By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A judge in Dunn County Circuit Court has found a 76-year-old Prairie Farm woman guilty on three misdemeanor charges in a case involving a herd of 29 starving horses.
Darleen R. Freiheit appeared in Dunn County Circuit Court February 2 for a plea and sentencing hearing with her attorney, Julie Weber.
Freiheit was charged with two felony counts of mistreating animals causing death and nine misdemeanor counts of intentionally mistreating animals.
Judge James Isaacson accepted pleas of “no contest” from Freiheit on three misdemeanor counts of mistreating animals, found her guilty, and dismissed the two felony counts and six other misdemeanors.
Judge Isaacson withheld sentencing, placed Freiheit on two years of probation, and ordered her to pay $243 in court costs for each of the three counts, to complete 100 hours of community service and ordered her to pay $260 in restitution to cover the cost of a necropsy on one of the dead horses.
According to the criminal complaint, the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department had received complaints about dead horses, and sheriff’s deputies had gone to investigate on April 10, 2013, but could not find any dead or mistreated horses in northern Dunn County.
Sheriff’s deputies again went to investigate on April 14, 2013, and located the animals in the Town of Sheridan about a mile west of the initial location.
All together, 29 horses were in Freiheit’s care.
According to a report issued by a veterinarian who had been called to examine the horses, the body condition scores of the horses, on a scale of one to ten, ranged from less than one up to as much as five.
Scores of five to seven are within the normal range.
Judge Isaacson noted that the maximum penalty for the misdemeanors is nine months in the county jail and/or a $10,000 fine for each count.
Freiheit, who will be 77 on her next birthday, has worked with horses her whole life and had bred many of the horses in the herd, Weber told the court.
Prior to April of 2013 when the starving horses were discovered, Freiheit had broken her hip, her mother had passed away and her partner, Howard, had been ill for quite some time. Howard has since passed away, Weber said.
Freiheit had a contract with another person for feeding hay to the horses, and with their heavy winter coats, it was difficult to see the condition of the horses, she said.
One of the older mares died, and “it broke my heart,” Freiheit told the court.
In April of 2013, the weather was cold and snowy, the quality of the hay was not good, and the pasture was not growing, Freiheit said, noting that in a good year, when the grass starts growing in the spring, horses that have dropped weight over the winter will begin to pick up again once they start eating grass.
Freiheit said she has raised many generations of horses.
Freiheit’s son lives in Minnesota and now has many of the horses that were in her care, Weber said.
Freiheit lives on a fixed income of $806 per month from Social Security. After Howard died, the estate took their home. She is living with friends now, and for a time, she lived in a trailer house with no heat or electricity, Weber said.
The condition of the horses “was a sad result of a very bad few years,” she said.
Because Freiheit lives on a fixed income, she has no ability to pay the court costs or the restitution. She has no assets other than the vehicle she drives and her clothing, Weber told the court.
Judge Isaacson said the Freiheit case represented a situation for which he did not have any experience and that he did not know if he had the legal authority to waive the court costs.
Judge Isaacson went on record saying that if Freiheit fails to pay the court costs and the restitution, her failure to pay is not a basis for committing her to jail.
A two-day trial was scheduled last September, but the trial was cancelled when Freiheit’s attorney and the Dunn County District Attorney’s office began working their way toward reaching a plea agreement.
On April 17, 2013, Judge William Stewart signed a Petition for the Authorization of the Sale, Destruction or Other Disposal of Animals. The petition stated that two dead horses were transported to the state veterinary diagnostic lab in Barron, and the necropsy results were that no body fat was found on either horse and there were intestinal parasites connected to starvation.