Jackie McConnell, the notorious horse trainer who was videoed abusing and beating defenseless horses in a now-famous undercover tape, pleaded guilty to 12 of 22 misdemeanor counts of animal abuse in a west Tennessee courtroom Tuesday and – in the most glorious part of the sentencing -- the 61-year-old criminal is expressly forbidden to own, possess, train or house horses for the next 20 years.
In short, the sadistic horse trainer is through. “Jackie the Jerk” is done. And while it is a miracle that he escaped imprisonment due to lax federal and state laws, he will forever be known as the evil monster who proved to the world the “Big Lick” industry has a perverse belief it is necessary and thus okay to abuse an animal “if you want a blue ribbon.”
Additionally, Judge J. Weber McCraw sentenced the former Hall of Fame trainer to one year of house arrest, four more years of state probation, fined McConnell $25,000, and gave the disgraced Tennessee Walking Horse trainer the next 120 days to divest himself of any horses he owns or has interest in. “Your rarely see such an outcome for misdemeanors,” said District Attorney General Michael Dunavant. “We are pleased that justice has been served.”
The sentencing brought cheers throughout the horse industry where Tennessee is considered the epicenter of horse abuse in the world. Soring, as it is called, is rampant among scurrilous trainers of Tennessee Walking horses, who use caustic substances and so-called “action devices” to cause the animals to do the “Big Lick,” an unnatural gait that is now nauseating to owners and riders of “sound,” or flat-shod, Tennessee Walkers.
Two of McConnell’s associates, Jeff Dockery and Joseph Abernathy, were sentenced to four and three years of probation, respectively, in Fayette County’s Bill G. Kelley Criminal Justice Complex in Somerville. Dunavant and Assistant DA Mark Davidson skillfully kept McConnell and his two associates from asking for a diversion. All three defendants could have sought a first-time diversion under Tennessee law, which doesn’t recognize earlier guilty pleas by the three crooks in Federal Court last year.
The state sentences will run concurrently with federal sentencing after McConnell was declared a felon in Chattanooga last September. U.S. District Judge Sandy Mattice sentenced McConnell to three years of probation on federal charges and fined him $75,000 in an unrelated case while sentencing Dockery and Abernathy – who worked for McConnell at his Whittier Stables in Collierville -- to one year of probation each.
The state court in Somerville was forced to charge McConnell with misdemeanors because the heinous tape, which appalled horsemen all over the world when it was shown on “Nightline” by ABC News last year, took place before animal abuse became a felony in the state on July 1, 2012.
McConnell was also ordered to forfeit any ownership in the animals that were confiscated when his barn was raided shortly after the undercover video was made public by the Humane Society of the United States. There is ongoing litigation by the state to seize ownership of the eight horses that were being brutalized by McConnell from the owners who had originally placed the horses with McConnell at his Whittier Stables.
McConnell’s second conviction brings further evidence that horse abuse is commonplace in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. Of 190 horses randomly tested at the Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville last August, 146 tested positive for illegal irritants.
And now another notable trainer, Larry Joe Wheelon, is facing aggravated animal abuse charges in Maryville following a raid on his barn in April. Wheelon, who also has an extensive record of violating the federal Horse Protection Act in the past, will be the first trainer to face felony charges. He and two of his associates will be arraigned on Aug. 14 after 19 of 27 horses in his care were seized by federal and state officials.
Wheelon, along with Randall Stacy Gunter, 43, of Louisville, and Brandon Lunsford, 31, of Walland, are facing one count each on felony charges, which under state law calls for no less than one year or up to five years on each conviction. Prosecutors will doubtlessly seek additional charges on Wheelon and his associates after the Blount County Grand Jury acts on the case following the August hearing. A true bill could result in a total of 19 counts – one for each horse found to be abused.
A fourth man involved with Wheelon has also been arrested in Maryville. Blake Primm, the first farrier ever to arrested for animal abuse in Tennessee, faces misdemeanor charges after the Sevier County man installed some type of painful pressure-type horse shoes on animals confiscated from Wheelon’s barn.
According to sources, the 19 animals seized from Wheelon were taken to a private location where the eight horses that McConnell tortured were already undergoing extensive rehabilitation. The sickening stacks and other torture devices have been removed from the animals and they are being cared for under the protection of the Humane Society of the United States.
At the time of his arrest, the 68-year-old Wheelon was a board member of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and headed its Ethics Committee. He was also a three-star judge and a prominent member of the East Tennessee Walking Horse Association.
But according to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, some horses in Wheelon’s barn were so badly maimed “they could hardly walk.” This was confirmed by videotape taken during the raid and it is believed laboratory analysis is “overwhelming.” Caustic substances, including mustard oil, were confiscated from the barn during the April raid.
Federal and state officials say there could be additional arrests this summer and the Humane Society is urging anyone who has knowledge of horse abuse to contact their local sheriff. As Jackie McConnell now knows, that’s finally a crime.