“This thing would make a great movie,” said Beth DeCaprio, the founder and executive director of the Grace Foundation, located off Latrobe Road at the far-south end of El Dorado Hills.
She’s the leading lady in the drama that unfolded at the El Dorado Hills nonprofit garnering national attention by rescuing 56 horses from a squalid Susanville ranch in 2011.
The foundation has since spent $1.13 million, by her calculation, rehabilitating 43 of the survivors, and has failed to gain more than token compensation from those responsible.
Every leading lady needs critics and DeCaprio has plenty. They accuse her not only of overacting, but of overstating the rehabilitation expenses and using the horses as a fundraising tool.
The script jumps genres, starting with horror. A grizzly video on the foundation Website captures conditions at the derelict Whispering Pines Ranch when Grace volunteers arrived in April 2011. Dead horses litter the ground. Half-starved horses roam the ranch freely, with others confined to paddocks piled high in feces.
Ranch owner Dwight Bennett was facing foreclosure, and was embroiled in a legal battle to save his ranch. He allegedly agreed to relinquish ownership of the 20 worst-off equines. The subsequent August transfer of the final 36 horses has become the subject of multiple lawsuits.
The rehabilitation in El Dorado Hills quickly turned into a tragic tear-jerker. Tireless horse-loving volunteers logged thousands of hours feeding, grooming and socializing the animals to ready them for eventual adoption, only to see some perish, allegedly from conditions at Whispering Pines.
The 36 horses then became 43 because 22 were pregnant, many either in poor health or too young to foal safely. Only 14 foals survived.
Months of tense courtroom drama followed. DeCaprio learned that ownership of the second group of horses had not been transferred to the foundation as promised.
DeCaprio and her critics disagree on whether she was aware of the bankruptcy when she took the horses in August. She claims that the foreclosing banks’ lawyer, Tim Ryan, failed to notify the foundation that Bennett had filed for bankruptcy, thus protecting the 36 horses as his property, at least for the moment.
Without ownership, her foundation could not legally abort the ill-fated pregnancies that have nearly bankrupted the foundation or, importantly, find the horses new homes, she said.
Six active lawsuits currently argue ownership of the Susanville ranch, the 43 horses at Grace, responsibility for cost of the rescue and 17-months of rehabilitation, along with libel, malpractice and defamation of character.
The scene that unfolded on Jan. 15 and 16 at the Grace Foundation ranch was straight out of a John Ford Western: A heroine determined to save the herd stands off cowhands paid by the banks (Wells Fargo and Bank of America) to collect the horses, including 17 gangly foals, and transport them to snowy open rangeland above Susanville, where the thermometer routinely drops into single digits at night.
In a formal declaration to Lassen County Superior Court, DeCaprio stated that the horses were ill-prepared for such conditions, and that no provisions had been made for proper shelter, veterinary care, supplemental feed or the stress to the foals of five hours in a trailer, all of which would make the fate of the horses “bleak,” she states.
She also worried that the horses would be euthanized after six months, the term of a custodial agreement between the banks and Lassen County rancher David Schroeder, who agreed to take custody of them for $18,000 per month, according to DeCaprio.
As DeCaprio describes it, Schroeder arrived late in the day on Tuesday, Jan. 15, armed with a copy of a Dec. 15 Lassen County court order allowing him to take the horses the following day. He demanded she produce the horses, which were allegedly spread out all over the ranch.
DeCaprio was also armed. Her weapon of choice was a bailee’s lien on the horses, filed earlier that day in El Dorado County Superior Court. The two argued the validity of the lien. Schroeder threatened to have DeCaprio arrested if she failed to produce the horses.
“It was a volatile situation,” she said. “I told them to leave; they didn’t and I called the sheriff.”
