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Torture, indifference alleged in Haywood horse cruelty case

Accusations of animal cruelty have been swirling about Haywood County stable operator James Lunsford for much of the year but finally evolved into formal charges and a civil suit earlier this fall. 

Animal welfare groups allege Lunsford mistreated more than a dozen horses in his care, along with a number of other animals, but Lunsford says he’s being unfairly targeted by overzealous nonprofits hoping to use him to raise money. 

Those groups also allege that the Lunsford case is a perfect example of how Haywood County mishandles animal cruelty cases. 

“This isn’t about Lunsford,” said Denise Brooker, of Haywood-based animal welfare organization 4 Love of Animals. “This is another example in Haywood County where concerned citizens have tried to do the right thing and come to our government officials with complaints about possible animal cruelty or neglect, and we feel we’re not taken seriously. We feel that more has to be done when it comes to enforcing the laws on the books. The county dropped the ball at every level.” 

Lunsford and his farm, Weeping Cherry Stables, came to the attention of Brooker and her group 4 Love of Animals this past summer. 

Brooker said that her group often receives tips from the public on possible cases of animal neglect, and then investigates and follows up on them. When warranted, the tips are relayed to the Haywood County Animal Services Department, which will sometimes then conduct wellness checks and attempt to determine if animal cruelty ordinances have been violated. Brooker’s group then follows the course of the cases to ensure compliance by the responsible party.

On July 25, Brooker and another group volunteer, Sheila Palmer, received just such a tip from a woman named Dominique Medford. 

According to Brooker, Medford said she’d been working at Weeping Cherry on weekends and was horrified by the conditions on the farm — dead and dying horses, chickens and goats with open, oozing sores. Medford also told Brooker that a “horse trainer” by the name of Joshua Dailey worked there too, and was abusive to horses. Dailey was recently found guilty of starving a horse to death on his own Haywood County property.

Medford said she’d tried to reach Doyle Teague, then-director of Haywood animal services, without success. 

“I cannot stand to see these animals suffer any longer,” Medford said in a written statement, “and cannot do anything about it by myself.”

The next day, Brooker reached out to Karen Owens, president of Waynesville-based Star Ranch Horse Rescue, to see if Owens knew anything about Lunsford or his farm. 

She said she’d known Lunsford for years and had actually left a donkey with him last year but was shocked at the conditions and at the herd he’d amassed when she went back to check on the donkey this past February. She added that she’d emailed Teague multiple times, complaining about Lunsford’s farm. 

SEE ALSO: Lunsford refutes cruelty allegations

While checking her donkey, Owens happened upon a veterinarian, Dr. Mary Coker, who performed services at Lunsford’s farm for a short time, but quickly stopped. 

“I advised him to get rid of some horses. He had far too many for the pasture,” Coker told The Smoky Mountain News. “He didn’t want to take anybody’s advice, mine included. It was becoming clear to me he was more interested in buying and selling than feeding and caring for them. I felt it was a conflict of interest, so that’s why I didn’t want to work with or be associated with him anymore.”

On July 30, Brooker, Palmer and another volunteer, Sharon Boucher, accompanied Medford to the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office where Medford, the only one with first-hand knowledge of Lunsford’s property, described the alleged conditions to Capt. Chris Moody. 

 

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Reports from a veterinarian say a number of James Lunsford’s horses suffered from chronic malnutrition. Caren Harris photo

 

They also told Moody that they were concerned that the search of Lunsford’s 131-acre property wouldn’t be thorough because they’d heard that Lunsford, who served as Haywood County’s lead animal control officer for about 18 months beginning in 2008, was friends with Teague and Deputy Director of animal services Jeff Stamey.

Less than an hour after the meeting began, Moody phoned Cpl. Daniel Blagg and told him he’d been provided information regarding a possible animal cruelty situation at Lunsford’s. 

