June 2014 | The Star Barn Saga: ‘Get Rich’ Scheme Costs Dozen of Horses’ Lives
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The Star Barn Saga:
‘Get Rich’ Scheme Costs Dozen of Horses’ Lives

June 2014 - Amy Worden

Laurie CalhounPreviously found in James Houseman’s clutches, the flourishing mare pictured above has been recuperating in the care of Laurie Calhoun, owner of the Foxie G Foundation in Libertytown, MD.

What started in 2011 as a “get rich” scheme to take advantage of a program that rewards Pennsylvania-bred Thoroughbreds ended in a Maryland courtroom this past March with the conviction of an Adams County man on animal cruelty charges.

In the three years in between, Littlestown, PA contractor James W. Houseman III left a trail of heartache and suffering— dozens of starving horses and the remains of others, possibly as many as 26, who didn’t make it – stretched almost 100 miles from Dauphin County, PA to Frederick County, MD.

The back-breaking cost for shelters and volunteers to rehabilitate and train the survivors totals more than $150,000 to date.

Star Barn Broodmares
The saga of the so-called Star Barn broodmares started in 2009 when Dauphin County businessman Robert Barr and his partner, Paul Truitt, an ex-veterinarian from Tennessee, formed an agricultural enterprise at the former Regal Heir Farm near Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Lebanon County, PA.

In late 2010, the horse population at the farm jumped from 17 to 120 Thoroughbreds, including 70 broodmares, 20 foals and five stallions.

The two trolled for free broodmares, luring owners by offering tax write-offs for their donations to support the nonprofit Agrarian Country. Barr planned an agricultural education and entertainment center including a 400-seat dinner theater, a 45,000 square foot Heritage Art Center, a veterinary museum, botanical gardens, a chapel, livestock ranging from cattle to alpacas to bison, a retirement village, an equine academy, and a Thoroughbred training facility, with the venerated historic Star Barn moved to the site as a centerpiece. However, the business collapsed in early 2011 and the two men began unloading the large herd.

News reports at the time said several tractor trailer loads of horses went to the New Holland auction. Three mares, including New York-bred Light N Easy, who had a short racing career, ended up in the kill pen. She and the others were identified and rescued.

Enter James Houseman, a fencing contractor in Adams County, who ended up with 70 of the Star Barn horses.

His plan, as outlined by one witness in an Adams County courtroom months later, was to breed the mares and cash in on the lucrative Pennsylvania-bred program that offers significant bonuses for winners foaled in the state.

The only problem – some rescuers said – was that you couldn’t run a dead horse.

By the fall of 2011, Houseman was playing a cat and mouse game with authorities in Adams County, moving his herd, which included pregnant mares and weanlings, to different locations to try to stay ahead of SPCA investigators.

They caught up with him in November 2011, seizing 21 horses from a farm in Littlestown. All suffered from severe neglect and starvation; some were so weak they were barely able to stand.

The body of a dead mare was found under a pile of hay in a barn. Four of the weanlings later died from complications related to malnutrition.

“I was appalled someone would do something like that - starve these animals,” said Deborah Rogers, a volunteer with the Adams County SPCA, who helped nurse the surviving weanlings back to health.

About half of the horses had come from Star Barn. Others had come from breeders in Kentucky, Florida and California, officials said.

During Houseman’s trial in February 2012, veterinarian Gary Kabala described the horses he examined as “lifeless.”

Witnesses said two emaciated young horses were trapped in a stall with no food or water and infected mucus pouring from their nostrils.

"Their heads were down, they were extremely depressed. As foals they should have been vibrant," he told the court. "I was horrified."

Many in the courtroom wept openly as Kabala described how he and other volunteers carried one horse off the trailer and had to prop up another.

An Adams County judge found Houseman guilty on 14 counts of cruelty and sentenced him to three and a half years’ probation – which included a ban on horse ownership for that time - and ordered him to pay $34,000 in restitution to the SPCA.

Houseman appealed the charges and tried to sue the Adams County SPCA, dragging out the case for months. Shelters racked up more bills and volunteer caretakers feared he might get the horses back. The case ended in county court after he pleaded guilty to three charges. Prosecutors later reduced the amount to $9,000 which was paid, SPCA officials said.

