|Salvador Barrera and Laura Valencia||2 emaciated horses & dog seized, 1 horse found dead||
|November 26, 2007|
An audible gasp filled a Sonoma County courtroom when a photo of a severely underweight dead horse flashed on-screen during a felony animal cruelty trial.
The 28-year-old horse, named Yiyo, was found dead in its stall on a Bloomfield property Nov. 26, 2007, from what prosecutors allege was neglect and abuse at the hands of owners Laura Valencia and Salvador Barrera, both 35.
Valencia and Barrera face a maximum of three years in prison on the felony charge, prosecutor Marianna Green said, and possible fines. They have pleaded not guilty and remain out of custody during the trial.
The couple are facing one felony animal abuse charge in Yiyo's death and three misdemeanor charges in connection with the treatment of two other horses and a dog found on the property when Animal Control officers responded to the dead horse.
The other horses, Jack and Katie, survived and were adopted into new homes after being rehabilitated by a local horse-lovers group called CHANGE, Coins to Help Abandoned and NeGlected Equines, said group member Katie Moore.
Veterinarian Grant Miller testified that the horse weighed less than 800 pounds, about 350 pounds under normal weight. He said there was no food or water in the stall and that Yiyo may have resorted to eating feces.
Miller showed photos of other horses considered in ideal health, then showed a picture used in veterinary medical circles to illustrate a severely emaciated animal.
Yiyo's corpse was in a similar state of malnutrition, Miller told jurors, with bony points protruding around its ribs, hips, spine and withers, areas that have healthy fat deposits in a properly cared-for animal. Yiyo died of colonic torsion, a twisting of the intestine, both sides agree. The painful condition, also called "twisted gut," is treatable, according to the equine health center at the University of California Davis veterinary school.
Sherer maintains the defendants did not mistreat Yiyo and that the medical condition is fatal and common to old and young horses. They didn't do anything wrong," he said. "The horse died from a natural cause."
The criminal charge alleges the couple failed to provide sufficient food and water and subjected the horse to unnecessary suffering.
Miller testified that a water pail found near the stall had a layer of "dry dirt" at the bottom. In the dirt surrounding Yiyo's body, he said there were marks in the dust similar to "snow angels," that were consistent with the horse struggling while it was down. The horse also had several deep abrasions and "extreme bruising" on its eyes, head, knees and feet on both sides of the body. The stomach was empty except for about two cups of acidic liquid, he said, in a cavity that can hold about three gallons of food.
A necropsy showed "not an ounce of fat," in the horse's abdominal wall, Miller testified. A properly fed horse will defecate about 12 times a day, Miller said. There were no droppings in Yiyo's pen.
More than a dozen horse enthusiasts are attending the trial, hoping to encourage aggressive prosecution of suspected animal cruelty cases. A neighbor testified that she heard thrashing and banging from the stable the night before Yiyo was found dead. Her call prompted animal control officers to discover Yiyo's body the following morning.
Sherer declined to be more specific in his client's defense, saying more will come out in court as the trial continues. He denied allegations that the defendants failed to provide food and water to the animals. "That's not true, and it had nothing to do with the death of the horse," he said.
Update 10/25/08: Barrera, one of two defendants in an animal cruelty trial testified that a horse that died in his care had cancer and was underweight when he got it.
The other defendant, Salvador Barrera's girlfriend Laura Valencia, laid responsibility for the horse on Barrera, saying her co-defendant was in charge of the horse's care.
Barrera testified he was told by a man he got the horse from in early 2007 that Yiyo had cancer. The man, from Sacramento, has since moved to Mexico, Barrera said.
Barrera said he and two of Valencia's nephews dragged the carcass of the 800-pound horse from the pasture into the stall so Valencia's children wouldn't see it. He also described photos he said he took of his Lincoln Street property in Bloomfield the day Yiyo died. He said he took the pictures -- which showed the stall and corral with the dead horse in the background -- to show off the property to potential renters.
Prosecutor Marianna Green challenged Barrera's explanation. "So you were so upset after seeing this 'pet' dead in the pasture that you decided, while waiting for your nephews to help you drag him into the stall, that you'd just take some photos to help rent the house?" she asked incredulously. Barrera said he didn't have a lot of time to rent the property out. "Is that a yes?" Green interrupted. "I guess so," Barrera replied.
