A HiCaliber horse lays in its stall during a visit to the Valley Center ranch on March 2, 2018. (Megan Wood/inewsource)
By Brad Racino | inewsource
Local and state agencies are continuing their investigations into HiCaliber Horse Rescue, despite an announcement over the weekend that the Valley Center nonprofit is closing.
HiCaliber founder Michelle Knuttila published a lengthy post on Facebook Saturday, saying she couldn’t endure the harassment and hatred leveled against her and the organization, and she was shutting down the rescue. In an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune she said she had been cleared of all investigations.
However, her attorney, Sean Jones, told inewsource on Monday he’s been in contact with a number of enforcement agencies about their investigations and could not confirm that they had been dropped.
The California Veterinary Medical Board said on Monday that its investigation into HiCaliber is ongoing and that, in general, the closure of a facility would not stop it. The state agency could be looking at unlicensed activity, scope of practice issues or standard of care issues.
Jones, who specializes in criminal defense and was a HiCaliber volunteer, said the nature of his representation may be changing in light of the nonprofit’s announcement to close. He said he has been in touch with the California Department of Consumer Affairs and Board of Veterinary Medicine, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, the Ontario Police Department and the Inland Valley Humane Society. He said he also was “informed by a couple other branches” that the California Attorney General’s Office was involved.
“I can’t confirm that they were formally cleared,” Jones said of HiCaliber, “just that there were no charges pending.”
A spokesman for San Diego County said on Monday that officials there have not heard from HiCaliber, but if the organization drops its plans to obtain a permit for the horses kept at the ranch, code violations will still have to be remedied. Zoning for the property allows only three horses. Knuttila said in a January interview that she has as many as “190-something.”
Jones confirmed to inewsource that the owner of the Valley Center property that leases it to HiCaliber is actively looking for buyers.
Knuttila’s Facebook post Saturday said that “we are not in a position to purchase this property let alone complete the permit process.”
Jones said Knuttila may not be going out of business. Instead, she wants to shift the focus of HiCaliber significantly “and move it from a nonprofit to some other kind of entity.”
Asked what that means, he said, “I honestly don’t know. ... She was talking about maybe setting up some kind of animal daycare kind of thing. She floated a bunch of different ideas about how she could stay involved in caring for animals but not invite so much scrutiny.”
Knuttila did not respond to an inewsource interview request on Monday.
inewsource has published 11 stories about HiCaliber since Feb. 28, detailing ongoing investigations and allegations from former board members, volunteers and supporters. They include: four former HiCaliber board members saying financial records filed with the government were inaccurate; five former volunteers providing first-hand accounts, photographs and documentation alleging an outbreak of a highly contagious equine disease at the ranch that was kept under wraps; and Knuttila’s questionable expenditures, documented in PayPal records showing thousands of dollars spent on such items as Weight Watchers, spy technology, late-night fast food and bar tabs.
Jones, who was a regular volunteer at the ranch and was given “the honorary title of CEO of the Cowboy Lawyers Association” in 2014, told inewsource he genuinely thinks HiCaliber has not done anything wrong, though there was “some sloppy management.”
He said the heart of the issue is the black market surrounding sick or injured animals. As Jones explained it, people find these animals and present them to organizations like HiCaliber with a proposition: either buy them for a few hundred dollars or they’ll be sent to Mexico for slaughter.
As a result, organizations like HiCaliber are now “funding a sketchy operation,” Jones said.
“It’s not deliberate,” he said. “They’re not aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy, but the ultimate result is that the people who are running these scams are profiting from it and perpetuating kind of a black market.”
HiCaliber’s critics allege Knuttila has created a market for sick and abused animals at an Ontario livestock auction, which she attends nearly every Tuesday to buy horses with funds raised from her online village of supporters. Often, the critics say, after raising hundreds or thousands of dollars for each horse, Knuttila euthanizes them at the ranch.
Lastly, Jones said, he is not representing HiCaliber on any issue related to internal finances, and “wasn’t aware of or had any reason to be concerned with financial misappropriations.”
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