Blagg and animal services visited Lunsford without a warrant, and asked for permission to conduct a welfare check. Lunsford refused, so Blagg called Moody. Moody immediately proceeded to the magistrate’s office to obtain a warrant.

“Most of the time, citizens do cooperate and allow their property to be checked for allegations,” Moody told SMN Dec. 6. “This man did not grant access so we had to go get the administrative warrant.”

Moody’s affidavit for the warrant stated that he had been provided “statements and photographs of equine that are neglected or malnourished” as well as allegations that there were four dead horses on the property. Magistrate Judge Lisa Kosir signed the warrant at 4:23 p.m. 

Blagg returned to Waynesville, picked up the warrant and about an hour after his initial visit to Lunsford’s property, returned to serve him with it and conduct the search. 

Around 4:45, Blagg and animal services conducted a search of two barns and a pasture but according to Blagg’s report, “ … did not locate any malnutritioned livestock or deceased horses,” although Lunsford did admit to euthanizing and burying a horse about a week prior.

“He and animal control informed me that they had checked all property that could be checked,” Moody said. 

Teague and Stamey denied knowing Lunsford as alleged by Brooker in her July meeting with Moody.

Stamey said he joined animal services in 2013, long after Lunsford was gone, and that his first encounter with Lunsford was on a 2017 criminal complaint for allowing livestock to run at large. That complaint was dismissed without leave. 

Teague, who started work at animal services in 2002, said he may have crossed paths with Lunsford when Lunsford was an animal control officer, but Teague left for a stint at the Haywood County Board of Elections, just as Lunsford was joining the department. Teague returned to animal services in 2015, but again left on Sept. 17 of this year to rejoin the Board of Elections staff. 

Another allegation leveled at Teague and Stamey is that they actually used to bring animals from animal services to Lunsford’s farm for care. Teague said he never had, and Stamey said he hadn’t either. 

The final allegation directed at the pair was that they’d ignored complaints about Lunsford from Owens, Medford and others, over a period of months. 

 

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Hope for Horses found some of James Lunsford’s equines at a farm in Sandy Mush. Caren Harris photo

 

“The first I heard about it, I was at a conference and on the way back Capt. Moody called me and filled me in that they’d been to see him,” Teague said. 

Over the next two months, August and September, nothing else happened in regard to the July allegations Medford made against Lunsford and Weeping Cherry Stables.

Then on Oct. 3, an unrelated witness, Mary Theus, complained to an unrelated organization, Buncombe County-based Hope for Horses, about Lunsford.

“We were contacted by an individual who had seen the horses on Lunsford’s property,” said Whitney Wright, director of Hope for Horses. “She mentioned Hope for Horses being an available resource, and Lunsford at that point was willing to accept resources.”

Wright said she called Stamey that night to let him know her organization was aware of the situation. The next day, Oct. 4, Wright and Caren Harris, another Hope for Horses volunteer, drove out to Lunsford’s farm from Buncombe County, but Lunsford wasn’t there. 

“Between that night and the next morning when we arrived, Lunsford completely changed his tune,” she said. “He did not want anything to do with us and was not willing to talk to us.”

While they waited for him to return, Wright conversed with a member of Lunsford’s family and Harris took photos of the animals she could see. 

“Sometimes you see one or two horses left in poor condition, but the number of animals that had been neglected and the length of time it must have taken for them to get in this condition is what’s so disturbing,” said Harris, a former animal control officer who worked 20 years in four different states, most recently in Buncombe County. 

Another member of Lunsford’s family then arrived, and told Wright and Harris to leave. On their way home, they stopped by Haywood animal services and found Stamey there. They told him they wanted to press criminal charges against Lunsford.

Stamey allegedly told them he would stop by Lunsford’s farm that night and encourage him to surrender the horses.

According to Wright, “the very next day, all of a sudden, horses just started leaving.”

Meanwhile, Theus had maintained contact with Lunsford and bought four horses from him, which she immediately brought to Hope for Horses.

