Roy Exum: ‘Big Lick’ Trainer Is Set Free

Sunday, August 18, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I firmly believe that the United States has the best justice system in the world. While it may not be perfect in the eyes of even some of America’s best jurists, it is based on the Constitution and has resulted in this nation becoming the greatest country in the history of the world.

Because of my belief, I am of the opinion it is only a matter of time before scurrilous horse trainers such as Larry Joe Wheelon will be forced to stop abusing horses and what is now known as “The Big Lick” will be obliterated forever. But it is going to take time. That bitter lesson was brought home in a Blount County (TN) General Sessions Court on Thursday.

Charges of aggravated animal cruelty against the 68-year-old Wheelon and three other men were properly dismissed in Maryville when our justice system worked just like it is supposed to do. The system is built on fairness, on doing what is right in a most-proper manner, and while evidence was said to be overwhelming that Wheelon and his confederates did indeed torture and sadistically “sore” 19 Tennessee Walking Horses in a run-down barn he had rented this spring, a simple mistake set the four accused abusers free.

Judge Robert L. Headrick, who signed a search warrant that resulted in the charges in April, refused a request by Wheelon’s attorney to halt the proceedings but when the judge swore in those who would testify before the Thursday preliminary hearing, the key witness was still being flown to Maryville from Mississippi. Judge Headrick specifically told the potential witnesses they were not allowed to hear any testimony until they were called.

But when Dr. Bart Sutherland arrived, the U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian, who had examined the horses and had found heinous examples of abuse, failed to be told that Judge Headrick had banned potential witnesses from the courtroom until they were called. During early arguments, Dr. Sutherland had been permitted in the Justice Center courtroom.

Even when USDA agent Karen Wilcox asked him if he should be present after his arrival, Dr. Sutherland presumed it was acceptable since he had been present earlier in the week. After all, he and the other witnesses had heard the earlier motions. It was a tragic error.

Dr. Sutherland had heard two witnesses testify before he was called to the stand and, when it was pointed out the veterinarian had been present and heard testimony, Judge Headrick had no choice –  by law – but to rule the main witness was ineligible and could not testify. Never mind that had Dr. Sutherland been to speak he would have said it was “one of the worst cases he had ever seen,”  the justice system worked just like it should have.

“There may be evidence out there, but I can only rule on what I have before me. I had no choice but … to dismiss the charge,” Judge Headrick said from the bench.

Without the veterinarian’s testimony, the videotapes, the chilling photographs and the doctor’s expertise, prosecutors were unable to show proof that the animals had been abused by Wheelon, his two helpers, and a farrier who had applied pressure bands to the animal’s front hooves. Dr. Rachel Cesar, who handles clinical evidence for the USDA, was also unable to testify, the court demanding to hear from a technician from Texas who had mailed the swab results instead.

Judge Headrick dismissed the charges in what would have been the state’s first trial since animal abuse became a felony instead of a misdemeanor in Tennessee last year. All four men could have been sent to prison had they been found guilty.

There remains “an outside possibility,” under state law, that Blount County District Attorney General Mike Flynn could still take the case to the Grand Jury – ignoring Judge Headrick’s actions and introducing the same witnesses – but Flynn could not be reached before he is scheduled to return to his office tomorrow. There were also reports of sound horse owners attempting to call Blount County officials following the emotional decision.

The startling outcome send waves of dismay to horse lovers across the country but nowhere was the turn-of-events felt more fully than 215 miles away in Shelbyville, believed to be the epicenter of horse abuse in the world. The “Big Lick” and decades of blatant cheating is the reason why there are now bills in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to strengthen and better enforce the federal Horse Protection Act.

And the “Big Lick” will once again be put on parade when the 75th Annual National Walking Horse Celebration begins an 11-day show in Shelbyville this Wednesday. At least two of the owners who had horses in Wheelon’s barn are noted “Big Lickers” with a history of USDA violations, but on Friday the abused horses that have been held by the Humane Society of the United States were being returned to men like Joe Barnes, who had the 2010 World Champion, and Kenny Smith.

Other owners who had horses being trained by Wheelon were identified as Rodney Koger, Vicky Hughes, Bo Teague (ownership has been assigned), Ferrell Hughes, Bobbie Jo Koger, Bill Andrews, Becky Andrews and Wheelon himself. Had Wheelon been prosecuted and found guilty, it is believed the owners could also be charged and tried as accessories if it could be proven they were aware soring was taking place.

With the result of guilty pleas in both federal and state courts in the past year, law enforcement groups will undoubtedly “step up” inspections and command a presence at the Celebration. Last year USDA random testing showed 140 of 190 horses tested positive for caustic materials used to sore horses so they will dance the gruesome, unnatural “Big Lick.”

