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.