Subsequently, animal services obtained permission from Lunsford on Oct. 8 to have a veterinarian examine the livestock and issue a report. 

 

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The barn at Weeping Cherry Stables is now empty, and animal welfare groups want to keep it that way. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

On Oct. 9, Stamey visited Lunsford’s property accompanied by veterinarian Brittany Beil and assistants from Whiskey River Large Animal Mobile Veterinary Services in Franklin. 

When they arrived they found 13 horses, one mini-mule, a donkey, a cow, several pigs, goats, dogs and a cat in a 40-acre grazing area with a stream running through it.

Lunsford explained that in August 2018, he’d inherited the acreage and hoped to start a rescue farm, and that the grazing area was but one of several fenced-off areas. The pasture, according to the report, “lacked sufficient grass, most likely due to the amount of horses grazing and the lack of precipitation over the past few months.”

When Lunsford poured some grain on the ground to attract the horses, four of them “became aggressive to each other” in trying to get to the food. Another horse, in Lunsford’s barn, had difficulty getting up when approached and fell back to the ground during the attempt. 

Beil examined all the animals she could — the mini-mule would not submit — and made a report of her findings.

Substantively, Beil’s report says the horses on Lunsford’s property “show signs of chronic, long-term malnutrition arising from lack of food and possibly from lack of veterinary treatment for parasites (worms).” 

During the inspection Lunsford told Beil that the horses were fed six square bales of hay each day, but Beil saw no evidence of that. Instead, she found several damp, musty bales that horses won’t eat. 

“It is our experience,” reads Beil’s overview, “that when hay is being fed in sufficient quantities, left-over strands of hay are visible, even when the hay is mostly gone.”

This wasn’t observed in Lunsford’s pasture, and Lunsford told Beil that each horse had its own feed bucket, but Beil said she didn’t see 15 buckets.

During the inspection of each horse, Beil asked Lunsford how recently they’d been dewormed; Lunsford gave dates that were all “fairly recent,” but Beil’s observations again contradicted Lunsford’s assertions. Stool samples found in the barn area displayed “moderate” levels of parasites. 

Beil and her team went through Lunsford’s grazing area, horse by horse, and assigned each of them a “body condition score” in accordance with something called the Henneke Scoring System, a scientific method of evaluating equine health across body types, breeds, sexes and ages. 

The HSS runs on a scale from 1 through 9, with an ideal score being 5. Numbers 1 through 4 apply to horses that, for whatever reason, aren’t getting enough nutrition. Numbers 6 through 9 indicate the opposite — that the horses are obese. 

The best score received by any horse on Lunsford’s property was 4.5, according to Beil’s report. 

 

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James Lunsford’s Haywood County farm (left) is now devoid of horses. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Cookie, a 21-year-old Arabian cross who’d been at Lunsford’s place for six months, was given a score of 2. Summer, a Quarter Horse, had been with Lunsford for 14 months and also received a 2.

Dorothy, a 25-year-old Haflinger, Sophi, a 17–year-old Haflinger and Granny, a 22-year-old Mustang had all been at Lunsford’s for two months, and all received HSS scores of 2. 

Willie, a 10-year-old donkey, received a score of 3, and had been on Lunsford’s farm for 14 months. 

Miss Scarlett, an 11-year-old Racking Paint horse in Lunsford’s care for 11 months, and Little Man, an 11-year-old mini-horse with 10 months at Lunsford’s, both received an HSS score of 4. 

Latte, an 11-year-old Appaloosa at Lunsford’s for four months and General Jackson, a 10-year-old Quarter Horse owned by Lunsford for almost a decade, also both received a score of 4. 

Meadow, a Palomino that couldn’t be caught for examination, had been with Lunsford for 14 months and was estimated to have an HSS score of 4.5.

Beil recorded in her exam notes for each horse that every one of them had adequate dentation that wouldn’t have prevented them from eating and therefore couldn’t be the source of the malnutrition she observed. 

