Cruelty case going to trial

One of the many malnourished horses after being rescued last summer, ribs in full view. That horse was nursed back to health along with a few dozen others. The majority of those horses were subsequently adopted into the community.

Last summer, law enforcement and animal rescue officials descended on Tammie Montiel’s property, seizing more than three dozen neglected horses and numerous other animals from “disgusting” conditions. Now, a year later, Montiel’s case appears to be going to trial.

However, appearances can be deceiving, as the case against Montiel has seen numerous delays and granted continuances.

Tammie Michelle Montiel, 41, of Cameron, stands charged with 18 counts of animal cruelty. While a civil lawsuit brought against Montiel for the care of the horses last year resulted in the official forfeiture of the animals in September 2014 — the animals were fostered and subsequently adopted out — the criminal case has remained pending.

Montiel is slated to appear in Sampson County District Court for a trial on July 14.

“It’s been a year,” said Animal Control Sgt. Jessica Kittrell, who said she has been staying informed regarding the status of the case, regularly receiving a new date for the disposition of Montiel’s case. The sergeant said this week she believes the time has come, and has received no information that would lead her to think another delay is imminent.

On June 9, upon receiving some information that Montiel may have taken in some new horses, a motion was filed in court at Kittrell’s request to prohibit the woman from having horses. A judge granted the motion.

The charges against Montiel stem from a month-long investigation into potential animal cruelty and led to the removal of the malnourished animals from her rented Bob Rupert Lane property in northern Sampson, near Dunn, in mid-June and early July 2014.

Montiel voluntarily surrendered 14 horses in mid-June following an initial probe. Weeks later, on July 1, 37 more horses, nine ducks, five chickens and nine guineas were seized from the Bob Rupert Lane property and transported to the Sampson Livestock Facility on U.S. 421 South.

Due to the large number of animals involved, and the cost to feed and care for them, Sampson County Sheriff’s authorities also pursued a civil lawsuit against Montiel. In a civil hearing in late August 2014, District Court Judge Sarah Seaton levied a $15,000 bond, the amount to be paid by Montiel or have the horses forfeited to the county.

Sampson law enforcement, citizens and numerous donors ensured that the horses received proper care following their rescue. And when the bond went unpaid, many of those who had taken in the horses as fosters throughout the community in those initial weeks, were able to be adopted out.

Despite the many delays, Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton has been adamant that Montiel’s alleged actions will not be dismissed, promising to continue pursuit of the criminal case.

“This lady has had her operation in Harnett County, Cumberland County and Hoke County. She has been charged previously in Cumberland County. Whenever it became such a burdensome thing for Cumberland … they dropped the charges because they didn’t want to have to deal with all this mess,” the sheriff has said. “When she came here, we weren’t going to play. She played the system in the other counties and we’re not letting her play the system here.”

Even in Sampson, Kittrell has explained, Montiel was given a chance to rectify the situation before charges were brought.

Around the initial search in June 2014, Kittrell noted that the Bob Rupert Lane resident, then-unnamed Montiel, was attempting to reduce the number of animals on her property, which included 54 horses at the June 13 count. Of those 54, 14 were voluntarily surrendered at that time. However, when authorities returned, they were forced to seize 37 more, with the Bureau of Land Management getting three of the horses.

When animal rescue league and local law enforcement officials first converged on the Bob Rupert Lane property, located on just 5 acres at the county’s northern tip, they called the poor condition of the horses heinous and some of the most deplorable they had witnessed.

The Southeast Coast Region of the U.S. Equine Rescue League (USERL), a national, non-profit equine rescue organization, noted in its June 13, 2014, assessment of the operation that ponies, miniature horses, yearlings and elderly horses were co-mingled in several enclosures in a barn at the residence near Plain View. Most of the horses were suffering from malnutrition, and many had open wounds, serious infections and skin issues, group officials said.

Five horses were immediately seized at that point. USERL Chapter director Debbie Walsh Bartholomew called it “disgusting” and “one of the worst cases we’ve seen in North Carolina.”

Kittrell expressed frustration last year that the case kept being continued. She said this week that since the horses’ rescue last year, there have been five new foals born, animals that may not have ever seen life if not for their seizure, foster and subsequent rescue.

“If it takes me three years,” Kittrell has said, “I’m going to make sure it goes to trial.”

It has already taken one, and local authorities are hoping that wait won’t continue.