A central Pennsylvania man, who left a herd of young horses to fend for themselves in a barren field with no food or water was convicted on 14 counts of animal cruelty.
An Adams County district judge on Tuesday found James Houseman III of Littlestown, guilty on 14 of 22 counts stemming from a November raid on a property where he was keeping a herd of thoroughbred weanlings.
When authorities arrived at the property after weeks of monitoring indicated Houseman had neither fed, watered or provided adequate shelter for the horses, they found 21 horses, some barely able to stand on their own, and a dead mare covered in straw in a stall.
The courtroom was filled with volunteers with the Meyers Animal Shelter/Adams County SPCA who have been working to nurture the young horses, just separated from their mothers, back to health.
Property owner Denise Dutterer, who rented a field and barn to Houseman, described seeing empty feed buckets a mud-filled water trough and noticed that her field which had foot-high grass eaten down to mud by the horses in two weeks. Outside the field a two-foot swath of grass appeared mowed down where the horses strained to forage.
Dutterer called the SPCA after seeing two horses trapped in a stall with no food, infected mucus pouring from their nostrils and barely able to stand.
Two of the young horses died shortly after the raid and a third had to be euthanized because of severe health problems. The state ruled their deaths the result of starvation.
Veterinarian Gary Kabala, who examined the horses when they arrived at the SPCA, described them as "lifeless."
"Their heads were down they were extremely depressed. As foals they should have been vibrant," he said. "I was horrified."
Many in the courtroom wept openly as Kaballa described how he and other volunteers carried one horse off the trailer and had to prop up another.
Most had body condition scores that indicated they were malnourished, Kabala said. All were suffering from "rain rot," a potentially-deadly bacterial infection that comes from living outside with no shelter or grooming.
Houseman claimed the horses were in bad shape when he received them, some within days of the raid. At least six horses belonged to owners in Florida and Kentucky, while the remaining horses came from a failing racehorse farm, Star Barn Thoroughbreds, in Lebanon County, authorities said.
The SPCA has used DNA tests to determine the identity of some of the horses.
Magisterial District Judge Mark Beauchat found Houseman not guilty on seven counts relating to the horses with decent body weight and the dead mare, for which no evidence of cruelty was provided.
Beauchat did not issue a sentence on Tuesday, saying he would set a hearing date later. SPCA officials are seeking $56,000 in restitution to cover the costs of caring for the horses.
Beauchat said Houseman would not be subject to jail because he was denied right to counsel by the Adams County public defender.
Houseman, who represented himself, told the court he will appeal the ruling.
The ruling stunned the SPCA volunteers who feared that the healthier horses would have to be returned to him.
Witness testimony indicated Houseman was breeding horses and shipping in pregnant mares from owners as far away as Florida to take advantage of a Pennsylvania program that awards bonuses to winning horses bred in the state.
(See video of the horses shortly after they arrived at the Adams County shelter in Nov. below)