She went on to state in her report that since all of the horses had the ability to eat, and that many of the horses had been with Lunsford for more than a year, “all of these horses would be expected to gain and maintain normal weights and body conditions despite some of their older ages. Evidence such as this leads to the belief that these horses are not receiving adequate food on a regular basis.”

Also noted in Beil’s report is that she had “never noted so many heart murmurs in one farm at the same time.” Heart murmurs can be common among older horses, but can also be caused by emaciation. 

“Given the debilitated state of most of these horses, my inclination would rest that a good number of these murmurs would be from lack of nutrition,” Beil said in the report.

Even the goats at Lunsford’s — Zeus, Apollo, Mocha, Mischief and Winnie — appeared thin to Beil. An examination of Winnie’s fecal matter revealed 3,300 parasitic eggs per gram of feces, a level Beil’s report says is “EXTREMELY HIGH.”

Two days after Beil’s inspection, Haywood County’s attorney Frank Queen filed on behalf of the county a civil suit against Lunsford with Jeff Stamey, in his official capacity as Deputy Director of Haywood County Animal Services, listed as the plaintiff. 

The suit’s stated purpose is to “secure the well-being of at least 14 horses living in cruel conditions on the property occupied by the Defendant” and goes on to lay out a number of allegations against Lunsford. Beil’s report is labeled Exhibit A. 

Queen’s lawsuit surmises that Lunsford is in violation of both state law and county ordinances because the horses are “without adequate food and nutrition and appear to be malnourished” and that “Lunsford appears to be unable or unwilling” to provide proper food and medical care.

North Carolina General Statute chapter 14-360 defines “torture” in regard to animals as “any act, omission, or neglect causing or permitting unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death.” 

Haywood County Ordinance 91.03 declares it unlawful for any person to “ … molest, tease, bait, torture, deprive of necessary sustenance or adequate shelter, cruelly beat, needlessly mutilate or kill, wound, injure, poison, abandon, or subject to conditions detrimental to its health or general welfare” any animal, and specifically includes acts of omission. 

“ … cruelty by Defendant to animals is taking place at the property and, given the evidence of the long-standing conditions at the property,” reads the suit, “that cruelty is likely to continue unless abated by the court.”

The suit’s first claim for relief asks for a preliminary injunction “authorizing the plaintiff to take immediate custody of the animals to prevent further harm and allowing the plaintiff to place them in foster care pending further proceedings.”

The suit‘s second claim for relief asks for a permanent injunction that would terminate Lunsford’s ownership and right of possession of the animals, because “a substantial risk exists that the animals would be subjected to further cruelty if returned to the possession of the defendant.” 

Further requests by the county in Queen’s suit include that Lunsford be enjoined from acquiring new animals for a specified period of time, and that he pay the county’s legal costs associated with the suit. 

Beil’s report concludes with a damning assessment of Lunsford. 

“ … it is my professional opinion that the owner in question is in violation of these statutes and principles by omitting or neglecting to provide adequate care for the horses. Remediation could be possible but would be difficult to monitor as feeding would need to be done consistently, in adequate amounts for each horse, and in areas where herd competition did not interfere,” she wrote. “At a recommended rate of 50 pounds of weight gain per month some of these horses may take 6 to 8 months before recovery. A few of these horses do not have that amount of time before death would become a serious concern.”

Queen’s civil suit was served on Oct. 11 and still hasn’t been heard in court, but by the time animal services began following up with Lunsford six days later, only two horses remained on his property. 

Most of the others, including some of the worst cases, were transferred to another allegedly deplorable farm, this one in Sandy Mush. Hope for Horses attempted to buy two of them from the farm, but were only allowed one. 

Hope for Horses contacted yet another animal welfare organization, Animal Haven of Asheville, which focuses on small farm animal rescues — sheep, goats, fowl, pigs and the like. 

 

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Ribs and bony protrusions are visible on pigs surrendered by James Lunsford. Caren Harris photo

 

Barbara Bellows didn’t tell Lunsford she was with a rescue group when she convinced Lunsford to sell her two goats and surrender 16 skinny pigs. 

