Return of horses seized in Larry Wheelon Stables raid delayed by dispute
By Iva Butler | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A judge ordered 19 Tennessee Walking Horses seized April 25 at Larry Wheelon Stables to be returned to their owners at Wheelon’s business, 2743 Tuckaleechee Pike, Maryville.
But since Wheelon no longer operates out of that barn, the question is where they can legally be returned.
The owner of the barn “assured me in no uncertain terms that neither Wheelon or anyone else (associated with the horses) would be allowed on the property,” said Kellie Bachman, animal cruelty investigator for Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA). “On June 10 she evicted him (Wheelon) and he is not to come on her property.”
BCSPCA confiscated the horses, and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been footing the bill for their care. HSUS officials are the only ones privy to the location.
They were first taken to a barn in Crossville, but owners learned of their whereabouts and the animals were moved to another secret location.
BCSPCA has the legal power to confiscate such animals and Bachman is the custodian of the horses.
Wheelon and Joe Heffington, an attorney from Shelbyville representing the owners, are calling Bachman demanding their return.
Bachman said Wheelon and Heffington have been threatening her and the owner of the barn with tactics that are “underhanded and not ethical.”
“Heffington threatened to charge me with contempt of court,” Bachman said. “This attorney needs to be talking to the HSUS. All I can do is release custody. I don’t know where these horses are.”
Bachman said the HSUS has tractor-trailers that are climate-controlled and have handlers to transport the horses, instead of relying on small horse trailers.
She told Heffington there was no place for the tractor-trailers to turn around, even if they were allowed on the property,
His response was “have the sheriff’s department shut down Tuckaleechee Pike and unload the horses in the roadway,” Bachman said, a solution she did not find viable.
An aggravated animal cruelty charge brought against Wheelon, 68, Miracle Drive, Maryville, was dismissed Aug. 14 by Blount County General Sessions Court Judge Robert L. Headrick due to a mistake in which an expert witness accidentally was in the courtroom through some 30 minutes of court testimony.
Headrick met after the ruling with Blount County Assistant District Attorney General Ellen Berez and Heffington. The judge ordered the immediate return of the horses to their owners.
Berez said Heffington went to far as to lie to her in order to get her to sign an order regarding the return of the horses.
Berez, who filed Friday to set aside the earlier order, said on Aug. 20 Heffington came before her and “assured me in no uncertain terms that the owner of the property has given permission (to him) for the horses to be returned to that property,”
The brief states the information to return the horses to the Tuckaleechee address is “currently in dispute, and Mr. Heffington misrepresented this information to me.
“The state of Tennessee should be relieved of any further actions regarding the return of the horses to their rightful owners,” according to the motion.
“The state prays that the previous order for return of the 19 horses to their owners be set aside, and that the state of Tennessee and the office of the district attorney general be relieved of any further actions regarding the return of the horses to their rightful owners,” the motion concludes.
A letter from Leana Stormont, investigative counsel for the Research and Investigations at HSUS, to Blount County District Attorney General Mike Flynn states that the property owner “refused to give permission to use the property and HSUS will not violate criminal laws regarding trespass after having been placed on notice that the property owner did not and will not give permission to use private property.
“BCSPCA and HSUS have serious concerns about the logistics involved in returning the horses, namely that they will be arriving on a very large climate-controlled tractor-trailer, must be individually unloaded, examined by a vet and the owners must establish (a) they are the proper owners of the animals and that no other legal entity can assert title or ownership interests in and animals, and (b) that the horses were placed in Wheelon’s custody and therefore at the seizing location the day of the seizure.
“To date the owners have provided no indica or proof of ownership and as a standard procedure in matters such as these, proof of ownership must be provided to the releasing entity.”
When The Daily Times called her Monday, Pat Talbott, one of the owners of the barn, declined to comment on the issue.
In the interim, Flynn was asked by BCSPCA and HSUS for “a superseding court order clarifying certain items, namely that the individuals who claim to be owners of the animals provide the requested proof of ownership and location on the date of seizure and that until the parties can agree upon a safe place to transfer the horses without violating any third party’s personal property rights or putting the horses, the animal care technicians, owners or anyone elect in harm’s way, the hoses remain in protective custody.”