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Verdict is forthcoming in animal cruelty case

Forest Stearns

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Forest Stearns holds the hoof of one of his former horses, used as evidence in court to prove that it’s dangerous to leave a shoe job unfinished.

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Forest Stearns, right, who is on trial for animal cruelty, leaves the Teton County Circuit Court on Tuesday afternoon along with defense co-counsel Katharine Lovett and his attorney, Dick Mulligan. Judge James Radda took Stearns’ case under advisement. See page A2 of Wednesday’s Jackson Hole News&Guide for the full story.

It took attorneys 14 hours over a two-day period to make their arguments and rest their cases in the animal cruelty trial against a Wilson outfitter.

After Judge James Radda denied a midtrial motion for judgment of acquittal from defense attorney Dick Mulligan on Tuesday morning, defendant Forest Stearns took the stand.

When asked if he intended to kill Buddy the horse, Stearns said, “absolutely not.”

It’s the first time the horse, which was the focus of the criminal investigation and trial, has been called by a name in documents or hearings in the six months since his death.

It’s also the first time Stearns has publicly spoken about the Aug. 8 incident, which led to the outfitter being cited by the Teton County Sheriff’s Office for cruelty to animals.

From the witness stand Stearns said he was trying to help the horse when it died unexpectedly.

For hours he and farrier Jason Clapp had been working to get shoes on the horse, Stearns said, but the animal was being difficult and not allowing them to finish the job, leaving shoe nails exposed.

“The horse was tense and suspicious, like he could come unglued,” Stearns said.

Holding up an actual horse hoof in the courtroom, Mulligan demonstrated how dangerous a shoe can be if the nails aren’t clipped and clenched properly.

“The horse could filet itself,” Mulligan said.

Despite Stearns having administered several doses of drugs to sedate Buddy, the horse kicked the farrier, causing Clapp to leave, and Stearns was left with a horse with only three shoes attached.

Stearns needed the horse shod because it was due in Upper Green River Basin the following morning for an appointment, he testified.

The next part of the story is what attorneys disagree about.

The state of Wyoming, represented by Teton County Deputy Prosecutor Becket Hinckley, believes Stearns gave the horse stronger drugs that his veterinarian told him not to administer in addition to the sedatives already injected.

“I think I give [Stearns] more credit as a horseman than he really deserves,” Hinckley said.

Hinckley said Stearns tied the horse down and forced it to lie on its side for more than three hours.

“He knows better,” Hinckley said. “That’s animal abuse.”

Stearns has been widely criticized after a video of him that showed the horse tied down on its side, bleeding and kicking violently, was released.

Veterinarian Theo Schuff, who used to work as a farrier, testified during trial that he would never use that technique. He also said that the longest he would leave a horse lying in that position was 30 minutes.

“We have rules about how long to keep a horse down,” Schuff said. “The guts are huge. If they’re resting in that position there’s more pressure on the diaphragm or lungs.”

The video was taken at about 5:30 p.m. Aug. 8 by Stearns’ neighbor, Mary Wendell Lampton.

“Forest, I know about training horses,” the viewer can hear Lampton say in the video as she approaches his corral. “I had polo horses for years. You are abusive to your horses.”

Stearns replies by telling Lampton she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

“Look at the blood,” she says.

The horse was tied up, bleeding from one of its ankles where a rope was tied.

“Get off my property,” Stearns replies.

That’s when Lampton stops recording.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Do you have to be this cruel in order to feel powerful?‘” Lampton testified in court Monday.

The video was played four times during the trial.

“The video standing alone does not portray the entire story of what happened,” Mulligan told the court.

Mulligan tried to attack Lampton’s credibility several times during trial, calling her a liar who’s confused and angry.

“She suggested Mr. Stearns should have his penis and balls cut off and hung from the Wilson bridge,” Mulligan said.

Timeline of the horse’s death

But an emotional Lampton insisted the video is a glimpse of how Stearns treats his animals.

“The horse was bleeding from its nostrils and it was bleeding profusely,” Lampton testified. “I concluded that the horse had been there for a good bit of time before I started the video at 5:30.”

No professionals could determine what time the horse died. Its corpse sat in a trailer overnight before being examined.

Stearns claims it happened shortly after Lampton left his property.

“That’s when the horse gave a huge shudder,” Stearns said. “Then he gave a second huge shudder. His whole body was shaking like a big earthquake. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he checked out on me.”

Neighbor Lindsay Shaw testified that the horse was still tied up and struggling at 8 p.m. that night.

“The timeline is important in this case,” Hinckley said in his closing arguments.

Changing the law

Hinckley said Stearns should have taken veterinarian Dr. Kenneth Griggs’ advice, stopping the shoeing attempt and giving the horse a break until the next day.

“The veterinarians testified that having a horse tied down that long is bad,” Hinckley said. “They suffer and die.”

Stearns said he was trying to shoe the horse so it could join other horses working in the backcountry.

“My objective was to save his life so he could have a productive, long life as a citizen in our horse string in the beautiful Teton wilderness,” Stearns said.

Judge James Radda took the case under advisement and will issue a decision at a later date.

If convicted, Stearns faces up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $750.

In the wake of the charge, people said Wyoming’s animal cruelty law is weak. On Feb. 9 Wyoming Rep. Mike Gierau introduced legislation seeking to strengthen the potential penalties for cruelty to animals. It has been brought to the House for introduction but will require a two-thirds vote to advance (see page 25).

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