A veterinarian for the prosecution testified earlier in the week that he found no evidence of cancer in the horse. Yiyo died of torsion colic, a painful twisting of the intestines. Dr. Grant Miller, a large-animal vet, testified that Yiyo was extremely malnourished, weighing less than 800 pounds, about 350 pounds underweight.
Miller and Animal Control Officer Robin Brown testified that they saw no food or water in the horses' stalls, nor were there any droppings from recent feedings. They also said they found no drag marks in the corral but did see marks in the dirt under Yiyo's body that looked like "snow angels." Miller said he believed Yiyo struggled desperately in his stall -- causing several fresh bruises and lacerations found on his body -- before going down and thrashing on the ground, where he died. Feces, urine and saliva surrounding Yiyo's body, apparently excreted as his muscles loosened after death, suggested the horse died where it was found, Miller said.
Both of Valencia's nephews testified that they helped Barrera drag the horse into the stall, though their explanations varied slightly in the details.
Valencia testified that she left the horse's care to Barrera, who didn't always stay at the house. She said sometimes she fed them in the mornings before she went to work at her job at a jewelry store at Coddingtown Mall. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that she drove by the pasture every day as she came and went and saw the thin horses.
The two other horses seized, now renamed Jack and Katie, were adopted into new homes. Green said each horse gained 150 pounds in the first month after being removed from Barrera's and Valencia's care.
Valencia's attorney argued that Yiyo died of a "natural condition," not mistreatment.
Update 10/28/08: The prosecutor in an animal cruelty case told jurors Monday they only needed to "use their common sense" to reach guilty verdicts against a couple accused of neglecting three horses and a dog.
In closing arguments, Marianna Green told the seven-woman, five-man jury that Valencia and Barrera, acted with gross negligence by failing to properly feed and water the animals, subjecting them to needless suffering and potentially great bodily injury.
One horse, a mare named Yiyo, died of a twisted colon, a condition both sides agreed was a painful and horrible death not caused by a lack of food. Two other horses were seized and have been adopted; the dog was later returned.
Barrera's attorney, Judy Conrey, asked jurors to be skeptical, arguing that his client's conduct wasn't ideal, but it didn't amount to a crime.
Valencia's attorney, David Sherer, went further, asking the panel to believe that county Animal Control officers and the prosecution's veterinarian acted in "an unholy alliance" to target Barrera and Valencia. "I get it, it's a conspiracy. Haven't heard that one before," Green rebutted.
"Is that reasonable? This big agency of Animal Control came crashing down on Mr. Barrera, doctoring all this evidence . . . to advocate for their position that people should be prosecuted for things they didn't do? That's a desperate defense," Green said.
Valencia and Barrera face a maximum of three years in prison and possible fines on one felony and three misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. They have pleaded not guilty.
During the four-day trial, jurors saw photos of a badly emaciated and bruised Yiyo, dead in his stall with what prosecution witnesses described as "snow angels" in the dirt around him from where he struggled before dying.
Dozens of animal lovers have attended the trial, often shedding tears when hearing about the pain the horse suffered before death or seeing photos of his emaciated body.
Prosecution veterinarian Grant Miller testified that Yiyo likely hadn't been fed in at least 30 hours before his death, judging from the lack of material in his stomach and intestines. A horse that normally would have weighed 1,100 pounds weighed less than 800 at the time of his death, Miller said. Yiyo's bones protruded around his ribs, hips, spine and withers, areas that should have healthy fat deposits in a properly cared-for animal.
Animal Control officer Robin Brown and Miller both testified that there was no hay or grain in the three horses' pen. A water bucket was dry. "It took months of lack of food to get to that level," Green said.
The two other horses seized by authorities each gained 150 pounds in the first month of rehabilitation, she said, the only change in circumstance being adequate food.
Arguing for Barrera, Conrey acknowledged that the animals didn't receive optimal care. "There is good behavior. There is bad behavior. And then there is criminal behavior," she said. "What you witnessed is clearly not good behavior, but it is also not criminal behavior."