“It’s hard to get them to lose weight. That’s what was so shocking — of any kind of animal out there, a pig, I mean they’ll pretty much eat anything,” Bellows said. “It’s kind of hard to starve a pig unless you’re just absolutely not giving it much of anything.”

Bellows said it wasn’t the worst case of neglect she’d seen, but that it was a particularly bad case due to the number of animals and degree of neglect involved. She’s also angry — as are the other animal welfare groups — that more wasn’t done by animal services and the county even when Medford first complained back in July. 

“They could’ve gone out there and said, ‘OK, no animal leaves the property, we’ll bring the food, we’ll oversee this.’ They could have had [Lunsford] put up a bond to help with the cost there. Or, they could have gone to the magistrate. There were other avenues. They did nothing,” Bellows said. “They more or less called him and said, ‘You’ve got charges coming,’ and that’s when he called all his people and started moving them, selling them, giving them away. That should’ve never happened, because some of the animals that needed immediate attention I think had to wait way too long. It should have been right away.”

Wright agrees. 

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years now,” she said. “This is absolutely one of the worst I’ve seen. And not just because of Lunsford, but because of the way Haywood County has handled this.”

Brooker took particular issue with Queen’s decision to pursue a civil suit that would, in essence, leave the horses under Lunsford’s control as Queen’s suit progressed through the courts.

Consequently, a stampede of criminal charges were soon filed against Lunsford in the aftermath of Queen’s lawsuit. 

Lindsay Regner, public information officer for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, said that in 2017 and 2018, the office received 558 animal complaint calls, but the system doesn’t differentiate between allegations of cruelty and matters as mundane as a barking dog. Those 558 calls resulted in six investigations and three arrests. 

On Nov. 16, Lunsford was issued a summons for the four separate counts of intentional deprivation of sustenance to horses named Cookie, Granny, Spice and Pumpkin. The complainants listed are Whitney Wright and Caren Harris, of Hope for Horses. 

A week later, Barbara Bellows of Animal Haven of Asheville lodged two more criminal complaints against Lunsford, alleging the same intentional deprivation of sustenance to a cow named Blue Bell as well as six pigs. 

“What [Queen] did, it just seems wrong to me,” Brooker said. “Here, citizens had to file criminal charges that should have been done by the county, and then they look at us like we’re the troublemakers.” 

Queen defended his decision in a Dec. 6 interview.

“It was my judgment that the fastest way to get the animals’ condition improved was to get the processes of the law in place that would allow us to improve the conditions of the animals as fast as possible,” said Queen. 

The supposition that Lunsford’s animals would continue to be mistreated while they remained in Lunsford’s care during litigation is inaccurate, according to Queen. 

“That’s a theoretical assertion that’s not true,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that within 48 hours, the vast majority of the animals were removed from this property. Half of them had been bought by somebody and their condition improved that way. The other half were apparently removed, given away, whatever Mr. Lunsford did with them, and they’re apparently in better conditions then they would be on James Lunsford’s farm.”

But that’s a theoretical assertion, too; in fact, the farm in Sandy Mush was referenced by several rescue groups as a terrible place, especially for horses in such feeble condition. 

“The reason that I judged that I could get faster improvement in these animals’ conditions by bringing a civil action is that it’s my judgment that the civil action gave me the most flexibility to apply pressure to improve the condition of the animals,” Queen said. “That was my interest.”

A timeline provided by Queen says that the county continued to visit Lunsford in the days after the suit was filed, logging visits on Oct. 17 and 18, on Oct. 28, on Nov. 21 and on Nov. 25. Notes from those visits say that Lunsford still had two horses, a mini-mule and a donkey, along with assorted goats and pigs. 

By the time The Smoky Mountain News caught up with Lunsford at his farm on the morning of Dec. 8, only chickens, dogs and a goat remained. 

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