Meduna dances and spins in court in effort to justify his killing of dozens of wild horses
BRIDGEPORT – A former Morrill County rancher presented himself as a “true cowboy” but instead starved the horses and burros he claimed he was giving sanctuary to, Morrill County Attorney Jean Rhodes told a jury Monday.
The cowboy claim was posted by Jason Meduna on his Web site for the 3-Strikes Ranch that he operated in northwest Morrill County. Meduna, 43, faces trial on 149 felony counts of animal cruelty. A jury of six men and six women heard testimony for the first day in a trial expected to last five days.
In a quote on Meduna’s Web site, Prosecutor Jean Rhodes said, he said, “A true cowboy will feed his horse before he feeds himself.”
It was a quote used often by media covering the case after Meduna’s April arrest and Rhodes used the presentation of former 3-Strikes ranch owner as a “true cowboy” when introducing the case against him during opening arguments Monday.
When law enforcement arrived at the ranch on April 18, Rhodes said they found no hay stacked for the winter and horses were left to grazing, irrespective of poor range conditions at the ranch. Seventy horses were discovered dead on the ranch as officials searched it in the following days. More than 200 horses and burros were removed from the ranch by law enforcement and animal rescue organizations that volunteered to help.
While Meduna had gathered supporters through his Web site and other Web sites for Mustang aficionados, he didn’t let board members and supporters onto the ranch. Rhodes implied in her arguments that he was hiding the deteriorating condition of the horses from his supporters, while still getting cash donations from them.
In charging Meduna, Rhodes said prosecutors focused on specific animals, such as a 3-year-old roan filly seized by the Bureau of Land Management, horses specifically identified by their owners and dead horses found on the ranch. More than 90 counts have been charged based on horses and burros classified as in poor condition after they were seized and examined by veterinarians.
As custodian of the horse, Rhodes told the jurors, Meduna was responsible for the horses he had taken in from the Bureau of Land Management and private individuals.
“He failed to provide proper feed, water or care,” Rhodes said, saying the state intends to prove that he acted intentionally and recklessly.
In his opening argument, defense attorney John Berry contends that Meduna didn’t intentionally starve the horses and the prosecution will fail in proving its case. At the conclusion of trial, he said, defense attorneys will be asking the jury to acquit him of the charges.
Instead of a person who intentionally or recklessly starved his horses, Berry painted a picture of a man who loves horses and was saving ones that the Bureau of Land Management was unable to adopt. Most of the animals on the ranch were “3-Strikes horses,” which the Bureau of Land Management was unable to adopt after three tries and sold for about $10 each.
Meduna had been around horses his whole life and his grandfather taught him to train horses, his lawyer said.
He dedicated his life to mustangs, Berry said, because “mustangs were a challenge.”
“Jason wasn’t alone in his vision,” he said. “… He gained support along the way” and those supporters helped him build a better Web site, promote his business and form a corporation.
The Bureau of Land Management also continued to allow Meduna to adopt horses, and Berry said, conducted periodic inspections. “Things were going well until about February 2009,” he said.
Berry said Meduna began to run short of hay and funds to purchase additional hay. Supporters helped him apply for a hay grant and sent him online donations. While Meduna thought things were turning around, he was suddenly plagued by sick horses and consulted with supporters online for opinions and advice.
It was from those opinions, and because of contentious relations with neighbors, that Meduna began to feel his horses were being poisoned. One supporter, who is expected to testify against Meduna, even recommended a health supplement that Meduna believed had improved the health of his horses.
Starvation claims were circulating at a conference for wild horse rescue groups before Meduna’s arrest, Berry said.
“Interest groups were waiting to get their hands on Jason’s horses,” he said, and law enforcement became involved. Out of concern for his horses, Meduna signed them over to the rescue groups, but continued to investigate potential causes of their ailments, including rumesin poisoning from cattle feed that Meduna alleges neighbors may have used to poison his horses or arsenic poisoning from a lake on the ranch.
Meduna didn’t have any motive for poisoning his horses or destroying the mustang sanctuary he had dedicated his life to, Berry said. Without that, he said, the state couldn’t prove its case. It’s clear that the horses needed help, he said, and Meduna cooperated by turning them over to rescue groups.
“You don’t have to decide if the horses got sick of arsenic poisoning, rumesin poisoning or if they died of starvation,” Berry told jurors. “You just have to decide if the state proved 149 counts that he acted intentionally or recklessly (in the care of the horses and burros).”
Testimony during Monday’s proceedings centered around establishing foundation, with Morrill County Sheriff John Edens and Deputy Cheree Conway testifying about photos taken at the ranch, at the Morrill County fairgrounds where the horses were moved after being seized and other photos that showed the poor condition of the horses and the ranch.
Edens also testified about Meduna reporting a horse from the ranch stolen and voicing that he believed neighbors were poisoning his horses.
Testimony in the case will resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Morrill County Courthouse in Bridgeport.