Barrera testified that the horse was skinny because it had cancer, although a post-mortem exam failed to detect the disease. Conrey argued that any neglect didn't amount to "gross negligence," and therefore wasn't criminal.
Sherer described the prosecution's case against Barrera and Valencia as a "shotgun approach . . . charging everything to see what sticks."
He characterized an Animal Control inspection conducted four months after Yiyo's death as a "gotcha" search designed to trip up law-abiding people. He suggested "neighborhood campaigners" may have gotten wind of the inspection and purposely emptied the horses' water bucket.
Sherer also asked jurors to disregard the testimony of Brown and Miller, saying the Animal Control officer and vet repeatedly lied "in an effort to make Barrera a liar."
Update 10/29/08: Sonoma County jurors convicted one of two defendants in the death of a horse, but deadlocked on five other animal neglect charges.
After hearing jurors announce they had reached an impasse on the remaining counts against Bloomfield residents Barrera and Valencia, Judge René Chouteau declared a mistrial on those charges.
Bailiffs took Barrera into custody following the verdict, handcuffing him in the courtroom and took him to Sonoma County Jail pending his sentencing next month. Valencia is not in custody. Barrera could face probation, jail or as much as three years in prison on the animal cruelty charge.
Horse lovers who have been closely watching the trial declared the guilty verdict on the most serious charge -- a felony against Barrera -- a victory despite the no-decisions against Valencia. "We're absolutely thrilled," said Katie Moore, a member of CHANGE. Members attended each day of the trial.
"We felt the facts spoke for themselves. Any jury that would hear this case would find this man guilty," she said. "We hope this sends a message to the good people in Sonoma County that people like this are going to be prosecuted for crimes against animals."
Against Valencia, jurors deadlocked on all three counts involving the horses, leaning 11-1 toward guilt on each one.
They failed to reach a verdict against either defendant in relation to the care of the dog, voting 10-2 in favor of guilt against Valencia and 8-4 toward guilt against Barrera.
Prosecutor Marianna Green said her office would announce whether it would retry Valencia. She said they wouldn't seek a second trial on the unresolved misdemeanor against Barrera.
After the verdict, several jurors apologized to Green for the mistrial. They said the lone holdout wasn't convinced that Valencia bore any "care and custody" of the horses, an element necessary to prove the crime.
Valencia testified that Barrera, whom she lived with and had children with but isn't married to, was responsible for the horses' food and water. But she also testified that he didn't always stay at their Lincoln Street home and she fed the horses when he wasn't present.
Several jurors, all of whom wanted to continue to remain anonymous, said 11 other jurors tried to persuade the holdout that Valencia had the same responsibility for the animals as her boyfriend did. "It was very hard to walk out of there with a hung jury," one woman said. The jury forewoman, a Sebastopol resident, said the photos of the badly emaciated horse, Yiyo, clearly showed neglect and abuse on the defendants' part. "We were all pretty horrified," she said.
Of Barrera's explanations, the jury forewoman said: "He should write fiction."
Barrera is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 26.
Update 10/31/08: The second of two defendants in an animal cruelty case agreed to accept responsibility for the maltreatment of a horse and was ordered to serve volunteer hours in a veterinary clinic.
In a plea bargain, Valencia, entered a no contest plea to one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty involving an underweight mare seized from her home in April.
Three other charges, a felony related to a horse that died, and two other misdemeanors in connection with the care of a third underweight horse and a dehydrated dog were dismissed as part of the plea.
Judge René Chouteau ordered Valencia to serve one year of informal probation and 20 hours of community service within the next four months. “I want that performed in a veterinary office,” he told her. She also must pay a $100 fine.
Prosecutor Marianna Green said the deal was acceptable because Valencia’s boyfriend, Salvador Barrera, 35, was convicted of a felony in the horse death and two misdemeanors in connection with the other horses.
Jurors deadlocked on the charges against Valencia, leaning 11-1 in favor of guilt on the horse cruelty charges.
Jurors said the lone holdout didn’t believe Valencia bore the same responsibility to care for the animals as her boyfriend. The couple lived together and had children together but weren’t married. Jurors said the holdout said she would have voted to convict Valencia had the couple been married.