Nov. 10, 2015 • Jury finds Bennett not guilty of animal cruelty charges

On Thursday, Nov. 5, a Lassen County jury found Dwight Alan Bennett, 63, not guilty of felony charges he unlawfully subjected 20 horses to needless suffering and failed to provide proper food, drink and shelter for them between May 2009 and April 2011 at his Whispering Pines stable just west of Susanville.

Another felony animal cruelty charge was dismissed before the trial began.

Lassen County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Bennett in October 2011 after serving a search warrant at Whispering Pines.

Deputies allegedly found the remains of about 28 horses in various stages of decomposition and three dogs.

Court rejects plea bargain
In August 2015, the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office and King, agreed to a plea bargain in which Bennett would plead guilty to four misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, the remaining 61 felony counts he originally faced would be dismissed, and Bennett would serve 120 days in jail.

But visiting judge Stephen Bradbury rejected that plea bargain because he believed the sentence was “not within a sentence range just and appropriate for his conduct.”

Bradbury said an 18-month sentence should be the minimum in this case.

“I believe this is a case that needs to be tried,” Bradbury said.

In response, Bennett said death by starvation had never been alleged by animal control or anyone else before then, and animal control had been inspecting his property since June 1, 2009, averaging no less than one visit per week.

Bennett also alleged people were attacking his horses and poisoning them, and he denied that there could have been so many carcasses at the stable. He estimated there were only four.

A horse at the Whispering Pines stable eats hay from the back of a truck as The Grace Foundation, of El Dorado Hills, California, retrieves it and 19 other allegedly neglected horses from the stable in April 2011. A Lassen County jury found Dwight Alan Bennett, the owner of the property, not guilty of 20 felony charges of animal cruelty Thursday, Nov. 5.

Stephen King, Bennett’s attorney, said the prosecution had “chain of custody issues,” and during the trial witnesses were unable to identify the particular horses named in the criminal complaint. That’s important because each of the 20 individual felony charges Bennett faced were tied to a particular animal.

For example, the felony charge in count 1 referred to a horse named Paso. The felony charge in count 2 referred to a horse named Bay. The felony charge in count 3 referred to a horse named Penny, etc.

King raised a similar issue during the preliminary hearing, asking the court how it would be able to determine which animals at the stable were unhealthy and which ones were healthy at the time they were seized.

King said Bennett loved his horses, but due to economic difficulties he was unable to care for them as he would have liked.

“He didn’t have the money,” King said, “but he never intended to hurt the horses.”

After the verdict, Bennett said, “The truth came out. I’m so happy the jury system works in Lassen County.”

King said the jury was made up of 12 good people who listened to the evidence and were inconvenienced by a lengthy, two-week trial.

Lassen County District Attorney Stacey Montgomery was out of the office, and the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney David Evans, was at a training session, and neither was able to comment for this story. Dan Howe appeared for the people when the jury returned the verdict.

King said the county officials who visited Whispering Pines several times to check on the wellbeing of the animals failed to give Bennett any warnings or help to resolve the matter. Most importantly, they did not seize the horses at the time of their visits.

“That really concerned me, and it kind of offended me a little bit that they kind of played gotcha with him,” King said. “If they thought it was that bad, they should have used their authority and seized the horses (then). They were out there a number of times, but they did nothing until after he surrendered them.”

In April 2011, Bennett voluntarily gave 20 horses to the Grace Foundation of El Dorado Hills, California after concerns were raised regarding the condition of the animals and the property.

According to court documents, a former Grace Foundation veterinarian said conditions at the stable were “seriously concerning,” the sanitary conditions were “very poor,” and one carcasses mentioned in his June 18, 2011 report indicated death by starvation.

Legal battle with bank
The Whispering Pines property was also part of a legal battle.

In court documents from the summer of 2011, Tim Ryan, who was representing Wells Fargo and Bank of America, described the property as “a starving, breeding, semi-feral horse herd for all intents and purposes.”

The Grace Foundation took the remaining 36 horses on the property August 2011. Those animals, however, became part of a separate legal matter between the foundation, the county and other defendants. The Orange County Superior Court dismissed that case last year.