A former employee of the Niagara County horse farm where several horses were rescued two weeks ago in emaciated condition -- and two subsequently died -- has told investigators she was shocked and sickened when she saw the horses late last summer.
"I walked into the barn, and it was like walking into a nightmare," said Stephanie Dixon, an assistant horse trainer now living in West Virginia. "The horses were 100 to 200 pounds underweight."
State troopers at Lockport have interviewed at least a half-dozen people in their investigation into the alleged neglect of the horses owned by SGS Bloodstock Corp. The company, which raised and raced thoroughbred horses, was co-owned by two Niagara County women, Julie Walker and Candice Starkweather.
Investigators, who have been consulting with the Niagara County district attorney's office, said they are not sure what charges could be filed in the case.
"I don't have a direction of which way we're going," State Police Sgt. Larry Brauer said. "We're making headway, but at this point, it's too early to tell."
Eight thoroughbred racehorses were rescued, and another one found dead, on Walker's horse farm in Somerset in Niagara County on Dec. 31. Then early Friday, a second horse, 8-month-old Black Jack, died in a Newstead barn where he had been taken after being rescued.
Investigators are considering possible cruelty charges under the state's Agriculture and Markets Law.
"From what we know so far, if there were any charges, they probably would be misdemeanors under the Agriculture and Markets Law," Trooper Jacob Rudnick said.
The case is complicated by the fact that Starkweather filed for bankruptcy in late October, leaving the racehorses, as a valuable asset, controlled by U.S. Bankruptcy Court and its trustee, people close to the case have said.
"We are attempting to determine who had responsibility for caring for these animals," Timothy R. Lundquist, first assistant district attorney, said.
State troopers and prosecutors expect to sit down early next week to discuss their findings and possible charges.
Dixon worked for SGS Bloodstock roughly the first half of last year, breaking racehorses, feeding them and cleaning the stalls. While the stalls and horses were filthy, she said, the animals were fed, and she did the best she could in cleaning the facilities.
Dixon left the company in July, on good terms. One of the women contacted her in August, to see if she wanted to buy any of the horses for $1,000 apiece.
So she went to see the horses in late August or early September. "They weren't recognizable," she said. "It was clear that they weren't fed."
She called the Niagara County SPCA, which called her back later and said their people had found nothing wrong at the farm, she said. Niagara County SPCA officials could not be reached to comment.
But Dixon blames the owners, above all.
"The worst part is something could have been done months ago," she said. "They used the same excuses, that they were bankrupt and that they were trying to sell the horses. But there's no excuse for horses not to be fed."