“This thing would make a great movie,” said Grace Foundation Executive Director Beth DeCaprio.
She’s played a leading role in the drama currently unfolding at the El Dorado Hills nonprofit which garnered national attention by rescuing 56 horses from a squalid Susanville ranch in 2011. Grace Foundation has since spent $1.13 million rehabilitating 43 of the survivors, and has failed to gain more than token compensation from those responsible, DeCaprio claims.
The story’s script jumps genres, starting with horror. A grizzly video on the Grace Foundation website captures conditions at the derelict Whispering Pines Ranch when Grace volunteers arrived in April 2011. Dead horses litter the ground. Half-starved horses roam the ranch freely, with others confined to paddocks piled high in feces.
Ranch owner Dwight Bennett freely gave the Grace Foundation ownership of the 20 worst-off equines, an action which has never been contested. The subsequent transfer in August of the final 36 horses has become the subject of several lawsuits.
Their rehabilitation in El Dorado Hills was the stuff of Saturday matinees. Tireless horse-loving volunteers logged thousands of hours feeding, grooming and socializing the animals to ready them for eventual adoption. The 36 became 43 last spring because 22 were pregnant, many either in poor health or too young to foal safely. The story turned tragic when several died. Only 14 foals survived.
Months of intricate and tense courtroom drama followed, with DeCaprio learning that despite signed ownership agreements, the foundation had no legal ownership of the horses. She argues that her foundation could not legally geld stallions, abort the ill-fated pregnancies that nearly bankrupted the foundation or, importantly, find the horses new homes.
Six resulting lawsuits were outlined in Village Life last week and argue ownership of the Susanville ranch, the 43 horses at Grace, responsibility for cost of the rescue and 17-months of rehabilitation, along with libel, malpractice and defamation of character.
The scene that unfolded on Jan. 15 and 16 at the Grace Foundation ranch out on Latrobe Road was straight out of a John Ford western: a heroine determined to save the herd, standing off cowhands paid by the banks (Wells Fargo and Bank of America) to collect the horses and take them back to Susanville.
A Lassen County court hearing the following day evoked “My Cousin Vinny.”
Deft legal maneuvering by foundation attorneys blocked the removal of the 43 horses, including the 17 gangly foals less than a year old, to snowy open rangeland above Susanville, where the thermometer drops into the low 20s at night.
In a formal declaration to Lassen County Superior Court, DeCaprio stated that the horses were ill-prepared for such conditions, and that no provisions had been made for proper shelter, veterinary care, supplemental feed or the stress to the foals of five hours in a trailer, all of which would make the fate of the horses “bleak,” she states.
She also worried that the horses would be euthanized after six months, the term of a custodial agreement between the banks and Lassen County rancher David Schroeder, who agreed to take custody of them for $18,000 per month, according to DeCaprio.
The two-day confrontation at the Grace Foundation had all the elements of a good western, minus the guns. As DeCaprio describes it, Schroeder arrived late in the day on Tuesday, Jan. 15, armed with a copy of a Dec. 15 court order allowing him to take the horses. He demanded to see them and announced he planned to take the following morning, she said.
DeCaprio was also armed. Her weapon of choice was a bailee’s lien on the horses, filed earlier that day in El Dorado County Superior Court.
Schroeder insisted that his court order superseded any liens, and that he would have DeCaprio jailed if she didn’t produce the horses. “It was a volatile situation,” she said. “I told them to leave; they didn’t and I called the sheriff.”
The discussion resumed early the following morning when Schroeder returned with “three or four” cattle trailers, one of which blocked the entrance to the ranch, according to DeCaprio, who had arrived early.
Tempers flared from the get-go. Both parties called the sheriff — Schroeder to demand that DeCaprio be jailed and DeCaprio to oppose the seizure with the lien, which was soon supplemented by a temporary restraining order and motions to set aside and vacate the Dec. 15 order filed by newly hired animal welfare attorney Christine Garcia and her associate, Sacramento attorney Anthony Perez, while the cowpokes kicked dust in the Grace Foundation parking lot.
An unnamed El Dorado County sergeant and deputy arrived and found the two parties hunkered down, DeCaprio inside the sagging trailer that is the Grace Foundation business office, waiting for word that the various motions had been filed successfully; Schroeder and his hired hands waited outside.
John Ford would have staged a shootout and settled the matter on the spot, but the officers decided to use their phones rather than their guns, and called the respective attorneys and courts, confirming the apparent validity of the lien and the other filings.
They elicited a commitment from both sides to appear in Lassen County Superior Court the next day to let Judge Raymond Giordano, who issued the December order, sort it all out, and, in a final act of ranch justice, dispatched the frustrated cattlemen back to Lassen County empty-handed.
“They were amazing,” said DeCaprio of El Dorado County’s finest. “They really kept things from escalating out here.”
Giordano is a retired Sonoma County judge assigned to Lassen County. He’s made numerous rulings on the Whispering Pines case, and according to DeCaprio, who drove through the night to Susanville, appeared mighty displeased to find his Dec. 15 order under attack.
An agitated Giordano stated early on that he wanted to deny all of the Grace filings, she said. Attorney Garcia stuck to her guns, consistently demonstrating that her filings were timely and legitimate.
Giordano’s rulings allowed the August 2011 seizure by Grace volunteers in the face of a bankruptcy stay which DeCaprio claims should have frozen them at Bennett’s property. He also denied Bennett’s appeal of the Dec. 15 court order.
Following more threats and histrionics from the bench, according to DeCaprio, Giordano announced that he could no longer remain impartial, and recused himself from all the Whispering Pines cases.
Lassen County Superior Court Judicial Assistant Nancy Holsey confirmed both the recusal and Giordano’s stated rationale, adding that the cases will be reassigned to a different judge.
For DeCaprio, the week-long episode contained both a low point, when she was sure she’d be jailed, and a turning point in the 17-month Whispering Pines odyssey.
Her optimism is a product of motions filed by Garcia that argue that the original transfer of the horses created a “bailment,” with the foundation as a “bailee” and the banks a “bailor.” Garcia’s motions further argue that the laws governing bailments, in combination with Lassen County ordinances, make the banks responsible for the costs of “impoundment” and allow the Grace Foundation, as the bailee, to file a lien on the property.
The banks’ attorneys have argued that they never owned the horses, which they released to Lassen County through a receiver, who is also involved in the Whispering Pines lawsuits.
The foundation and former bank attorney Tim Ryan have filed multi-million dollar lawsuits against each other and various other parties.
The foundation lawsuit also targeted the banks, who’d already withdrawn a $400,000 settlement offer, according to DeCaprio, who was asking for $800,000 at the time. She’s currently revising her lawsuit to remove the cost of care, now at $1.13 million, which is now covered by the lien.
The banks have refused subsequent pleas for financial assistance from Grace, “yet they’re offering Schroeder $18,000 per month,” said DeCaprio, with a shake of her head.
“They just want the horses out of here,” she added, explaining that without the horses, the foundation has little chance of collecting the $1.13 million.
The foundation’s financial struggles have necessitated cutbacks that effectively closed the ranch to the public, freezing the volunteer, youth and equine therapy programs in October, while core staffers stayed on without pay to care for an estimated 250 animals on the ranch.
DeCaprio has vowed to reopen the Grace Foundation in February, and held a volunteer cleanup day last Saturday. More than 100 people came out to repair winter storm damage to the Pony Town equine therapy center.
“Our biggest concern remains the welfare of the horses that have been in our care for the past 17 months,” DeCaprio said. “Our goal has always been and continues to be to find permanent loving homes for all of the Susanville horses and to be able to keep these horses safe and away from harm.”