Roy Exum: Notorious Horse Trainer Arrested

Friday, April 26, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s office has received thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of letters and is expecting a petition bearing over 6,000 names from those begging he veto a very controversial “AgGag” bill but the deciding blow may have just been delivered in Maryville on Thursday. State authorities have charged notorious horse trainer Larry Wheelon with one count of aggravated animal cruelty and confiscated at least 17 of 28 Tennessee Walking Horses that showed visible signs of alleged abuse and soring.

Wheelon’s barn had been raided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week and, while agents were said to be “shocked,”  yesterday’s action was the first step in a criminal prosecution by state officials, where horse abuse is now a felony and carries a one-to-five year jail term on each count.

Wheelon has been cited for violating the federal Horse Protection Act at least 15 times by the USDA between 1993 and 2012, but yesterday’s arrest was the first in Tennessee since horse abuse became a felony last July.

The Tennessee Legislature passed an “AgGag”  bill by a mere one vote the day before the USDA raided Wheelon’s barn last week and a source said that if the AgGag bill, as it is called, had been law then evidence collected in the last two weeks against Wheelon would be impermissible and the person, or persons, who tipped the USDA would be guilty of a misdemeanor under the highly-controversial bill.

Tennessee’s flawed Animal Abuse Bill has been so universally decried by animal protection groups that the Humane Society of the United States now has a $100,000 TV campaign to urge the governor’s veto. Not surprising, the Tennessee Walking Horse Association, considered the root of horse abuse in Tennessee for the past 50 years, and the Tennessee Farm Bureau are the only known organizations in favor of the act.

The horses were seized yesterday by the Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but the Humane Society and a group from House Haven were called in and asked to transport, care and feed the animals at an undisclosed farm outside of Blount County. Last week 26 of 28 horses were inspected by USDA veterinarians and some were said to be “in agony” after a paste containing such irritants as kerosene and cinnamon were found to be wrapped on the animals’ forelegs.

To compound the tragedy, as the horses were being moved yesterday, one horse was found to be in such pain that when something brushed the animal’s bloody foreleg in a barn walkway, the pain-crazed animal rushed the experienced equine handler, badly cutting her face and breaking her leg. The handler, who has been working with horses for years, was transported by ambulance to a local hospital.

The horse was quickly caught and sedated by veterinarians, who also began pain treatment for the animal. “The whole scene is absolutely horrible,” said one onlooker. “Nobody knows what these horses have been forced to endure.”

Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS, said on Thursday, “These horses are clearly in extreme pain – some of them from having chemicals applied to their skin and bolts driven into the soles of their hooves. We are grateful to be able to help rescue them so they will no longer have to suffer like this, simply for the sake of a blue ribbon. We commend the Blount County SPCA and Blount County Sheriff’s Office for their hard work and dedication on this case.”

Intricate lab swabs were taken last week by USDA veterinarians and while it was believed results wouldn’t be available for two weeks, there was no confirmation of what caused law enforcement authorities to confiscate the animals on Thursday. “Obviously the Blount County District Attorney (Mike Flynn) didn’t need any more proof than was quite plain to see,” said a witness in Wheelon’s barn.

Only one horse in Wheelon’s care had paperwork for Coggan’s Disease and the other 27 were being held in quarantine until yesterday when the order to take possession was deemed necessary. Under federal law, the horses can be moved but not across state lines until tested for the deadly equine infectious anemia.

Wheelon, a director of the increasingly much-maligned Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association, headed the group’s Ethics Committee and was said by two sources to be a well-known “scofflaw” in Maryville, which is confirmed by his history of USDA suspensions. “Seeing these horses suffering so badly that they can hardly stand is heartbreaking, but being able to assist in this investigation and today’s rescue gives us some solace,” said Gino Bachman, president of the Blount Co. SPCA.

Additional federal and state charges are expected in coming weeks but officials warned the investigation in “ongoing.” The lab swaps and videos will play a convincing role, as well as testimony from USDA equine experts. Wheelon’s arrest is the biggest blow to the “Big Lick” segment of the Walking Horse industry since Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty to abuse charges in Chattanooga last year.

McConnell, who received three years’ probation and was fined $75,000 under lax Federal laws, is still awaiting trial under state charges after a scathing video showed him beating and torturing horses appeared on the ABC News show, “Nightline,” and soon went viral to horse lovers around the world.

That is what makes the Legislature’s approval of the “AgGag” bill so incredible in a state now considered to lead the world in horse abuse. Tennessee has the third-largest equine population of all the states in the country but the “Big Lick” crowd is Shelbyville has badly maligned the state’s image and its historic breed. (An informal poll in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette showed 70 percent of its reader’s favored a veto of the AgGag bill.)

It is not known when Governor Haslam will veto the AgGag bill or sign it into law.

royexum@aol.com


Thanks To Those Who Made East Ridge Stadium Possible

I would like to express my personal appreciation, and that of our entire city, to the Hamilton County School Board for its decision to fund new seating at Raymond James Stadium at East Ridge High School. Because the former stadium was condemned in August and razed in December of last year, it would have been easy to simply let this subject fade away.   However, the ... (click for more)

A Change For Walker County

Everyone elected to public office deserves a chance to fulfill the office they are elected to.  A reasonable amount of time should be expected to accomplish these goals as well.  In Walker County we have had the same sole commissioner for 16 years. Whether you believe she has done a good job or not, 16 years as a government servant should be long enough for any one ... (click for more)

Settlement May Be Close In Government's $1.8 Billion Case Against Cleveland, Tn.-Based Life Care Centers Of America

A settlement may be close in the federal government's massive False Claims Act case against Cleveland, Tn.-based Life Care Centers of America. Attorneys have asked Chattanooga Federal Judge Sandy Mattice to put a 30-day hold on depositions, saying a settlement is in the works. Judge Mattice granted the motion. The government says claims in the case amount to $1.8 billion. ... (click for more)

Erlanger Projecting $15.2 Million Profit In Aggressive "Growth Budget"

Erlanger Health Systems is projecting a $15.2 million profit in an aggressive "growth budget" for the upcoming fiscal year. President Kevin Spiegel, who has led the public hospital to a succession of profitable years, said the projections are based on a TennCare waiver being renewed once again. He said if it is not renewed, then the hospital will have to completely rework the ... (click for more)

Germany's Sebastian Kienle Wins Ironman 70.3 Race

It’s hard to not be impressed with the fitness level of folks who commit themselves to training and participating in Ironman-distance triathlons and that was surely the case in downtown Chattanooga Sunday morning. There are three words to describe these folks and that’s fit, fast and friendly.  And most of them cross the finish line with a smile on their face and a spring ... (click for more)

Spring Fling State Soccer Brackets Set

Notre Dame and McCallie are the only area teams to compete in this week's Spring Fling Soccer competitions in Murfreesboro.   In Class A/AA, Notre Dame will play Tuesday at 6:30 in the quarterfinals.  The will face off with CAK. Winners will advance to the semifinals on Wednesday.  The Class A/AA state championship game is set for Friday at 4 p.m.   Notre ... (click for more)