The story began in Black Forest, just east of Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Friday afternoon, September 19, 2014. A neighbor followed her dog into a close-by barn to find ten seriously thin horses and four llamas. She saw deplorable conditions with manure everywhere, several feet deep in places, and tarps on the ground covering the skeletons of more horses. She immediately called the Sheriff’s office as well as the press. Deputies gave the owner, Ms. Sherry Brunzell an order to comply stating that the horses needed foot care and to clean up the barn.
The story aired on the news and a photo of one of the horses was almost immediately recognized as Dual Peppy, a well-known Quarter Horse stallion. The Sheriff’s office received countless emails and phone calls as the story went viral over that weekend. Law enforcement returned to the barn three days later with a search warrant and a veterinarian. They seized the ten surviving horses, four lamas, and documented skeletal remains of a total of fourteen horses, over half the herd.
Seven months later, on May 26th, the case came to trial. Brunzell was charged with fourteen counts (ten horses, four llamas) of Cruelty to Animals, a Class 1 misdemeanor. Inconclusive DNA on the skeletal remains meant that she could not be charged for the deaths of the other horses. The trial lasted four days with the attorneys on both sides presenting their case before Judge Stephen J. Sletta. (See reports from trial here.) The prosecution laid out their case with logical precision, calling officers from the Human Society, Sheriff’s office, and several veterinarians involved in the case. Before and after photos were shown of each of the horses, along with records of their initial evaluations and prescribed care since arriving at Harmony Equine, a facility used by the county for this purpose. Mrs. Brunzell testified last, saying she had horses all her life; that she disagreed with common knowledge about issues of feeding, dental care, and hoof trimming. She felt she knew more than the experts and she showed no remorse.
The jury found Brunzell guilty on eight charges of Animal Cruelty. She was found not guilty on two of the horses whose body score was slightly higher and the four llamas.
On August 13th, we met again for the sentencing portion of the trial. Judge Sletta called us to order and this time the courtroom was filled with spectators from both sides. Testimony began with character witnesses for Mrs. Brunzell. Three men spoke briefly, and then Chief Deputy District Attorney Shannon Gerhart and Defense attorney Andrew Bryant each made statements.
There were high moments, as both the prosecution and Judge Sletta mentioned the horses who survived that horrible barn in Black Forest and those who did not. Brunzell, who never acknowledged any responsibility or remorse, through her attorney, continued to make excuses and minimize the condition of the horses.
In pronouncing sentence, Sletta said that there were no excuses for this level of neglect because Brunzell was not a novice horse owner. He gave the full sentence possible for eight counts of Cruelty to Animals. Sletta added that if he had the power to give more, he would have.
The sentence includes 60 days in jail, with 5 years’ probation where she cannot own, possess, control, or care for horses or livestock. She must attend sixteen counseling sessions and pay court costs. Finally, she must relinquish all registration papers so that the Sheriff’s office, in cooperation with the Humane Society can sell the horses, with the proceeds to go toward restitution.
And just as there was a communal sigh, the defense made a motion for an appeal. The judge set a date to hear that motion on September 17th, two days shy of the anniversary of their discovery. The horses will continue where they are for another month.
Horse Advocates is happy with the sentence. In light of the current laws, it was the best we could hope for. We were present for every moment of this trial and there is so much to be gained from watching the legal process.
For most of us, what we know about court we’ve seen on TV. Those attorneys are actors, reading from a script. In the real world there’s less theater and more monotony. Law books are checked and the case isn’t resolved in sixty minutes, minus the commercials. At the same time, we at Horse Advocates are convinced that attending court makes a difference. Being there for the horses sends a message that the public is concerned. And being a witness to the trial gives information that we wouldn’t know otherwise, and when we know more, we can do better. The public response on this case had an impact for the better; a huge thank you to everyone who participated on any level–holding the belief that these horses matter.
The final thought must be for the horses. Originally this hand-picked herd cost an estimated 1.5 million dollars. Each horse, the mares as well, were impeccably bred. Dual Peppy was performance trained and well-respected. We are so relieved that these horses were seized by the Sheriff’s office and receiving the care they needed so badly during the months that this case was in litigation. Horses have shorter lives than humans and this herd has suffered enough.
When we last heard, Dual Peppy, a senior at 22, was in guarded condition. As he gained weight, his lameness got a bit worse. He is having the finest care possible with great vet attention, but a guarded condition is not good. The other nine horses, some of whom are quite young, will wait a while longer to learn their fate from us humans. Horse Advocates hopes for the day to come soon when each horse finds a human partner who gives top priority to their care, as well as their overall well-being and happiness. We hope they find the safety and security of a true home.
Horse Advocates of Colorado.