HEBER-OVERGAARD — As of February 1, the bodies of 10 horses and two horse skeletons have been found in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest east of Heber. That brings the total to 12 horses that members of the Heber Wild Horses group believe to have been intentionally shot and killed.
A bay mare and a black stallion with a white blaze referred to by some as “Big Daddy,” were discovered dead and reported to the Forest Service last Friday morning. According to witnesses, Forest Service Deputy John Lopez and a veterinary expert responded quickly to investigate. A former brand inspector, Zeke Austin, was also at the scene according to the reporting parties.
Advocates believe the two horses discovered on Friday may have been killed in late January, along with several others. Their theory, however, has not been confirmed. They do hope that the varying stages of decay in the carcasses will ultimately help investigators pinpoint a more specific time of death.
In another unfortunate turn of events, a palomino mare referred to as “Angel,” was found alive but injured in the same area and had to be euthanized later that same day.
“Our boots-on-the group members had been keeping an eye on her because she looked injured,” explained Val Cecema-Hogsett of Citizens Against Equine Slaughter (CAES). “Those at the scene saw the mare go down and asked Deputy Lopez to look at her but said he didn’t have time to look at another horse.”
“The veterinarian with Lopez said that it wouldn’t take that long, so they approached the mare and found she had a gunshot wound,” claims Cecema-Hogsett. “The mare had to be put down at that time and should now be included in the investigation.”
Cecema-Hogsett of Citizens Against Equine Slaughter, (CAES), operates the political action arm for Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance. In a phone conversation with the Independent, the organization expressed appreciation for how quickly the Forest Service has been responding to their calls.
However, the advocates of the Heber Wild Horses still express an opinion that the investigation of the horse deaths are “too little, too late.” Late last year, the organization began escalating their actions, expressing their concerns to Forest Service regional and national offices. They say they received little or no response last year, which prompted their recent letters to Congressmen Raul Grijalva and Tom O’Halleran.
Horse advocates also called the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Phoenix office in an effort turn over 35 anonymous phone tips about the horse deaths. “We have already provided the anonymous tips to the FBI as they were the agency that was receptive,” confirms Cecema-Hogsett. “
“Originally, we preferred the tips went to the Forest Service or to Deputy John Lopez, but they would not call us back and he has still not contacted us.”
Who you gonna call?
During the federal government shutdown, it was unclear who the public should call with reports or concerns about the horses. In addition, the Forest Service dispatcher was overwhelmed with calls about the Heber Wild Horses on the line meant for reporting forest fires.
“This line is for Wildland Fire with our interagency partners in Fort Apache, the State of Arizona, and NPS,” explained John Whatley of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in an email to the Independent last week.
“I also contacted Navajo County Sheriff’s Office with tips but it was during the government furlough so I was directed back to the Forest Service because that’s what everyone was instructed to do at the time,” says Cecema-Hogsett.
“We recognize that NCSO is stuck in the middle of all this and we were really impressed with Navajo County Deputy Shawna Manygoats,” she adds.
“We would love to have any tips that the public or any horse advocates have collected,” said Navajo County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO) Chief Deputy Randy Moffitt in a phone conversation with the Independent on Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, we have not received any tips through the WeTip line regarding the Heber Wild Horses, however, it is still anonymous and available 24/7,” he added.
“We encourage individuals to call 1-800-78-CRIME and specifically state they are reporting information about the Heber Wild Horses,” advises Moffitt. “Callers will not be asked to provide their name so that the tips remain confidential and will be forwarded as quickly as is reasonably possible to the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that is responsible for investigating this incident.”
Although the Forest Service has insisted that they are the lead agency in the ongoing investigations, they have instructed the public to contact the NCSO dispatch line.
The Forest Service also advocates the use of the WeTip Hotline because it’s designed to forward information directly to them.
“If the horse deaths are the result of something criminal, then we would look to begin working with the Department of Justice and other agencies such as the U.S. Attorney’s office,” explained Forest Service Southwestern Region spokesperson Shane L. Martin, in a phone conversation with the Independent last week.
Martin also confirmed that a Forest Service Deputy and a veterinary expert were on scene investigating the last two horses found by Heber Wild Horses members on February 1. Although he could not comment on specifics of the investigation he indicated that, “We hope to soon be able to open this up, providing more information to the public.”
USFS to investigate
Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark recently visited Washington D.C. to help secure federal funding for the department and task force, and apparently spoke to Congressman Tom O’Halleran about the horse deaths. O’Halleran wrote to the Forest Service, urging action. During the time of Clark’s visit the Independent was forwarded a copy of a letter addressed to U.S. Forest Service Chief, Vicki Christiansen.
The letter is written, “on behalf of constituents concerned about the treatment of the Heber Wild Horse population in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest,” and urges the Forest Service to “… ensure a robust investigation is completed expeditiously, and that USFS communicates with affected stakeholders across the community.”
“...many constituents feel their questions have gone unanswered by your agency,” the letter states.
The Independent contacted the Southwestern Region U.S. Forest Service office to request a response to O’Halleran’s letter and received an an email the same day that stated: “We are aware of the letter written by Representative O’Halleran, and appreciate the Congressman’s interest in this issue,” wrote Forest Service Southwestern Region spokesperson Shane L. Martin. “Once the official copy is received, we will be responding to him directly, as is protocol for these letters.”