A carefully-hatched plan by loathsome yet desperate men to block federal efforts that would strengthen the Horse Protection Act of 1970 may have just been foiled by an ironic twist of fate. As both Congress and the Senate ponder bills that would finally put teeth into a horse industry gone horribly awry, a notorious trainer and three others were indicted in Maryville earlier this week on 18 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals by the Blount County Grand Jury.
Larry Joe Wheelon, a longtime Big Lick trainer with a colorful history of defying the Horse Protection Act of 1970, has been ordered to appear before the Blount County Circuit Court on Monday, Dec. 9, after the Grand Jury renewed efforts to bring him, two of his workers, and a farrier to justice. The indictments came as a shock, especially after it seemed the four would walk away on a legal discrepancy.
Wheelon’s barn was raided in April of this year by law enforcement officials and 19 horses believed to have been brutally sored with caustic chemicals and “stewarded” by other sadistic means were seized after being thoroughly inspected and photographed by veterinarians. But during the testimony that was being presented, one witness unknowingly was present in the courtroom and heard evidence that was being given under oath by another. The judge was forced to dismiss the case rather than proceed over a flawed trial.
The Blount County District Attorney’s office, however, reviewed the evidence, including lab-test results, and presented it to the Grand Jury. Wheelon, along with Randall Stacy Gunter, Brandon Lunsford and farrier Blake T. Primm, were promptly accused of applying acid to walking horses in “a depraved and sadistic manner for competition in horse shows.” Bond for Wheelon and his workers was set at $10,000 each, while Primm’s bond was $5,000.
Wheelon, a certified horse-show judge and chairman of the Ethic Committee in the Walking Horse Trainers Association, was ecstatic when the trial was stopped but complained the publicity had “hurt his business.” He is widely-known in Blount County and sources within the horse industry say his number of USDA violations is well-earned.
Specific horses listed under the felony indictments are Los Lobos, Country Bumpkin, Fred/Coach’s Twisted Play (barn name and registered name), Lady Antebellum, Final Score/The Stimulus, Night Shade/Black Night by Choice, In My Pocket, She’s Just Sweepin’/She’s a Sweeper, Sweepover, Shades of Cash/Greg, Sweepstakes Pzazz and Sweepstakes Mare/Sweep Sister. Misdemeanor charges involve Sweeping Up the Cash, Coach Filly, Neyland and Jose’s Happy Feet/Laura Kate. The owners of the horses were not named.
The indictments could hardly have been more timely.
Steven B. Smith, who like so many Big Lick officials has a record of violating the Horse Protection Act, is expected to run for the office of president of the powerful Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association at a meeting of that group this Saturday. Smith is also the state finance chairman for Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and proponents of the pending PAST legislation fear Smith will quickly use whatever political maneuvering is necessary to block legislation that is now before Congress and the Senate.
Smith, who claims to have ridden 10 World Champions in past years, is well-recognized as a Big Lick insider and, curiously, of the 241 members of Congress who have now stepped forward to co-sponsor the Past Act, known as House Bill 1518, only one of the Tennessee’s nine Congress members has endorsed it and neither of Tennessee’s senators has acknowledged the fact that Tennessee is now recognized as the epicenter for horse abuse in the world.
To the contrary, one of the state’s lawmakers, Marsha Blackburn of Franklin, has notoriously campaigned against the bill. She was given $70,000 in campaign funds at a reception in August by the Big Lick but has stated that has not affected her stance or her efforts to influence her colleagues, which include Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga and Scott DesJarlais of Jasper. DesJarlais was given a reception at the 2012 Celebration and is known to have confronted the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Big Lick’s interests.
The PAST Act now has a majority of co-sponsors in Congress, with 241 of 435 members, so the Big Lick is eyeing the Senate as its battleground where Smith, as the state inance chairman, undoubtedly has deep ties with the state’s two leaders, Alexander and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker. Both have been courted by the Big Lickers based in Shelbyville.
Smith’s son is reportedly employed by a public relations firm known as Purple Strategies, whose client list includes the scurrilous Big Lick that is so desperate to keep the chains, pressure bands and the pads that the American Veterinarian Medical Association and many other advocacy groups believe are used to hide soring and other painful methods that “dirty” trainers employ to achieve the unnatural gait.
In July of 2012, soring and other methods of horse abuse became a felony in the state of Tennessee and, if Wheelon and his associates are taken to trial and found guilty, they would be subject to no less than one or not more than five years in prison on each count.
Under federal law horse abuse is still a misdemeanor despite the Horse Protection Act of 1970. The PAST Act would make torturing a Tennessee Walking Horse for a cheap blue ribbon a felony. In 2012, federal prosecutors in Chattanooga enforced the Horse Protection Act for the first time and, while they won five guilty pleas, the sentencing guidelines were extremely lax.
If the new PAST Act legislation becomes law, federal violators such as Jackie McConnell, the “star” of an undercover video shown on "Nightline" and seen all over the world, would be put in jail. McConnell and the other Big Lick trainers and owners don’t want that to happen, not to mention ethics chairman Larry Joe Wheelon.