By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
White River Junction — The owner of a South Woodstock farm where police removed a herd of allegedly malnourished horses pleaded not guilty on Friday to 10 counts of animal cruelty.
Marjatta Lavin, 63, of Skyland Arabians, was released on conditions that she stay away from the property where her 23 animals are being boarded and refrain from purchasing or possessing any horses.
Following the hearing at Windsor Superior Court, Lavin said she “categorically” denied the allegations against her, referring to several ailments and personal setbacks in recent years that have inhibited her care of the horses while also disputing that they were unhealthy.
“I’m not a neglectful person at all and have never been,” she said.
She said the horses were purchased by her husband, who died in 2011. She said she mostly has cared for the animals by herself for the past six years.
Police, working with representatives from the Lucy Mackenzie Humane Society, executed a warrant to remove the 23 horses on Thursday. On a nine-point scale used to assess a horse’s physique, two veterinarians rated most of the horses at between one and three points, with their ribs and other bones visible through some of their coats, according to a police affidavit filed in court by Officer Kevin Wilson.
Police had initially cited Lavin for 23 counts of animal cruelty. Prosecutors are pursuing charges related to the 10 horses who ranked the worst on the veterinarians’ physique assessments. Each count carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
Wilson said additional indicators of neglect included rain rot, overgrown hooves, dull coats, dehydration and other illnesses and injuries. Veterinarian paperwork showed that several of the horses were flea bitten, and some were discovered standing in several feet of manure, according to Lucy Mackenzie spokeswoman Gina McAllister.
The police affidavit also said that Lavin had a 24th horse euthanized by a veterinarian from the Riverbend Veterinary Clinic on Nov. 6, which will “require further investigation.”
A woman who answered the phone at Riverbend said the clinic would have no comment. According to the affidavit, the clinic advised Windsor County Animal Cruelty Officer Heidi Edmunds, who is Lucy MacKenzie’s executive director, that the clinic had not seen the horses for about a year.
The 23 horses were relocated on Thursday to Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock, which is boarding the herd free of charge while Lucy Mackenzie staff and volunteers care for them.
Lucy Mackenzie President Jeanne Matos, who attended Friday’s hearing with several other organization officials, said “it takes a small army to take care of 23 horses in a day,” but that things are going “very well.”
“And we need to keep it going,” she said. “I can’t emphasize enough, this could be a long winter with these horses. … We’re kind of planning for the worst, hoping for the best.”
Friday’s hearing was brief, as Judge Robert Gerety said he had found probable cause for the case to proceed, while denying Lavin’s application for a public defender based on her finances.
Her application sheet, included in court documents, showed that Lavin said her income in the past year was $112,000, including $1,500 in the past 30 days.
She wrote question marks for the value of her property, outstanding mortgages and net worth.
Lavin will be required to retain an attorney or request permission to represent herself by a hearing scheduled for Dec. 2.
That hearing will also serve as a status conference for a separate motion by the state, which is asking the court to make Lavin pay for “all reasonable costs” incurred by the horses’ caregivers, “including but not limited to any veterinary expenses.”
When asked about her finances after the hearing, Lavin said she expects she will be able to retain an attorney.
Lavin, whose late husband Edward Lavin was the CEO of a major telecommunications company, previously owned at least four properties in town, according to Woodstock’s 2013 grand list.
She now owns two, according to town officials and tax records — a commercial property at 61 Central St. assessed at $475,400 and the 91-acre farm on Skyland Lane in South Woodstock assessed at nearly $1.9 million.
She owes about $21,000 in back taxes on the Central Street property but is current on the Skyland Lane farm, according to Town Manager Phil Swanson.
In the interview, Lavin spoke to several difficulties she’s had in recent years, including her husband’s death and an elbow injury that makes it difficult to care for the horses. Her daughter used to assist her, but had to cut back because of asthma and a pregnancy.
Two friends who attended the hearing with her said they supported Lavin and thought the allegations against her were wrong.
“She loves those horses,” said Steve Leninski, who Lavin said was one of the only people who has helped her.
Lavin said she had asked for help from Lucy Mackenzie in the past to no avail.
“I’ve been alone fighting and hoping I can get everything organized,” she said. “It’s been a hard road for me. … This is a horse region and yet none of the people help each other. … It’s not always as it seems, and I’ve asked for help.”
Matos declined to address Lavin’s assertions directly because of the ongoing case. She also declined to comment on why the case was proceeding now and not earlier.
“I don’t want to dispute anything or say anything at all to jeopardize the well-being of the horses, and that really is our focus right now,” Matos said. “I hope that that information will come out as it needs to down the road.”
Matos said volunteers have “rallied” around the horses and monetary donations are also accumulating, but she has concerns about maintaining the “momentum” because of the high costs and time-intensive care that will likely be needed over an extended period.
Many of the horses currently need small, special feedings roughly every two hours to try to stabilize their diet, she said. She said she couldn’t estimate how much time and money was needed to care for them, but it was a lot.
The long-term hope for the horses, she said, is to have them fostered and then adopted, but she said they cannot move ahead with any of those plans unless the court gives the go-ahead.
“The horses are just magnificent,” she said. “They’re all kind and just wonderful, magnificent animals.”
Matos encouraged people who have suspicions of animal cruelty or neglect to make a report to Edmunds, the county cruelty officer, which can be done anonymously.
Matos said a more structured volunteer schedule to care for the 23 horses will be developed next week, and people interested in volunteering should call Lucy Mackenzie at 802-484-5829.
Donations earmarked for the horses can be made via check or online at lucymac.org.