SUSANVILLE, CA - When Lassen County sheriff's deputies served a search warrant at The Whispering Pines Stables, on Highway 36 in Susanville, it was more than two years after animal control began its investigation.
Dwight Bennett was arrested on Oct. 25 and charged with 70 counts of animal cruelty and one count of possession of a controlled substance.
During the investigation from May 29, 2009 to Aug. 26, 2011, officers from several agencies went to Bennett's property on at least eight different occasions, but the horses remained at Whispering Pines until April.
TIMELINE: Reported incidents at Whispering Pines horse ranch
In a May 2009 crime report, Lassen County Deputy Laura Gatie described her concern for the welfare of the animals.
"I noticed none of the horse (troughs) had water in them," Gatie wrote in the May 2009 report. "The stables, which are located to the west of Bennett's residence, were occupied by two or more horses to each stall and the horses were standing in approximately two feet of manure."
According to the report, Gatie said the horses on Bennett's property were underweight. Bennett told Gatie he was out of hay.
During the visit, Bennett was given a written verbal citation from Donna Hastie, an animal control employee.
In a Feb. 9, report, Gatie wrote that she "encouraged Hastie to find suitable placement for Bennett's horses" after a California Highway Patrol officer contacted Gatie about loose horses in the roadway.
On April 6, a meeting was held, between Lassen County Attorney Richard Crabtree, Lassen County sheriff's Capt. Matthew McFarland and Pete Heimbigner of public works, to discuss the horse ranch.
During the meeting, Heimbigner said there were about 70 horses on Bennett's property that were not being taken care of, according to the report.
Heimbigner said workers building a new cell site on the property reported that they did not see anyone around the property and that they had been filling the water troughs, the report said.
"The district attorney's office did not have any desire to prosecute this case, based on the available information," Heimbigner said during the meeting.
After the meeting, McFarland inspected the property to view the current condition of the horses. When he entered the property, he noted the horses looked thin and most of the horses' ribs and bones showed through their skin, according to his report.
During this visit, Bennett agreed he was not adequately providing for the large number of horses and agreed to let rescue groups take 20 horses from the property.
After the horses were removed, two more reports on June 19 and 23 said horses were wandering from the property. In both cases, Bennett was contacted and told to retrieve the horses, according to incident reports.
On Aug. 26, the remaining 36 horses were removed from the property.
Despite six incident reports at the property over the two-year period, sheriff's deputies never criminally charged Bennett. On most occasions, he was given a verbal warning.
"We don't take those things lightly," Lassen County Sheriff Dean Growdon said. "We weren't overlooking anything. We take these animal cruelty cases seriously and we did. Once it got handed to us we got busy, wrote a search warrant right away and got up there collecting information so we could pass it on to the district attorney for prosecution."
Growdon said animal control handled the investigation until deputies served the search warrant on Oct. 25 and took Bennett into custody.
According to Lassen County records, the only other time Bennett faced a criminal charge was on April 23 when a California Highway Patrol officer issued him a citation for livestock straying into the highway.
Animal Control Relations
In Gatie's May 2009 report, when she asked Animal Control Employee Judy Walsh about the welfare of the animals, Walsh told her in recent months she received several complaints from various citizens and showed the deputy documentation of four incidents involving animal neglect at Whispering Pines.
Walsh told Gatie that Bennett received written verbal warnings in each case.
In the same report, Walsh also said she wanted to recuse herself from the investigation because she showed one of
Bennett's horses four years ago at the county fair. Bennett, however, told the deputy that Walsh is a family friend.
Through further investigation, Gatie said Walsh's story changed several times and recommended excluding Walsh from any further investigation at Whispering Pines.
Bennett's Foster Child
Bennett was a foster parent to one child from June 2011 to August 2011.
The executive director of a foster care agency in Lassen County said Bennett completed the certification in May.
A criminal background check for Bennett was cleared, despite the ongoing case involving a criminal citation from CHP that was issued to Bennett on April 23 for livestock straying on to the highway.
During an unannounced visit in August, Bennett was given 30 days to clean-up trash on his property after workers said it was not up to foster care standards.
Bennett was decertified from foster care 10 days later because he did not make an effort to clean-up the property, the executive director said.
The executive director said her agency was not aware of the animal neglect investigation.
When Bennett was certified in May, there was snow on the property that kept workers from seeing the trash.