Austin Swing, the Shelbyville sheriff, is mandated by state law to investigate any type of felony and agents from the USDA and Humane Society of the United States are expected to be present at the Celebration as well. With the deadline for entries already past (Aug. 6,) class entries are down 22 percent from last year, falling from 2,671 to 2,081 this year. The number of horses that will be shown has also fallen from 1,469 last year to 1,112 this year, a 24 percent decline.

The Celebration has ruefully acknowledged the sordid reputation of the “Big Lick” and growing public wrath has caused a financial disaster as well as attendance declines. Last year the show lost almost a half-million dollars, this after a videotape of hall-of-fame trainer Jackie McConnell savagely beating horses was shown repeatedly on national TV and in newspapers. The tape went viral and has been viewed by horsemen all around the world.

To make matters even worse, Celebration officials just kicked the Walking Horse Breed Registry – the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeder’s and Exhibitor’s Association – off its property, demanding it vacate a building that was actually built by the TWHBEA. The action is believed to be in response to former president Tracy Boyd and six other directors supporting the enhanced Horse Protection Act legislation.

A “Big Lick” group, known as TWSHO, just lost a court decision against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Texas that could lead to decertification as an HIO, which in turn could disqualify SHO inspectors and cause the entity, which is believed to have lost $600,000, to fold.

The newly-formed “performance horse organization”  would then attempt to gain footing, attempting to take over the registry as well as trying to work a compromise on “action devices” with the USDA, but industry insiders believe the “Big Lick” may well be on its last legs. Law enforcement officials and USDA compliance agents refuse to consider Wheelon’s technicality a loss in the much-accelerated war against horse abuse in Tennessee.

They believe that justice will one day be served, not just to catch the cheaters but to honor thousands upon thousands of owners and riders of Tennessee Walkers who treat their horses in a sound and noble way. I do, too.

royexum@aol.com

When the 75th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration begins in Shelbyville this Wednesday, there will be several billboards warning that soring horses is a felony and that the Humane Society of the United States is offering $10,000 to anyone who reports a felony that ends in a conviction.
When the 75th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration begins in Shelbyville this Wednesday, there will be several billboards warning that soring horses is a felony and that the Humane Society of the United States is offering $10,000 to anyone who reports a felony that ends in a conviction.

Improvements On The Glass Bridge

The glass bridge has been an embarrassing situation almost since the day of installation. At least two or three and usually more sections of glass have continuously been cracked. This creates fear in pedestrians and causes most to want to use the middle metal section. In addition, it has not been maintained for cleanliness.  I observed that both the front section and ... (click for more)

California Is Hypocritical - And Response

Re:  Roy Exum: California's Foolishness This is the ridiculousness that has always been California, land of fools and the extremist liberal hypocrite state. ("We" can punish "you" because "we" don't like what "you" stand for but don't punish "me" because "you" don't like what "we" stand for.)  Dear California, please drop anchor somewhere else because you're a large ... (click for more)

Young Woman Suffers Serious Injuries In 30-Foot Fall At Quarry At Greenway Farms

A young woman was seriously injured on Wednesday night  when she fell approximately 30 feet from a bluff at the the Greenway Farms quarry in Hixson.   Some kayakers were paddling in the quarry shortly after  8 p.m. when they saw the woman fall to the ground below. They immediately went over to the victim and called 911. The Chattanooga Fire Department ... (click for more)

Walker County Taking Out Another Loan To Deal With Debts Left By Bebe Heiskell Administration

Walker County officials said they are having to take out another loan to deal with debts left by the Bebe Heiskell administration. Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has called a special meeting for Thursday at 2 p.m. at the commissioner's office in Lafayette. The agenda includes a $4 million tax anticipation note from Lafayette Bank, which stepped in to help the new administration ... (click for more)

Chattanooga FC Hosts Memphis City FC Wednesday

 What a week it's been for CFC. After starting the season scoring only six goals in eight games, the boys in blue have racked up 12 goals in the last three matches, most recently shutting down FC Carolina United 5-0 this past Saturday.  Chattanooga FC returns to the pitch this Wednesday to take on interstate rival Memphis City FC in a must win game for both teams  ... (click for more)

Rodriquez Homers Twice As Lookouts Trip M-Braves Wednesday, 5-1

PEARL, Miss.  -- Jonathan Rodriguez hit two home runs as the Chattanooga Lookouts defeated the Mississippi Braves 5-1 on Wednesday. After already winning the first-half of the Southern League North Division, the Lookouts have opened the second-half in first place at 5-1. The Lookouts put together a strong, complete game with good pitching and some timely hitting.  ... (click for more)