Scores More in MD
Meanwhile, another horrific chapter in the story was unfolding 25 miles away in pastures in Emmitsburg and Thurmont, MD. where Houseman had stashed scores of additional horses.

In late 2012, Houseman was charged with animal cruelty in Frederick County for failing to provide vet care for a nine-month-old filly found with a halter embedded in her head. Authorities used a dart gun to sedate the filly to remove the halter. One dart lodged in the filly’s intestine was not removed. She died ten days later. Domer said a necropsy showed her death resulted from parasites and general debilitation from lack of food and poor health. 

Houseman again was found guilty of cruelty, this time by a Frederick County judge, and soon after appealed those charges.

The case concluded in March 2014 with a guilty plea from Houseman. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay $525 in restitution to the Frederick County SPCA. Houseman is currently serving his time on consecutive weekends.

The story doesn’t end there.

Gruesome Turn
Instead, it took a particularly gruesome turn when Laurie Calhoun, owner of Foxie G Foundation, a horse rescue in Libertytown, MD, and Rogers began walking the pastures where Houseman had kept the horses to try to find those that were unaccounted for.

In the two large pastures they said they found the remains of roughly 26 horses, including the headless body of a 13-year-old stallion identified as Jockey’s Dream - the Brazilian-bred son of 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck – who had been owned by Star Barn. Rogers and others say both Houseman’s father and the horse’s former owners identified the horse.

“Jockey’s Dream was the one that set me over the edge,” said Rogers, who had tried to get Houseman to turn over the stallion to her. “The day my mother died, they told me the stallion was dead. I was ballistic. We didn't know how many skeletons were at the property, so I called the Frederick County commissioners.”

Harold Domer, director of the Frederick County SPCA, said he and his officers had been monitoring the horses in the fields for months, but their conditions did not reach the point until a year later when he felt he could charge Houseman.

In the end, Domer said he was unable to charge Houseman for any of the dead horses because he could not establish a chain of custody proving his culpability in their deaths.

That didn’t sit well with Rogers, who said Houseman was the only one using the fields and in the case of one location, only cattle had grazed there before.

SPCA Spends $75,000
Abigail Avery, director of the Adams County SPCA, said her organization spent $75,000 to care for the surviving horses until they were placed in homes.

Avery said she had contacted several breeders to tell them they had their horses, but none wanted them back. One breeder from California sent a check for $500, she said.

Calhoun, who with her husband Jerry owns Summer Wind Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding facility, took in 22 horses, including four mares with live foals. She estimates her costs for feed and vet care at more than $75,000.

She still has 10 of the Houseman horses that have yet to find permanent homes. She said six older broodmares will likely live out their years at her farm.

“Houseman’s plan was to breed the mares and give the foals away and collect breeder benefits at the race track, but he wasn’t feeding them,” said Calhoun. “My plan was to go back to breeders and owners of horses and see if they would take them back as good breeders should.”

Two breeders took back their mares. Others did not, citing finances or retirement, she said.

Deb Jones, a California-based animal welfare advocate who helps rescuers identify Thoroughbreds found in auction kill pens, said she remains angry that Houseman did not receive stiffer sentences for starving 70 horses and believes Frederick County animal control should have acted more quickly to save those who suffered there. She also said Barr and Truitt should have been prosecuted for their roles in the horses’ demise.

And she said she is heartsick that many mares have not yet been identified. She said the Jockey Club has DNA tests but refused to release them pending the conclusion of the trial.

“I don’t see a point at which the Star Barn carnage will be over,” she said.

Calhoun said the case underscores the need for The Jockey Club to forbid so-called “pasture breeding” of Thoroughbreds, the practice of accumulating broodmares and throwing a stallion out in the field to see what happens.

“I really wish that pasture breeding were not allowed with Thoroughbreds,” she said. “Having stud fees and transporting mares is difficult and costs much more than amassing a herd of horses. Houseman wouldn’t have done what he did if he had to go through all that.”

A raffle with a prize of $20,000 is being held to help the Foxie G Foundation. Tickets are $50 and only 1,000 are being sold. The drawing is November 1. Contact Will Rogers at willrogers189@yahoo.com or (717) 578-7634.”