Harrisburg area horse breeder found guilty on 30 counts of cruelty


A Harrisburg area horse breeder was found guilty today on 30 counts of animal cruelty after two hours of graphic testimony by veterinarians who examined the horses.

Magisterial District Judge Lowell Witmer issued a swift verdict against Rebecca Roberts, a Palmyra attorney and Morgan horse breeder, finding her guilty on all counts involving 29 horses that were seized from her farm four months ago and one found dead among them. 

"I'm just stunned," he said after hearing testimony from three veterinarians and viewing scores of pictures showing filthy, dangerous conditions in which the sick, wounded and malnourished horses were found and of the carcasses and skeletal remains of six other horses on the property.

Witmer said he would not sentence Roberts to jail because "something is very wrong," clearly indicating he felt she had a psychological issue that needed to be addressed,

He ordered her to pay $27,638 in restitution to cover the cost of care of the horses. Witmer forbid her from owning or having contact with any animals for seven years and five months and issued a $22,500 fine ($750 per count).

Amy Kaunas, executive director of Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, said she was pleased with the judge's decision, but added with an appeal likely, the case is "far from over."

Roberts' attorney, Eric Winter, argued that the humane society failed to follow proper procedure, didn't identify his client as the one responsible for the horses and said they did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the horses were neglected to the point of facing "imminent death."

Humane Society police officer William Sandstrom said that the horses were all suffering the effects of long term neglect.

"Each and every one of the horses had something that required veterinary care, problems that were easily treatable," he said.

Sandstrom testified that the horses were denied basic food, shelter and vet care. They were kept in a fenced-in area covered knee deep in mud and manure, with no food visible or clean water and a run-in shed on verge of collapse.

He said Roberts had allowed stallions and mares and young and old horses to live together and fight for what little forage there was creating a "survival of the fittest" under horrific conditions.

When he issued a warning to Roberts in person in December about the need to provide immediate care for her animals she told him the horses were "wild" and didn't need vet care.

Sandstrom returned a week later to check on a horse called Holly that he had ordered to be seen by a vet only to find her body in the field. That's when officials obtained the first of two search warrants to remove the horses.

Veterinarian Kathryn Papp said the five of the most seriously ill horses removed in the initial raid in late December were emaciated and suffering from untreated wounds that left one horse  barely able to stand.

The remaining horses were removed Jan. 15 after Roberts failed to respond to demands that she provide adequate care.

"People were sinking up to their crotch in mud," recalled Robert Kraybill, a veterinarian who assisted in rounding up the horses."I saw two carcasses under a tarp and skeletal remains in the field."

Veterinarians said all of the horses were suffering from an array of maladies stemming from neglect, including parasite infestation, anemia, overgrown hooves, lameness, skin disease and infected wounds.

One pregnant mare, called Big Momma, who was rescued, gave birth to a stillborn foal weeks later and then bled to death, the result of malnutrition or infection or both, said Papp.

A second foal was still born at Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt. Airy, Md., which took in 21 of the horses, most of them so wild they were unable to be handled for weeks.

Three other mares are expecting foals.

Winter said he has petitioned Dauphin County Court for the return of the horses and  that he will appeal the restitution and likely the guilty ruling as well..

"We're fairly certain we will appeal," he said.

For Gentle Giants rescue and a number of foster homes that took in horses, that means at least another several months, if not significantly longer, of shouldering the burden of care for the animals and that much longer for them to find permanent homes.