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RESCUE RANGER: Carolyn Lacoe took in two sickly horses, including Pistol, a pregnant mare.

Obvious Neglect

Uribe, who scrapes by selling flowers for a living in San Francisco, has owned horses for at least a decade. But, he says, his problems escalated last summer because of a woman named Amber Stites, a 36-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed horse trader evicted from a property near his Gilroy ranch. He says he felt sorry for her and offered to sublet part of his land for her to live in her trailer until she found a permanent place to stay. At the time, Uribe says, he didn't know of her reputation, though he admitted buying horses from her over the years, usually in terrible shape when he got them.

"Stites is not a good person," Uribe told a DA investigator last fall. She was reportedly banned from owning horses in San Benito County because of animal cruelty charges.

In June, Uribe says Stites—in exchange for rent—dumped a few-dozen horses on his land, which he planned to help her fatten up and sell. Maybe he'd keep five or six to himself. Stites promised to help sell the horses, according to Uribe, keeping 10 percent of the price for herself as commission. That never happened. Instead, she kept bringing more horses on his property. He suspected her of stealing a couple of his mares and some of his belongings, which he says he saw her sell at the San Jose flea market. Problems he'd dealt with for years—lack of money and knowledge to care for his horses—spiraled out of control.

Strapped for cash, he says, he relied on a friend from Milpitas to file the horses' teeth once a year. Every six months, he says, he worms them with the cheapest de-wormer from a tractor company.

"Later he contradicted his statement about frequency of deworming by saying that he only deworms the skinny horses in the dry season because in Mexico when the grass is brown they say that there are more worms," DA investigator Marissa Knuth wrote in her summary of the meeting.

Court records show the vet interjected to tell Uribe that it's actually the other way around, that worms are more abundant in the wet season. Despite owning horses for several years, Uribe seemed clueless about how to properly care for them.

"He really just feeds and provides water to the horses," Knuth continues. "He lets the horses groom themselves. He provides a two-foot-deep pool of water in the dirt for the horses if they want to take a bath. When the horses get stomach problems he gives them corn oil and hot coffee because that is what his grandfather told him to do."

Visits from animal control never never seemed to bother Uribe. The first report came in 2005, when authorities found three dead horses—a gray dappled gelding, a black filly and a red bay filly, all apparently starved to death—decomposing on his ranch in Patterson, a Central Valley farm town. Years of reports from ensuing visits document the ongoing neglect and nearly led to a felony animal neglect case in Stanislaus County, though the charges were dropped.

Uribe regularly left his horses without water, even in the sweltering heat, and without food. Even when he did feed them, it was with the lowest-grade feed, devoid of enough protein to pack weight onto an underfed horse. Sometimes Uribe left them tied up by a rope, unattended. They would wander around nursing open wounds, some bite and kick marks from fighting each other for scraps of feed. Their guts would get congested with sand, from scraping their lips on the dirt in search of food. Some crippled by unclipped hooves, some with coats molded and patchy from being exposed to the elements. One had a tongue lolling out of a broken jaw.

And, despite a lack of sustenance, an inordinate number of mares were found to be pregnant.

In August 2011, authorities forced Uribe to take an underweight filly to the vet, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. A couple months later, officers stopped by to check on another skin-and-bones filly, who was limping around because of an open wound on her back leg. The next summer, animal control warned him—one of at least a dozen times—about the lack of water, reminding him that it's a felony to deprive animals of adequate food and drink. In September 2012, someone called about the emaciated horses, one nursing an old, scabbed-over injury on its hind right leg. In March 2013, a neighbor called animal control about a dead bay horse at the Maple Road ranch in Morgan Hill. In August that same year, a horse died from "something mixed in with fresh yard clippings." Another time, Uribe let a carcass rot for a few days in a Eucalyptus grove by his Gilroy property. The stench permeated the neighborhood.

"From the outside, it's so hard to watch," says Loera, who owns three horses of her own, one of them a rescue. "Just obvious neglect."

Each time, however, Uribe got away with not so much as a fine. Occasionally, a warning. Accounts from officials say the mild-mannered rancher seemed receptive, friendly even, and willing to work with authorities. Maybe, Ellis suggests, that's why he was given so many chances.

But while animal control continued to reassure the community that they were dealing with Uribe, the horses' condition only got worse.

"[Uribe] was working with us and the veterinarian," Escobar, head of county oversight, told the Gilroy Dispatch in September, just before the DA got involved. "I personally went there every day on my way to work to make sure the horses were getting fed."

Neighbors call that an outright lie, saying they recorded a 36-hour stretch where the horses went entirely without food. Even when they had food, it was the wrong kind. And claims that they were being wormed properly were debunked when Hardeman's rescues were found infested with parasites.

In September, Vicki Herrick finally had enough. A horse owner who lives down the street from Uribe's Morgan Hill ranch, she started a Facebook page to post photos of the sick horses and spur action from the county. She enlisted help from a few other neighbors, Trina Hinesar, from across the way, and nearby Leslie Daniels. They uploaded photos of bloated mares, exposed rib cages, collapsed foals, water set out in toxic barrels some days—dry troughs on others. Hardeman called reporters and begged Escobar to force Uribe to sell her the horses.

