HEBER-OVERGAARD — Not far from the rushing traffic on State Route 260 and the Bison Ranch tourist development, two horses lie dead.
“Whoever did this to these horses has no respect for life and no respect for themselves,” says Stacy L. Sanchez of Overgaard. “There’s no reason to shoot or harm these animals.”
Sanchez was one of several local residents who are sickened, heartbroken and angry after finding a total of four dead horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, just a few hundred yards south of SR260.
All four horses are believed to be part of the Heber Wild Horse herd that live on over 19,000 acres that make up the Heber Wild Horse Territory.
All that remains of two horses are skeletons. The other two horses, a stallion and a mare with a surviving yearling filly, appear to have died on or around Monday, January 21. However, time of death, cause and manner of death is currently unknown.
The January 15 sighting of the skeletons was reported by an anonymous party to the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance (a.k.a. Heber Wild Horses), a non-profit group who has been advocating for the horses for several years.
Representatives of Heber Wild Horses reported the information to the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, as the Forest Service was unavailable due to the federal government shutdown. They also took photographs of the remains, documenting date, time, weather conditions and other vehicles seen in the area.
One week later, on Tuesday, January 22, the bodies of two more horses were found dead in the same area as the skeletal remains. The Heber Wild Horses group also contacted the Independent by phone and email on Tuesday.
The horses found on Tuesday had barely begun to decay so advocates and local residents are hopeful that their bodies hold clues to their demise.
“I’ve kind of been a go-between,” says Stacy L. Sanchez of Overgaard. “I live in the immediate area and took pictures of the stallion, the mare and the yearling filly yesterday.”
Sanchez is so upset by the deaths of the horses he waited in the area for the veterinarian to “come take the bullets out of the horses,” he told the Independent at the scene Tuesday evening.
“Robin and I were standing right here looking at the dead stallion and saw the bay mare on the hill,” recalls Sanchez. “Both horses look like they were shot dead and they are, literally, 600 feet from each other.”
“Now the mare’s filly is running around and has no idea what to do,” proclaims Sanchez. “She ran off across the wash and now she is hiding in the thick. We’re hoping she hooks up with another band soon.”
Members of the Heber Wild Horses group are confident that the cause of death for all four horses and a couple of coyotes found nearby was gunshot wounds. They don’t have proof because they didn’t witness the incidents so they are relying on John Lopez, the Forest Service investigator assigned to the case, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Heber resident and Heber Wild Horses member Robin Crawford has been a boots-on-the ground member for several years. She waited by the horses’ bodies with Sanchez, hoping a veterinarian would arrive before dark. She also spoke candidly to the Independent about the situation.
“I’m so frustrated right now; I have just about had it,” says Crawford in response to what the advocates feel is a lack of urgency on the part of the Forest Service when it comes to the Heber Wild Horses.
Also on Tuesday, Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark confirmed that he had been notified of the incident(s) and was in fact en route to Heber to “investigate a call about dead horses.” In a brief phone conversation with the Independent later that day, Clark confirmed that U.S. Forest Service Deputy John Lopez would be investigating, as the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service.
“I spoke to (Navajo County) Deputy Shawna Many Goats on the phone and she advised us to contact Forest Service Disptatch," says Crawford. “That’s what we did when the two stallions were shot last summer and we still have no answers.”
“It’s being investigated — that’s what they always tell us," adds Crawford.”
Heber Wild Horses has posted updates on their social media page. They are still offering a $2,500 reward “for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person(s) responsible for the deaths of the horses.”
“Band stallion in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona found shot dead,” reads the heading of their Tuesday social media post.
Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, (CAES), a political action group that actively supports preservation of the Heber Wild Horses, also contacted the Independent by phone and email.
CAES is urging the public to contact the Navajo County Sheriff’s office WeTIP Hotline at 1-800-78-CRIME. They may also be contacted directly at 541-315-6650.
In addition to the reward being offered, Heber Wild Horses and Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, (CAES), are not waiting around for the results of a Forest Service investigation, which they distrust.
“I’m calling the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” assures Crawford.
The distrust they express relates to the apparently unresolved October, 2018, death of two stallions in the Heber Wild Horse Territory. That situation is similar in nature because horse advocates and some members of the public believe the stallions were purposely shot. This case is still under investigation by the Forest Service.
Tuesday’s reported deaths of the black stallion and bay mare appear uncomfortably similar to last October’s deaths.
“We were hoping a veterinarian would come find the projectiles in the dead horses but we’ve been through this before,” stated Crawford on Tuesday evening. “We still don't have information from the stallions killed last fall."
Evidence just seems to disappear up here,” says Sanchez, referring to the stallions being buried after numerous requests for someone to investigate the bodies.
“We are contacting Congressman Raul Grijalva and the Attorney General on behalf of Heber Wild Horses,” says Val Cecema-Hogsett of CAES.
Killing wild horses is a violation of US 95-192, the federal law governing protection of wild horses. The Heber Wild Horses are considered protected under this Act.
“Any person who ... maliciously causes the death or harassment of any wild free-roaming horse or burro... shall be subject to a fine of not more than $2,000, or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both,” reads the code on the Bureau of Land Management website under Section 8, which documents The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
“The manner of death of these animals is undetermined at this time,” said Navajo County Sheriff Deputy Randy Moffitt, in a phone conversation with the Independent on Wednesday. “Some people are speculating that the horses have been shot, but this information has not been confirmed by our agency, or by any other law enforcement or investigating agency.”
“With any criminal investigation of this nature, evidence is crucial in determining cause of death,” reminded Moffitt. “This is in the hands of the Forest Service now, as it is their jurisdiction.”
“With regard to public safety, the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office will respond to reports of people shooting in an unsafe manner,” assured Moffitt. “We will continue to investigate all calls as we receive them. Through that process we make a determination of whether law enforcement action is necessary,” said Moffitt.
The Independent contacted the Forest Service, asking for a press release regarding the dead horses. Despite the federal government shutdown, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, email responses were received within hours of the requests.
“Currently, USDA Forest Service Law Enforcement are investigating several incidents such as these, and therefore cannot comment on the details of ongoing investigations,” wrote Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests Supervisor Steve Best in a Wednesday email response to the Independent.