Darlene Wilson, an Arabian horse breeder and owner of the Carousel Stables in Roy, is appearing in Pierce County District Court this week to face three counts of animal cruelty in the second degree. These criminal charges were issued by the prosecutor’s office a year ago, after Pierce County Animal Control (PCAC) impounded three of Wilson’s 47 horses for a variety of ailments that the county claims were produced by unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
PCAC cited weight loss, hoof disease, lice, worm infestation, and teeth problems in removing the horses, and the prosecution says these issues indicate that Ms. Wilson was neglecting her animals.
Although the three criminal counts are only misdemeanors, the County and Wilson are treating this case as a major criminal trial. Whereas animal cruelty cases in the past have taken only a couple days to bring to conclusion, the County has booked over a week’s worth of court room time for this case, and spent nearly a full day on jury selection. Further, instead of assigning only one deputy prosecuting attorney to plead the case, the County has tasked two, Susan Morgan and Scott Harlass.
Darlene Wilson doesn’t seem to be taking these charges lightly, either, and she has procured two attorneys for herself, Amanda Fernandez and Lindsey Turner. Illustrating how serious Ms Wilson and her defense team are treating the case, Wilson declined to speak to the Mountain News and her attorneys did likewise, including not revealing whether they were private hires by Wilson or brought into the case by the public’s Office of Assigned Counsel.
Reflecting the gravity that the principals are bringing to this trial, there is not enough room at the attorney’s table for all four – plus Ms. Wilson, who sits along side her team – and the frequent shuffling of chairs back and forth as the lawyers move to address witnesses gives a quirky, but serious, aire to the proceedings.
The Wilson trial has many dimensions that give rise to such weightiness. The PCAC has had a prior history with Wilson, launching at least one major intervention at her ranch before removing the horses, and the County doesn’t seem to be taking any chances that she will escape conviction. To that end, the County has reportedly scheduled over twenty witnesses to testify against Darlene, thus requiring the extended courtroom time.
Regarding the prior history with Wilson, in 2008 Pierce County Animal Control found her horses to be seriously underweight and they required her to comply with a structured feeding program so the animals would return to proper weight.
In addition, PCAC has had to endure dozens of complaints over many years from other horse owners who were concerned about Wilson’s equine practices. In fact, the PCAC impoundment in 2010 led to a major rescue effort by Ripley’s Horse Aid Foundation who removed another twenty horses from Darlene’s ranch.
Further, Ms. Wilson allegedly has had continuing problems with the eleven horses she currently owns, and according to Carousal Stables tenant Kathy Cook in communications with The Mountain News prior to trial, PCAC was summoned in November of 2010 to respond to her complaint that Ms. Wilson had locked her animals for several months in a pasture without any shelter despite the sub-freezing temperatures.
Cook contacted The Mountain News in February 2011, saying that the problems at Wilson’s ranch were continuing as the locked-out horses were now locked inside stalls and had not been exercised or grazed in two months, which was a return to the fundamental conditions that led to the horses being impounded by PCAC.
Nevertheless, Ms. Wilson has many of her own supporters in this affair, who have often – and loudly – told The Mountain News that Darlene’s treatment of her horses is adequate, and claim that Wilson’s problems stem from complaints by “rich horsey people” who live in a “Sunset Magazine dream world” and have no appreciation of the realities of a working farm – where manure can pile-up and smells abound.
This cultural divide was observed in the court room Monday by one of the witnesses for the prosecution, Katie Johnson.
“I could really see that some people think they know about horses but they really don’t,” Katie told the Mountain News privately after she had taken the witness stand, and her comments referred to some of the testimony by individuals sympathetic to Ms. Wilson.
“However, the people who really know horses – who know how to care for them and understand what it takes to maintain a horse – they see the problems at Darlene’s,” Katie said.
Johnson and her sister Kelli are responsible for summoning PCAC to Darlene’s, as they were members of the Eatonville LDS church that came to Wilson’s aid in early 2010 to clean and fix the barn, and tend to the horses. At that time, Darlene’s health had begun to fail, and with her barn help allegedly becoming problematic she asked her faith community for assistance. However, the Johnson sisters were appalled by the conditions they found at Darlene’s, which included not only wide-spread health problems, but profoundly primitive sanitary conditions – most seriously evidenced by compacted feces, urine and straw in the stalls as deep as three feet in places.
Outraged, the sisters called PCAC and asked for an intervention, which led directly to the impoundment and the filing of criminal charges.
As a result, they became a target of Wilson’s ire and were told by the LDS leadership not to return for any more clean-ups.
“A lot of people in the church won’t talk to us because of this,” said Mark Abney, Katie’s father, who attended the proceedings and spoke with the Mountain News afterwards.
Darlene’s legal team seems to be exploring the cultural elements of the case and offering a definition of care that contrasts with those espoused by PCAC.
Defense attorney Lindsey Turner seemed very satisfied after cross-examining the county’s first witness, Dr. David Best, who testified that the medical conditions of the three horses were not immediately life-threatening when he examined them soon after the removal from Darlene’s. Dr. Best had examined the horses upon the request of PCAC in compliance with the legal mandates following an impoundment.
Best acknowledged to Turner that most of the health issues he observed would be easy to fix, stating, “If the horses received diligent care, I felt they’d be okay in the future.”
Nevertheless, Darlene’s defense team seemed glum after hearing the testimony of Monday’s last witness, Kathy Cook.
Ms. Cook, originally a tenant, became the impromptu care taker of Wilson’s horses and property in early March, 2010 when Darlene suddenly entered the hospital and announced that her barn help had quit.
“It was all just dropped in my lap,” Cook said. “Somebody had to take care of them.”
In addition, Cook testified that prior to Darlene’s departure for treatment the stalls had not been cleaned for “at least a week” in her judgment, indicating that Darlene had neither the means nor the will to provide her horses with adequate care.
In general, Cook characterized Wilson as a disaffected owner who repeatedly chose not to provide reasonable care for her horses.
Kathy described one instance where, after Darlene’s return from the hospital, she demanded that Cook feed her horses less hay.
“She told me I was feeding them too much hay,” Cook told the court, adding that Wilson instructed her not to feed her horses more than two and a half bales of hay per feeding.
“Forty-seven horses – you do the math,” said Cook.
Kathy said that an average feeding is two flakes of hay per horse.
“There’s twelve flakes per bale,” Cook said. Thus, Wilson’s regimen would only allow 30 flakes per feeding for the entire herd, which means that seventeen horses would go without any hay and the rest would receive only half a portion.
Cook also said that she and Wilson sharply disagreed on how much compacted manure and straw to remove from the barn stalls.
“The muck was so deep, I almost hit my head on the ceiling when I went into the stalls,” Cook said, “and Darlene only wanted us to remove four inches or so.”
However, most damaging were Cook’s last comments.
“We tried to help Darlene, but she just didn’t care.”
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