"Their lives were on the line," says Hardeman, who cares for her rescues at a ranch in Paicines. "But there was no sense of urgency."

The Facebook photos sparked a flurry of media attention. TV news vans and local papers rushed to the ranch to ask Uribe about his horses. Almost every time, he welcomed the interviews and downplayed the condition of his horses. So did animal control.

"I don't want any more problems," Uribe told the Dispatch in September, explaining that someone else gave him the few-dozen sick horses to nurse back to health before selling them off to a rodeo.

Emotions boiled over as time passed, fueled by constant updates on social media. People who thought animal control should have acted sooner directed their anger at county official Escobar.

"It got out of hand," says Escobar, who says he received personal threats over his handling of the case. "It's hard not to take things personally."

Rumors began bubbling up about Uribe running a horsemeat operation, raising them to send down to Mexico for slaughter. Nearly 20 of the seized horses were pregnant, leading to speculation that he was selling them by weight. Others, including Ellis and county Agriculture and Environmental Health Department Director Amy Brown, think Uribe was simply naive, a wannabe rancher and hoarder who collected more horses than he knew what to do with.

Some of the mistrust, Ellis adds, stemmed from an incorrect public perception of animal control's role.

"They're not the typical law enforcement agency," Ellis says, contrasting it with police agencies, which routinely hand over cases for the District Attorney's office to prosecute. "Animal control doesn't go around arresting people. They try to work with the community and correct behavior. In this case, maybe it did go on too long."

That could change in the future. Ellis says the DA plans to work more closely with the agency, which agreed to notify prosecutors earlier in the process. Escobar defends his actions by noting that because his office amassed so many reports and so much evidence, it made it easier for the DA to secure a felony conviction. More often than not, he says, animal neglect cases get pleaded down or tossed out. But Hardeman and others say the county's passive approach was inhumane, its inaction fatal to several horses.

"This type of neglect takes time," animal control officer Carla Setzer wrote in a narrative for the DA. "These horses did not become this way overnight. Even in cases of complete starvation it takes about two weeks for a horse to go from a moderate weight to emaciated."

And yet she also concedes in that same report, "The horse owner had to see these horses becoming debilitated and did nothing to prevent it."

Animal Abuse

Horse Sense

In a small conference room at the county headquarters, the Animal Advisory Commission meets the first Thursday of the year to talk about adoption numbers, disaster plans and how to recruit a new board member. Somehow, Katrina Loera's presentation about the Uribe case doesn't make it on the agenda. During the course of the 45-minute meeting, board members say they "forgot" to vote to agendize it for the March meeting.

Loera learns of the lapse just after Sandy Petersen, a fiery board member with strong opinions about how to work with instead of against bureaucracy, walks in and admonishes her to "behave." Loera says under her breath that she's tired of being written off as "a crazy PETA person."

"We've been telling them since November that we want to speak," Loera says, arms crossed, noting that the agenda wasn't posted online until about an hour before the meeting, in violation of the Brown Act. "I don't know what happened, but it feels like they don't want to cooperate."

Her presentation, which will apparently now have to wait at least until May, proposes policy changes that she hopes would prevent similar cases of horse neglect from dragging on so long in the future.

Loera's group, Humans4Horses, says the county should require better training for animal control officers, to teach them more about horse health, as well as employ better technologies to maintain accurate records. The organization also wants to post the names of convicted offenders online, with photos and details about their violations. Citations that increase in cost with each additional violation are also being suggested.

"We don't want to see any more horses die from neglect here," Loera says. "We can't let this happen again."

During a three-minute slot in the public comment period to address the board, Loera decries the county's "complete failure" to deal with Uribe. After the meeting, Petersen walks over to make peace, telling Loera and Hinesar that it's time to work together.

"I love your passion," Petersen tells the group, encouraging them to bring their message to policymakers—the Board of Supervisors—so the county can be better prepared to deal with abandoned and neglected horses in the future. "I want to help you."

Especially, Peterson says, because she expects a European Union boycott of Mexican horsemeat to leave some local ranchers with horses they don't want and can't sell.

"I see horses being stacked up in a stovepipe," she cautions, holding up an article about the issue from the Quarter Horse News. "You're going to start seeing the animals abandoned I see a disaster coming."

Ongoing Need

Cheyenne, 9-year-old quarter horse, a warm caramel color, has fattened up nicely since her rescue seven weeks ago. Her coat is silky and soft, her eyes bright, her belly full of alfalfa.

"She gets to eat whenever she wants," says Carolyn Lacoe, a Gilroy equestrian who rescued a couple of Uribe's horses after the seizure, including an undernourished pregnant mare. "Her ribs were showing pretty bad when she got here."

When officials took the horses, Lacoe spent hours of her own time calling up rescues, trying to find them homes. The problem now, she says, is that people think that because the criminal case is resolved—except for a restitution hearing coming up in March—that they don't still need help. Boarding, feeding and paying the vets bills for these horses will run into the thousands.

"We need the money to care for them," she says. "Rescuing them is just the beginning."

Click here to donate to a GoFundMe account raising money to care for and feed the rescued horses.