Horse soring case against Larry Wheelon dismissed: Judge disallows testimony of key prosecution witness
By Iva Butler | (email@example.com)
A judge dismissed charges of aggravated animal cruelty against Larry Joe Wheelon late Thursday after a mistake with a prosecution witness.
Wheelon, 68, Miracle Drive, Maryville, is a longtime Tennessee Walking Horse trainer and owner in Blount County who was charged with abuse April 25 after a raid on his stables.
“I had a good man behind me, (attorney) Rob White,” Wheelon said after the verdict.
The owners of some of the 19 horses seized in the raid were present for the preliminary hearing. They were jubilant with the verdict and were anxious for their horses to be returned.
“This is great for the Walking Horse industry,” said one owner, Dwight Brooks, of Rogersville.
“Justice was served,” said Eugene Condry, a former Maryville High School teacher. “This reminds me of Nazi Germany ... the way these horses were seized.”
“It’s good to see the 4th and 5th amendments to be Constitution being upheld and due process of law being achieved,” added Tom Garren, a pharmacist for 35 years from Monroe County.
Farrell Hughes said he has known Wheelon for 46 years and had two horses seized in the raid. “I’d love to get the horses back just like they were,” he said.
An apparent breakdown in communication among federal agents led to the dismissal of the case by Blount County General Sessions Judge Robert L. Headrick.
The essential witness was U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinary medical officer Dr. Bart Sutherland, of Washington, D.C., who performed the testing and palpitated the horses for soreness on the day of the raid.
He was not allowed to testify because he accidentally sat in the courtroom for 30 minutes during testimony.
Headrick did the daily swearing-in at the beginning of the hearing at 2 p.m. and invoked the rule that called for witnesses to wait outside and not hear other testimony in the case.
At that time Sutherland was flying in from Mississippi. When he arrived at the Justice Center, Sutherland said a special agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Karen Wilcox, indicated for him to enter the courtroom.
She is the supervisor of Special Agent Julie McMillan, who did the undercover investigation and conducted the search warrant on Wheelon’s stables.
When Sutherland was called to testify, White immediately objected and Headrick ruled the veterinarian could not testify.
As a result, Blount County Assistant District Attorney Ellen Berez was unable to get the test results on the horse Wheelon was charged with abusing, named She’s A Sweeper, from being admitted into evidence.
Headrick then ruled the prosecution had failed to prove there was probable cause to send the case to the grand jury.
After the hearing, Berez said that Sutherland “would have testified that on a scale of 1 to 10 that She’s A Sweeper rated a 9 to 10 for soreness. He said it was one of the worst cases he’s ever seen.”
Joe Heffington, an attorney from Shelbyville representing the owners, asked that the horses be returned. Their release is being worked out with the Humane Society of the United States officials, the group paying for the boarding and care of the animals.