Okla. authorities seize more than 60 horses, up to 30 carcasses in animal cruelty case
The state of 37-year-old Carolyn “Nichole” Vaughn’s Wewoka, Okla., property was “appalling.” When Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Hanson arrived April 5 on an animal welfare call he and fellow officers weren’t prepared for what they’d find. “The number, the conditions, the whole thing was just horrible—the dead—20 to 30 carcasses on the property. Some had died that day,” Hanson says. “I’ve not been able to find one officer that says they’ve worked anything like this.”
Hanson’s visit to Vaughn’s property confirmed what a call to the sheriff’s office claimed—carcasses and “skinny” horses. “We found 20 to 30 (horse) carcasses in varying states of decay. Also over 60 horses—most of which were in pretty bad shape,” Hanson says.
In addition to the horses were 13 cattle and two pigs Hanson described as skinny and 26 dogs and four goats in “decent condition.” Inside the residence were two chinchillas, three rabbits covered in feces, a bearded dragon lizard and an African parrot all in poor health. “Based on the condition they were in we got a warrant and seized all the animals. We placed Ms. Vaughn in custody for animal cruelty,” Hanson says. The Oklahoma Sheriff’s Office is now investigating Vaughn’s husband and ranch hands as well.
Vaughn’s bond was first set at $100,000, but at her initial hearing April 9, bond was reduced to $40,000 with the condition she is not to have any animals in her possession. Hanson wants to take it a step further. “I’m filing a forfeiture or bond hearing so she’ll never get these animals back, but that’s up to a judge.”
Hanson says it’s known to local law enforcement that Vaughn at one time had around 150 horses. However, Vaughn no longer has access to property she once used. “She’s lost most of her leases,” Hanson says. “This is the only property she has left.” He says what’s left is a couple of acres’ worth of corrals. All the animals—60-plus horses, more than a dozen cattle, dogs, goats, pigs—were on less than five acres of property. “The biggest pen, where she kept 30 of the animals, was 69 by 270 feet—not a blade of grass on it—and that was the best pen.” He said another pen that held 12 horses was 33 by 63 feet. “There was some hay out there, but that’s it.”
Rescue organizations assisted police in the seizure of animals from the property. Blaze’s Tribute out of Jones, Okla., took in all the horses. “Without them we couldn’t have done this,” Hanson says. The Pontotoc Animal Welfare Society took in the dogs. Animal breeders and caregivers the sheriff’s office was familiar with took in the rest of the animals. The issue of horse owners unwilling or unable to properly care for their animals was front and center in Oklahoma recently. Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law March 29 to allow horse slaughter for human consumption which supporters claim is a humane method to control the unwanted horse population that financially burdens the state and rescue groups can’t effectively manage.
Vaughn told deputies she was running a rescue. “She claimed [the horses] all have rhinovirus [equine herpesvirus-1]. Through the investigation I know they don’t,” Hanson says. “They’re all just sick and dying of malnutrition.”
Local veterinarian Roy Strickland, DVM, evaluated the horses for the sheriff’s office. Hanson says Strickland rated the herd’s condition—on a scale from one to nine—as a three. Hanson says four draft horses were evaluated as 500 to 800 pounds underweight. Horses’ conditions ranged from underweight and malnourished to those suffering from untreated injuries. “One horse has already died,” he says. “She says she’s a rescue but as far as I’m concerned she’s a hoarder.”
The animal cruelty charges in this case could mount considerably more if Vaughn’s husband and ranch hands are charged as well. “If it was up to me, she’ll be charged with 50 to 100 counts of animal cruelty,” Hanson says. “This could be huge and I expect it will be.”
His initial investigation has revealed the horses were a moneymaking operation. “Most were mares she was using to breed,” Hanson says. “She was breeding and trying to sell them on Craigslist and other places.” And this investigation isn’t the only case he’s working on involving Vaughn. He says there is an unrelated investigation tying her to a $100,000 embezzlement case.
Vaughn is no stranger to area law enforcement. Oklahoma records show her as a defendant in nine cases, including a dismissed parking violation in 2005, indebtedness in 2011, a civil suit to recoup more than $10,000 in damages in 2012, and other animal cruelty charges. In January 2012 she was convicted on 59 counts of felony animal cruelty related to a puppy mill in Nowata County, Okla. “All she got on that is fines,” Hanson says. “Hopefully she’ll do some real time on this one.”
Vaughn is currently out on bond.