By Dave Philipps, The Gazette
A Colorado man who repeatedly broke state brand laws by shipping hundreds of federally protected wild horses out of state will not be prosecuted for violating state brand inspection rules because of time limits on prosecution, authorities said this month.
A ProPublica investigation published by The Gazette in September showed Tom Davis of La Jara purchased more than 1,700 wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management from 2008 to 2012 and shipped them to fates unknown.
Davis, a proponent of horse slaughter, said he sent the horses to what he called "good homes" all over the country. Wild horse advocates believe they illegally went to slaughter. None of the horses have been accounted for.
In October, the BLM began investigating whether Davis broke federal law by knowingly sending horses to slaughter. That investigation is ongoing.
Soon after, Colorado started its investigation of whether Davis violated state brand inspection laws.
Brand laws, which date to the cattle rustling days, are designed to guard against people selling stolen livestock. Colorado law requires a state brand inspection when livestock is sold, moved out of state, or shipped in state more than 75 miles.
Brand records show Davis received more than 1,700 horses from the BLM, but got inspections to ship only 765. None of the horses are in his possession, meaning almost 1,000 were moved without an inspection.
Davis admitted as much to ProPublica, saying he did not want brand inspectors to know where the horses were going. When a reporter suggested that was illegal, Davis replied, "Since when is anything in this country done legal?"
The whereabouts of all 1,700 horses is unknown.
Each violation of the brand law is misdemeanor punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Sheriff's deputies in Conejos County, a rural corner of the San Luis Valley where the Davis family has deep ties, conducted an investigation starting in late April. Deputies found nothing indicating Davis broke the law, said 12th District Attorney David Mahonee in a press release.
Mahonee said in the last 18 months, the period allowed by Colorado's statute of limitations for misdemeanors, "There is no evidence that the rancher shipped horses out of Colorado without first having them inspected by the brand inspector and therefore no charges will be filed."
"It's pretty clear he was breaking the law," said Colorado state brand inspector Chris Whitney. "But not within the allowable timeframe."
State and federal documents obtained by ProPublica suggest there is evidence Davis broke the law within the specified time. BLM sales receipts show the agency sold Davis at least 239 mustangs in the last 18 months. BLM records show the animals were shipped to Davis at his house in Colorado, according to the BLM. State brand inspection records during that time show Davis had only 43 animals inspected. That means the rest are either still in his possession or he violated brand inspection laws.
Only a half dozen horses were on his property during a visit by a reporter in May 2012
"It's that simple. Either show us the inspections or show us the horses. If you can't, he should be arrested," said Deniz Bolbol, communications director for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a national advocacy organization. "We are disappointed the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye."
The Department of Interior Inspector General's Office took over the BLM investigation of Davis in October. The office did not respond to requests for an update on the investigation, but an unnamed source said its findings could be completed this summer.
Meanwhile, wild horse lovers are outraged that the man they say slaughtered truckloads of protected mustangs has yet to be punished.
"The bottom line is that there are 1,700 missing horses," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign "The sheriff has turned his back. The BLM is dragging its feet. And we still don't know what happened."