruelty and one count of possession of a controlled substance. Bail was set at $252,000. He remains in jail.
Village Life carried its first story in late October, reporting the horror local volunteers discovered at the squalid ranch, the rescue and the pregnancies, including DeCaprio wondering aloud how the foundation would pay for the care of the huge influx of rescues plus their soon-to-be born offspring.
In what DeCaprio called another example of Lassen County ineptitude, Ryan also found court records that show Bennett was awarded custody of a foster child in May, a full month after sheriff’s deputies witnessed conditions at the ranch while accompanying DeCaprio and her team on the first rescue.
Ryan confirmed the boy’s name, and that he was removed from the ranch into Child Protective Services within a few days of Bennett being jailed for violating a receivership order in August.
“The more you dig into this, the more it stinks,” DiCaprio said. “Foster children were this guy’s only source of income. His son-in-law worked for the foster agency.”
Bennett willingly gave up his first, and worst-off, 20 horses to the Grace Foundation in April. Wells Fargo Bank took control of the property in July as a receiver, and asked DeCaprio to take the remaining horses in August. Bennett then filed for bankruptcy, and got a judge to overturn the receiver and make him “debtor in possession” of the ranch and all its property, including the horses.
“They’re still his,” said DeCaprio, who contends that cruelty charges filed sooner would have prevented the judge from returning control of the horses to Bennett.
As things stand, the Grace Foundation pay for the horses’ food and medical care, but isn’t allowed to make any medical decisions that would diminish the value of the asset, such as aborting foals or gelding stallions.
DeCaprio said she hopes the bankruptcy court will throw out the case, thus quashing Bennett’s ownership claim. But until then, she said, “We’re still in that limbo.”
On Nov. 10 a sweet filly named Peanut, not even 3 years old, became the second Whispering Pines horse to die at the Grace Foundation.
DeCaprio walked her to euthanization, and remains devastated. “We thought they were all safe,” she said , sobbing. “We knew we were facing a lot of risky pregnancies but, still, our sense of accomplishment from the rescue kept us going. Then to see a 3-year-old horse die before your eyes as a result of that abuse …. It was worse than seeing the 23 dead horses on the ground.”
In late summer Peanut exhibited colic symptoms, a common condition in young horses. She declined quickly and was suffering. A blood analysis revealed dangerously elevated liver enzymes.
A Grace Foundation veterinarian conducted a post-mortem examination and found spots on her liver, a condition similar to cirrhosis in humans. In horses, it’s often caused by ingesting poisonous plants. He also found large amounts of sand and pebbles in her belly, a result of aggressive ground scouring.
“She was foraging for survival, eating anything she could find,” said DeCaprio. “Horses won’t normally eat pine needles or poisonous bark, but when they’re starving …”
Peanut’s remains were sent to a veterinary pathology lab for a more thorough necropsy.
The final results have not come in.
DeCaprio worries the problem could be rampant among the other horses, and further complicate the pregnancies of the currently confirmed 23 — the number rises weekly — pregnant mares, many of which are very young, making “foaling” risky and expensive.
“When you start a rescue like this you do whatever you have to get them out of there,” DeCaprio said. “They don’t trust humans. You pull on their halters or scare them onto the trailers. It’s terrible.”
Volunteers then spend hundreds of hours socializing those same horses, dispensing plenty of grain, carrots, time and love.
“The volunteers work so hard to build that trust,” she said. “To think that their lasting memory might be using that trust to take their project horse to its death …. So yeah, I’m mad. I’m real mad.”
But she insists she’s not angry at Bennett. “He’s a sick man,” she said. “The people who allowed this to happen are the ones I’m angry at.
“If Bob Burns had done what he was supposed to and filed cruelty charges in 2009 when Peanut was just a baby, his horses would have been taken away and Peanut would be alive today,” she added.
DeCaprio began fundraising to cover expenses to save the Susanville 70 shortly after they arrived. Longtime foundation donors Wells Fargo and Bank of America helped in the early going, but those funds are now depleted. She estimates that the horses’ care will cost the foundation another $150,000, at least, over the next 11 months.
The foreclosure and bankruptcy case against Bennett continues through the court system. Last week attorney Ryan modified the receivership order to direct law enforcement to remove squatters from Whispering Pines, but the Lassen County sheriff and county counsel refused to enforce the order. Ryan said he plans to ask the court to hold Lassen County officials in contempt.
An emotionally spent DeCaprio huddled in a makeshift office behind a Grace Foundation horse barn and summed up her sentiments. “Shame on you Lassen County for allowing this to go on.”