Paula L. Ratliff
Criminologist and Author
Jobe Publishing Contributor
In September 2019, 9 horses were seized from the Barren River State Park Riding Stables. These were trail horses, expertly trained and gentle enough to accommodate the most frightened rider on Kentucky’s trails.
These were expensive horses, providing revenue for the owner and the state. We know they were rented for riders in September when the riding season ended.
The actual conditions of the horses when they were seized have not been disclosed.
Each horse should have had a complete examination, noting their weight and any injuries. There should have been photographs and blood work with a detailed treatment plan for each horse.
There should be clear and concise documentation that would hold up in court. These are, after all, a seized asset in a criminal court case.
While in the custody of the county, each horse should have been monitored for improvement with accurate and complete records on the progress of each one.
To this date, it is unclear when contact was made with the owner. It is unclear if efforts were made to investigate the owner to see if reunification was possible. What about his horses in several other horse parks?
Has the owner been charged before? Think for one second. Why would an owner of beautiful and expensive trail horses fail to take care of them? Was it a few days? A week? A month? What is the story? Who actually knows the story?
Somehow, between Barren County Animal Control, the State Parks Department and the Department of Agriculture, County Judge Executive Michael Hale ended up in charge of the 9 horses. What is standard procedure when Animal Control removes an animal? Do these often end up with the county judge?
From September 2019 – the end of April 2020, the county paid Steve Bulle, $135 a day to care for the horses for a total of approximately $35,000.
On April 20, 2020, Judge Hale decides to move the horses back to park and he asked the magistrates to enter into a contract. The magistrates agreed and the county agreed to “provide bedding, feed, water, fence enclosures, blood tests, public liability insurance and security staff at all times.” No one has disclosed what this has cost the tax payers of Barren County from May 2020 until the date of this writing.
The contract did not specify the number of horses to be boarded and the fiscal court records do not reflect an admission by Judge Hale that he had 1, 2, or 3 horses at his farm. Why is the county judge in possession of seized assets on his farm? How long have they been there? We really don’t know.
It gets deeper.
The horses were returned to the park in May 2020 and to this day, 14 months and counting, Judge Hale states that his Emergency Management Director, Tracy Shirley drives to the park and cares for the horses on a daily basis. Why is the EM DIRECTOR feeding horses? Is he in charge of documenting their conditions for the courts? Does he have training to properly care for equine?
Nine horses became county property on February 8, 2021 when County Attorney Kathryn Thomas, acting on behalf of Hale and Barren County Animal Control, went to court and provided the defendant with two options: plead guilty or pay $32,000 in restitution to get his horses back. Was any evidence submitted in court?
Hale says this case was continually delayed because of the COVID shut downs. Yet, it was a long time before COVID came on the scene. County leadership, both the county judge and county attorney, should have resolved this case a long time ago and because a man’s property was seized, quickly.
Why couldn’t they hold a zoom meeting to work out a resolution? Could the horses have been returned to the owner with supervised visits from Animal Control? We put foster children back in the home with much less efforts.
Two important considerations:
The horses were seized in September 2019 and remained in our custody until February 8, 2021 when the horses were forfeited to county government.
Then from February 8, 2021 until March 15, 2022, the costs continue to increase and Director Shirley continues his feeding chores. This situation only came to light when Judge Hale requested money to purchase a trailer to haul the horses.
At what point was the county going to follow asset seizure and forfeiture laws?
Or were they?
So here we are in May 2022: the county owns 8 or 9 horses. It seems Judge Hale is saying he has adopted 1 of them, how can someone adopt property owned by the county? We are not exactly sure where they are. We are not exactly sure of the costs prior to the court date because according to bills obtained by a local veterinarian; his bills were never provided to the newspapers open record request.
As the costs continue to build daily we enter into the 7th month of the 3rd year of this story. We are not exactly sure the horses were properly seized in the first place.
So, we wait. JOBE Publishing has requested copies of the evidence from the county attorney as to the documented conditions of the horses and any efforts made to resolve the case. They have requested specific documents from the county judge including details on the dates and transfers, veterinary bills, invoices for Steve Bulle, etc. They have requested documents from the Barren County Animal Control and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Any time an asset is seized; there are strict rules establishing the chain of custody. There must be sufficient documentation to prove a case in court. There must be follow-up and follow through.
What a mess. Keep a shovel handy.