Equine slaughter is an issue that in some quarters evokes highly charged debate. I have my opinion; you have yours. This article isn’t about judging who is right in the slaughter debate. What this article is about is criminality. It’s not about the four-legged creatures that are the essence of our sport; it’s about the despicable creatures that lurk on the fringes of our industry that take advantage of the well meaning but naïve. The facts and circumstances are very recent, but the storyline is all too familiar.
Kelsey Lefever apparently had no occupational license of any kind when she frequented the barn area of Penn National Racecourse in central Pennsylvania last year. What she did have, however, was a snazzy Facebook page that characterized her as someone who could find new homes for OTTBs (Off Track Thoroughbreds). Promotional items like pens and coffee mugs emblazoned with the slogan, “Make Your Slow Racehorse Count” served to introduce her as an experienced redeemer that trains up horses for second careers.
Ms. Lefever’s pitch as being a benevolent horse rescuer was apparently quite effective. By her own account, during an unspecified period of time she had accumulated over 120 horses. Beau Jaques, a 5-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, was one of them.
The gelding last raced on March 29, 2011 at Charlestown Race Track. After spending over $1,000 in vet bills to treat a tendon injury, his compassionate owners decided it was time for Beau Jaques to engage in a less stressful riding career. Enter Lefever, and her pointed guarantee that she would rehabilitate the horse and would never send any horse to a bad end. The owners were thrilled, and expressed their willingness to take back their prized possession if things didn’t work out. On May 13, 2011 these caring owners were persuaded by Lefever to turn over his lead shank to her, along with $200 and ten bags of feed.
Apparently, it was ten bags of feed more than Beau Jaques would ever eat.
On May 16, 2011, just 3 days after being acquired by his alleged retraining tutor, Beau was discovered by a non-profit animal welfare group on a horse trailer belonging to a known horsemeat buyer in the parking lot of the New Holland auction facility in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. By flipping lips and writing down tattoo numbers, the advocacy group representatives discovered three more registered Thoroughbreds on the same trailer. Those four horses never stepped outside the trailer and apparently met their eventual ends in Quebec.
Upon being alerted to the sighting two days later, one of Beau’s now-former owners went to the farm where the gelding was supposed to be in residence. It was there that the farm owner stated that while she was supposed to have received the horse, she was “away” at the time and never took possession of him. She did, however, convey to the duped owners a chilling message from Lefever: “Those crazy people don’t have to look for their horse anymore because he is in a box in a freezer and thanks for the money and the feed.”
After a detailed investigation by the Pennsylvania State Police, Lefever was arrested in November and charged with multiple felony and misdemeanor counts of Theft by Deception Under False Pretenses.
On February 21, 2012, however, Lefever waived a preliminary hearing. Published reports indicate that in April Lefever will agree to enter a first time offender program that will spare her any jail time. While part of her plea bargain will apparently bar her for life from being involved in Thoroughbred racing, she will only be banned from acquiring horses for a two year period of probation. In other words, Lefever could again be “rescuing” horses to slaughterhouses as early as 2014.
Lefever wasn’t charged with equine slaughter; she was charged with obtaining horses by lying about her true intentions to people who didn’t want their animals slaughtered. That is the essence of “Theft by Deception.” She didn’t use a traditional weapon like a gun or knife to obtain the property of others; rather, she used lies that deceived folks and persuaded them that she was worthy of carrying out their stated intentions. In this regard, while Lefever’s actions are reprehensible, some blame must necessarily be attributed to the scores of folks who handed over their animals for exactly the fate they purportedly sought to avoid.
Would you hire a homebuilder based solely upon a colorful advertisement? Wouldn’t you want to get references; check out the other homes he built; speak with present and former clients; check out the government licensing status of the business; google the business name; and inquire with the Better Business Bureau, the National Association of Home Builders and other trade groups?
There are good and bad in every trade and profession. Show me a place where money is involved, and I’ll guarantee you crooks and thieves are to be found. More than one clergyman has been convicted of tapping into the collection plate. Many so-called “investment advisors” are doing decades of prison time. New York regularly suspends and disbars lawyers who dip into clients’ escrow accounts. Does anybody truly think the horse industry is somehow immune from all of this?
There are legitimate rescue and adoption groups that stand up to both intense scrutiny and the test of time. They are registered; they are insured; they have real farms and offices; they are more than happy to provide references, including some with gleaming, dappled coats. They pride themselves on the most important aspect of any such group; due diligence and adoption follow-up. They know where their horses have been placed, and have established protocols to ensure that they remain where they are supposed to be. They have the resources to not only place horses, but to retake and replace a horse in rapid fashion should adoptive parents fail to completely abide by their accepted responsibilities as caregivers. You can and should ask to see their policy statement and speak with others who have placed horses with the specific group. While they are always in need of funds, they have the funding necessary to stick around into the foreseeable future. In short, they are real equine saviors.
Forensic psychology tells us that a high percentage of those who do unspeakable things to children start out by abusing animals. Yet, I would surmise that for every serial killer who ever harmed an animal, there are multitudes of folks who would never touch a child, but would readily steal an animal so they could sell it by the pound. There are all types of thieves on this planet, and they don’t fit any particular pattern.
Don’t count on government to protect you from the thieves. It’s up to you to protect your own property and ensure that your intentions are fully carried out. Good resources are available… if you choose to avail yourself of them. Take the time and make the effort to fully investigate before sending your horse to its next career. Otherwise, you might unwittingly be sending it to the next world.
Chris E. Wittstruck is an attorney, a director of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and a charter member of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Network.
Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.