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Weber County rancher wins legal feud over starving horses

Published February 21, 2013 9:42 am

Courts • A judge tosses all but 1 of 15 animal-cruelty charges against Weber County man.
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Justin Barrow won out against charges that he hadn't taken care of horses trusted to his family's care, horses that have starved or died after they were taken back by the owner who brought the charges against him.

Barrow, 42, runs a ranch in Weber County with his parents and had been facing 15 charges of animal cruelty in the Roy/Weber Justice Court. Trudy Childs and her son Rory Childs, horse breeders in Utah County, contracted with the Barrows to take care of almost 100 horses. When the Childses felt the Barrows hadn't, they contacted animal services and filed the charges against Barrow.

But the judge dismissed all but one of the charges against him without prejudice on Wednesday morning. Barrow credits a veterinary reports from last spring proving the horses were fine for his victory.

Barrow said the remaining charge is for a rescue — not one of the Childses' — that was brought to his family near death and was seen by another customer who called to complain. Barrow has also pleaded not guilty to that charge and is scheduled to appear in court for it next month.

In the meantime, Barrow wants to sue the Childses for the false charges against him, on top of a lawsuit his family already has against them over the bills they haven't paid.

"It's dishonest and it's destroyed [us]," Barrow said. Those would also be in addition the potential criminal charges coming against the Childses after sheriffs found their animals starving.

Trudy Childs, 59, and her son Rory Childs, 31, are each suspected of 101 counts of cruelty to animals and 31 counts of livestock at large. On Wednesday, deputies found more than 100 horses in at least four different pastures. At least four were dead — buried in a hastily dug mass grave on one property, according to deputies. Another two died shortly after they were discovered.

Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said they've filed the charges with the Utah County Attorney's Office. "You don't have to be a horse expert to see that they were not adequately fed... no matter what the Childses say," Cannon said.

Though he could not speak to this case specifically, Cannon said in his experience the prosecutors might ultimately reduce the 132 charges to "five, 10 or 20," instead of such a high number.

The Childses breed and sell horses at their Smokey Mountain Ranch location in Utah County. In November 2011, the Childses contracted with the Barrows to keep their horses for the winter. But by the following May, the Childses started accusing the Barrows of not feeding the animals properly and stopped paying the bills for boarding and feeding the horses.

In October 2012, the Barrows sued the Childses over the alleged missed payments. The Barrows claims the Childses owe about $55,000, and his family filed a lien on the horses and claimed possession of them until their payments were received.

Barrow suspects the Childses planned to leave their horses with his family without ever intending to pay, when he said all his family wanted to do was help. They even fed and boarded the horses at $50 a month per horse, a fraction of what other ranchers charge, Barrow said. Other farms and ranches across the state charge anywhere from $125 to $540 a month.

"We did this to help the Childses," Barrow said. "The fuel and the time and all of this, and the court and attorney costs... We're alive and we're going to survive, we're fighters, but it's destroyed our capital."

The two families' fight over who had a right to the animals continued until Trudy Childs showed up and took at least 60 horses from the Barrows to move them to their land in Utah County. She brought Weber County Sheriff's deputies with her when she came to take back her horses. When the deputies weren't sure whether to return the animals to her, Barrow said the officers called Weber County Deputy Attorney Gary Heward, who told them to hand them over.

"We had a legal lien on those horses to keep custody of them horses," Barrow said. "It was a Saturday and [Heward said] just let her take them. That's what caused this."

But the Childses allege that the horses' malnourishment was the fault of the Barrows for not feeding them.

"We're getting blamed for them being in poor condition," Rory Childs said Tuesday, while out feeding their remaining animals.

The Childses have had to cancel their annual sale this year with all that's happened. The Childses are asking on their ranch website for donations to care for their remaining animals, a request accompanied by an almost 13-minute slide show of what they claim to be before-and-after pictures of their horses.

The Childses have been able to keep all but one horse, which the sheriff's office impounded, and have been helping the county feed the remaining animals. People have also provided feed and donations to the South Utah Valley Animal Shelter for the horses, Cannon said.

The Barrows still have 17 mares they received from Trudy Childs, ones she didn't take back. Barrow invites anyone to visit his family's farm to see that they're fat and doing fine.

mmcfall@sltrib.comTwitter: @mikeypanda