The discussion resumed early the following morning when Schroeder returned with three cattle trailers. Tempers flared from the get-go. Both parties called the sheriff — Schroeder to demand that DeCaprio be jailed and she to oppose the seizure with the lien, which was soon supplemented by a last-minute temporary restraining order and motions to set aside and vacate the Dec. 15 order, filed by newly hired animal welfare attorney Christine Garcia and her associate, Sacramento attorney Anthony Perez.
An unnamed El Dorado County sergeant and deputy arrived and found the two parties hunkered down, DeCaprio and her lieutenants inside the sagging trailer that is the Grace Foundation business office, waiting for word that the various motions had been filed successfully; Schroeder and his hired hands kicking the dust outside.
John Ford would have staged a shootout at that point and settled the matter on the spot. But the officers used phones rather than guns. They called the respective attorneys and courts to confirm the lien and the other filings.
They elicited a commitment from both sides to appear in Lassen County Superior Court the next day so that Judge Raymond Giordano, who issued the December order, could sort it all out. The officers dispatched the frustrated cattlemen back to Lassen County empty-handed.
Witnesses at the court hearing the following day said it reminded them of “My Cousin Vinny.”
Giordano, a retired Sonoma County judge assigned to Lassen County who has numerous rulings on the Whispering Pines case, appeared mighty displeased to find his Dec. 15 order under attack, stating early on that he wanted to deny all of the Grace filings, according to DeCaprio, who drove through the night to Susanville.
Attorney Garcia stuck to her guns, consistently demonstrating that her filings were timely and legitimate, thwarting attempts to overturn the lien.
Giordano’s prior rulings allowed the August 2011 seizure by Grace volunteers in the face of the bankruptcy stay. He also denied an appeal of the Dec. 15 court order by Bennett.
Following more judicial histrionics, Giordano announced that he could no longer remain impartial and recused himself from all the Whispering Pines cases, according to DeCaprio.
Lassen County Superior Court Judicial Assistant Nancy Holsey confirmed both the recusal and Giordano’s stated rationale, adding that the cases will be reassigned to a different judge.
For DeCaprio, the week-long episode contained both a low point, when she was sure she’d be jailed, and a turning point in the 17-month Whispering Pines odyssey.
Her optimism is a product of Garcia’s hastily crafted motions, which postulate that the transfer of the horses created a “bailment,” making the foundation a “bailee” and the banks a “bailor.” Garcia argues that the laws governing bailments, in combination with Lassen County ordinances, make the banks responsible for the costs of “impoundment” and allow the Grace Foundation, as the bailee, to file a lien on the property.
The banks’ attorneys have argued that they never owned the horses, that they released them to Lassen County, not the Grace Foundation, through an independent receiver, who is now also named in the Whispering Pines lawsuits.
DeCaprio argues that the receiver was hired by, paid by and indemnified by the banks, which makes them responsible for the receiver’s actions.
The foundation and former bank attorney Tim Ryan have filed multi-million dollar lawsuits against each other and various other parties.
The foundation lawsuit also targets the banks, who allegedly offered a $400,000 settlement in 2012, according to DeCaprio. Others following the case say there was also a $600,000 offer refused.
Since being named in the Grace lawsuit, the banks have refused DeCaprio’s pleas for financial assistance, she said, “yet they’re offering Schroeder $18,000 per month.”
“They just want the horses out of here,” she added, explaining that without the horses, the foundation has little chance of collecting the $1.13 million, paying its debts, and returning to normal operations.
The foundation’s financial struggles have necessitated cutbacks that effectively closed the ranch to the public in October, freezing the volunteer, youth and equine therapy programs while core staffers stayed on without pay to care for an estimated 250 animals on the ranch.
DeCaprio has vowed to reopen the Grace Foundation in February, and held a volunteer cleanup day last Saturday. More than 100 people came out to repair winter storm damage to the Pony Town equine therapy center.
“Our biggest concern remains the welfare of the horses that have been in our care for the past 17 months,” DeCaprio said. “Our goal has always been and continues to be to find permanent loving homes for all of the Susanville horses and to be able to keep these horses safe and away from harm.”