Dennis Chaves May Not Be That Lucky This Time Around
The 35 to 40 horses were destined for slaughter, but many already appeared half-dead
photo by Animal's Angels
Crammed into a small pen, they were so emaciated their hip and rib bones were showing. Some were crippled, and others listless with swollen jaws consistent with equine distemper, according to interviews and sheriff’s reports. Witnesses reported no food or water in the pen, located in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
A Bernalillo County deputy, with help from the District Attorney’s Office, filed 16 counts of animal cruelty and neglect against the owner of the horses, Dennis V. Chavez.
That was more than 20 years ago.
Now that same Dennis V. Chavez faces new allegations of animal cruelty and neglect involving horses at his Los Lunas livestock auction business in a case that has made international news.
Chavez prevailed in 1991. All but one of the 16 misdemeanor counts were dismissed, and he was acquitted of the remaining charge.
“I remember the deal,” Chavez said in a brief phone interview on Friday, “and for sure, I’m not guilty this time.”
Back in 1990, then-BCSO Deputy Jeannie Webb was relatively new to the job when she launched the investigation.
“I prepared as good as I knew how,” said Webb, who retired in 2004. “I didn’t know near what I knew later on about animal cruelty cases.”
Seizing the sick and starving horses wasn’t possible. And the evidence collected was problematic, former assistant district attorney Loretta Lopez said recently.
The prosecution was “jinxed,” Lopez recalled, and most of the ailing horses were gone by the time she inherited the case.
“I had no way to prosecute it; it’s kind of like trying to prosecute for damage to a ghost,” she said. “What a perfect crime, you know. You get to slaughter the evidence.”
This time around, there is a different investigative agency and a different prosecutor.
The state Livestock Board launched an inquiry last month after representatives from a national livestock welfare group videotaped four suffering downed horses at Chavez’s Southwest Livestock Auction — and begged auction workers to put them out of their misery.
Myles Culbertson, the board’s executive director, said last week he wasn’t aware of the prior case against Chavez in Bernalillo County.
Livestock Board Deputy Director Robert Pierce told the Journal his agency has no prior written complaints or investigations of Chavez or his Los Lunas business.
But he added, “we’ve gotten phone call complaints.”
“Most of what I heard from out there, it’s not a real pretty situation out there,” Pierce said last week. “They have taken colts off mares too early, but there’s really no laws broken; it’s just morally and ethically wrong.”
District Attorney Lemuel Martinez in Valencia County said the matter is still under review. But he has warned that because of a lack of resources, another agency would have to prosecute any misdemeanor charges filed.
Chavez, 53, said on Friday that he has been in contact with attorneys and declined to comment about the videotape or the specific allegations.
“When this all gets sorted out there will be absolutely no question that we didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the business; some of that stuff can’t be helped.”
The International Equine Business Association released a statement last week praising Chavez and denouncing “this vicious, uncalled for public vilification” of him.
“Dennis Chavez and Southwest Livestock deserve appreciation and support for the care and feeding of otherwise doomed horses,” the association said in a letter.
Janet Goldberg said she isn’t a member of an organized animal welfare group, but wanted to rescue horses she heard were being held at Chavez’s DC Livestock Auction on Broadway SE in 1989.
Goldberg, a Placitas resident, said in a recent interview that she bought two ailing horses, but only one survived.
The first horse was a small young gray filly who was very thin and barely able to stand because one front leg was hanging useless. The opposite rear leg was wounded, according to a statement she gave to the sheriff’s department back then.
On the way home, she took the filly to a veterinarian, who diagnosed a broken shoulder and ended up euthanizing the animal. The second filly she bought from Chavez showed signs of equine distemper but recovered and Goldberg gave her away.
“I was pretty disgusted and disillusioned (at the outcome of the 1990 prosecution against Chavez),” she said last week. “I thought it was just awful what’s happening here in New Mexico.”
Though horses in Chavez’s custody were primarily bound for slaughterhouses, they were “subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, given just enough sustenance to stay alive and have no veterinary care, prior to shipping them to their death,” BCSO Deputy Webb wrote in an April 1990 report.
Slaughterhouses only accept live horses, and the USDA has set up standards for their transport that require they receive food and water before and after.
