Walking horse trainer faces state charges after federal case is dropped
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2013:
SHELBYVILLE, Tennessee––A Blount County grand jury on
December 2, 2013 indicted Tennessee walking horse trainer Larry Joe
Wheelon, 68, and stable workers Randall Stacy Gunter, 44, and
Brandon Randall Lunsford, 32, on 18 counts each of aggravated cruelty
to livestock animals and conspiracy to commit the cruelty.
Each faces 13 felony counts plus five misdemeanor counts.
Farrier Blake T. Primm was indicted for one felony cruelty count
and one misdemeanor conspiracy count, both involving the same horse.
The indictments allege that the four men “Did purchase, mix
and/or apply acid or other caustic substances or chemicals to exposed
areas of walking horses, in a depraved and sadistic manner, without
justifiable or lawful purpose, and did purchase, mix and/or apply
compounds, including blistering compounds, to inflict burns, cuts,
lacerations, or other injuries or pain, to the legs or hooves of
walking horses,” in order to force the horses into a high-stepping
show gait called “The Big Lick.”
“Wheelon was cited by the USDA for violating the federal Horse
Protection Act at least 15 times between 1993 and 2012,” recalled Roy
Exum of The Chattanoogan, “but his arrest [on the state charges] was
the first in Tennessee since horse abuse became a felony,” in July
The December 2013 indictments resulted from the same
investigation that earlier brought a failed federal attempt to prosecute
“After a year-long investigation, the Blount County SPCA,
the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other animal protection groups
in May 2013 executed a search warrant at Wheelon’s Maryville stables,”
recalled Heidi Hall of the Nashville Tennessean.
Blount County SPCA investigator and former police officer Kellie
Bachman testified that inside the stables, “The horses were down,
they were moaning, they were casting themselves, their legs were all
wrapped. It was brutal.”
The federal case against Wheelon collapsed on August 15, 2013,
due to “an apparent breakdown in communication among federal agents,”
reported Iva Butler of the Maryville Daily Times. “The essential
witness was USDA veterinary medical officer Bart Sutherland, of
Washington, D.C., who performed the testing and palpitated the horses
for soreness on the day of the raid. He was not allowed to testify
because he accidentally sat in the courtroom for 30 minutes during
Blount County General Sessions Judge Robert L. Headrick “did
the daily swearing-in at the beginning of the hearing at 2:00 p.m.,”
Butler continued, “and invoked the rule that called for witnesses to
wait outside and not hear other testimony in the case. At that time
Sutherland was flying in from Mississippi. When he arrived at the
Justice Center, Sutherland said USDA special agent Karen Wilcox,
indicated for him to enter the courtroom. She is the supervisor of
Special Agent Julie McMillan, who did the undercover investigation and
conducted the search on Wheelon’s stables.”
Headrick ruled that Sutherland was ineligible to testify.
“As a result, Blount County Assistant District Attorney Ellen
Berez was unable to get the test results on the horse Wheelon was
charged with abusing,” Butler recounted. “Headrick then ruled the
prosecution had failed to prove there was probable cause to send the
case to the grand jury. After the hearing, Berez said that Sutherland
“would have testified that on a scale of 1 to 10,” the horse “rated
a 9 to 10 for soreness. He said it was one of the worst cases he’s
Boarded during the federal proceedings by the Humane Society of
the U.S. at an undisclosed location, the 19 horses seized from
Wheelon’s barn were returned to him in four different groups between
October 16 and November 6, 2013.
HSUS in MY 2012 released undercover video in May 2012 of
Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell and two of
his employees soring a horse at his stable in Collierville, Tennessee.
All three men were convicted of federal charges. McConnell was
expelled from the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame, fined $75,000,
and is serving a three-year probationary sentence.
“Public will judge”
“The public will be allowed to judge for itself whether Jackie
McConnell was one bad apple, and Larry Wheelon was another, or—with
all the trainers with all their Horse Protection Act violations—the
whole barrel is bad apples,” said HSUS horse protection director
The Performance Show Horse Association argues that Tennessee
walking horse industry self-policing has already achieved a 28%
improvement in Horse Protection Act compliance since 2009.
The SHOW Horse Industry Organization on September 18, 2013
announced a 46% drop in disqualifications at the 75th Tennessee Walking
Horse National Celebration, held in Shelbyville each August. Of 2,087
horses inspected before and after exhibition, the organization said,
31 violations were discovered, involving 30 horses, down from 56
horses disqualified in 2012.
“Industry detractors contend that trainers are just getting
better at hiding evidence of soring during horse show inspections,”
wrote Hall of The Tennessean.
SHOW-HIO resisted enforcing the minimum penalities for Horse
Protection Act violations proposed by the USDA Animal & Plant Health
Inspection Service almost to the opening ceremonies of the 2013
The minimum penalties prescribe that any violation of the Horse
Protection Act that requires a suspension of a horse is also to bring
the suspension of the horse’s owner, manager, trainer, rider,
custodian, and seller, following a notification and appeals process
that permits each accused individual to contest the charges. If the
offense is a bilateral sore, the transporter is also to be suspended,
after going through the same due process.
Penalties for Horse Protection Act violations were formerly
erased from trainers’ records after their suspensions were served.
Violation records are now permanent.
SHOW-HIO and other walking horse industry organizations sued
seeking to overturn the new minimum penalties, but the penalties and
the USDA enforcement procedure were on July 30, 2013 upheld by the U.S.
District Court of the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth.
The 2013 Celebration was barely over, reported Jason Reynolds
of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, before Celebration chief executive
Mike Inman and other walking horse industry leaders headed to Washington
D.C. “to push alternative legislation to the Whitfield Amendment,
which was written by HSUS” and introduced in April 2013 by
Congressional Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. The Whitfield
Amendment attracted 230 House co-sponsors; a Senate version drew 27,
enough to give it about a 13% chance of passage, according to the
statistical criteria used by GovTrack.us. The House version went to a
hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade
on November 13, 2013.
The Whitfield Amendment calls for the elimination of all use of
“performance devices” to enhance the “Big Lick” gaits; for
entirely replacing industry self-policing with USDA inspection; and for
increasing the penalties for Horse Protection Act violations.
Should the Whitfield Amendment pass, Inman told Reynolds,
“There would be no incentive to breed show horses.”