Back in 1990, Chavez maintained he wasn’t responsible for the condition of the horses because he had just come into possession of them, former prosecutor Lopez recalled last week.
There were no ownership records to disprove that, Lopez said, and some of the evidence collected was less than desirable.
Photos of the ailing horses and their living conditions weren’t time stamped. And it was difficult to prove which horse was which.
“At the time I didn’t have a fancy camera to get good zoom pictures,” Webb said recently, during an interview from her home in Colorado.
Seizing the horses was out of the question, Webb said, because the sheriff’s department had no trailer to transport them, no place to hold them and no funds to pay for their keep.
Lopez said she was assigned the case, originally handled by another prosecutor, months after the charges were filed.
“When we took a tour out there, there were a couple of horses standing around in a dirt field,” she said. “All of these animals that were so badly abused and neglected weren’t there.”
There were horses that had been destroyed “that there had been no pictures of, that there had been no documentation for,” she said.
Of the one or two sick and starved horses that remained as part of the case, the prosecution “had no proof that any of these animals weren’t delivered to him in that fashion,” Lopez added.
“He had an excuse with every single element of the few charges we could put together.”
Asked whether the Livestock Board could have helped in the investigation, former deputy Webb scoffed, “They were worthless, they were absolutely worthless.”
Her report stated that a Livestock Board supervisor took a veterinarian to examine the horses and found no evidence of abuse.
The Albuquerque Metro Court file on the case has been destroyed.
Back in 1990, it was the Albuquerque-based Alliance Against Animal Abuse that complained to the sheriff’s department about the health of Chavez’s horses.
The news media was contacted and aired stories, complete with videotape of the horses.
“There was quite an uproar about it,”said Lopez, now a family law attorney.
This time, the videotape by Animals’ Angels unleashed a furor and calls for action from around the world.
The equine business association said last week that Chavez and his family have been the target of hate mail and death threats.
The association said its own investigation showed “an alarming picture of special interest group stalking and harassment of a legitimate livestock business.”
The association said it “works to protect the international horse industry, and to promote the use of horses and equine products in commercial enterprises.”
So far, the Livestock Board inquiry has been limited to the four dying horses seen downed and struggling in the March 10 video. Animals’ Angels reported finding multiple other horses in bad condition that day.
They alleged horses had untreated wounds, open cuts, infections, eye injuries or were lame or emaciated.
The equine association said the four dying horses in the videotape were in a “hospital pen” and not up for auction.
Animals’ Angels says its representatives had to beg the auction management and a Livestock Board inspector to euthanize the four horses that day. The inspector, they contended, refused to interrupt the horse auction occurring elsewhere on the premises. Finally, an auction worker agreed to shoot three of the horses; the fourth had already died.
More training needed
The state Livestock Board has 57 inspectors, of which 24 are certified law enforcement officers.
Animals’ Angels blamed inspector B.J. Winchester for allowing the “obvious suffering of the horses” on March 10 and contend he should have inspected them and initiated cruelty charges against Chavez.
Pierce said Winchester has no law enforcement authority because he is a brand inspector, who inspects animals coming and leaving a livestock auction for proof of ownership. Such inspectors also look for health problems in those animals.
On March 10, Winchester was working at the nearby horse auction, livestock board officials say.
He is on paid administrative leave pending a personnel inquiry into the allegations by Animals’ Angels.
Even before the Los Lunas case surfaced, Pierce said the Livestock Board realized more staff training was needed.
For instance, Pierce said the livestock board has an investigation under way in Alamogordo “and the inspector probably hasn’t worked a case for five years.” So a supervisor was asked to assist.
With animal cruelty complaints on the increase in New Mexico, Pierce said “we need more training on how to act on it. We’re all somewhat sentimental, and we’d rather make a responsible horse owner out of it than to go to court on a criminal charge.”
Pierce said his agency is also installing an electronic records system, “that will enable us at the office to see what’s happening out there quicker, to make sure we’re getting the proper paperwork in here.”
Webb, who was riding Pearl, her palomino quarter horse, during the recent Journal phone interview, said she has no regrets about pursuing the case 22 years ago.
“These guys (horses), they don’t have anybody to speak for them. I think it’s our obligation, if we’ve got the power to do something, we should do it.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal