Judge Rhonda Ehlis - who is the judge who blocked the previous judge's order - continued the civil case over the seizure of Gary Dassinger's animals on Monday after a nearly-four-hour hearing at the Stark County Courthouse—which included bizarre stories about the care for the animals and at one point a ranch hand saying the owner fed him an "equine" roast.
Dassinger, who owns a ranch south of Gladstone, is accused of animal neglect after authorities claimed that his horses and cattle were not fed properly.
Dassinger has been criminally charged with four counts of animal cruelty, all Class C felonies, and six counts of animal neglect, all Class A misdemeanors.
The Monday hearing concerned the seizure of the animals. State law allows law enforcement to seize animals with a court order, and the owners of animals do not have recourse. Ehlis, with the support of attorneys in the case, decided to hold the hearing to protect Dassinger's due process rights.
That ranch hand— John Connor —who helped take care of Dassinger's animals testified at the Monday hearing, as did Stark County Sheriff Terry Oestreich.
Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning presented photographs that were taken by Oestreich on April 22 to the court.
The photos depicted a number of horses and cattle that Oestreich considered "thin" and emaciated, as well as multiple dead cattle on the premise.
There were also pictures that Oestreich claimed showed horses' hips and backbones sticking out as well as "junk" laying around the grounds with metal scraps and parts of fencing sticking up, which he claims could have cut a horse.
"I thought the horses were extremely thin and the place was an absolute mess," Oestreich said during the hearing.
He did not believe adequate food and water were provided. However, he said there was adequate shelter on April 22 based on the season.
A mare and foal were seized on site on April 22 because Dr. Kim Brummond from West Dakota Vet in Dickinson was concerned the horses would die without care. There was no court order for this seizure.
The prosecution also presented photos that were taken by a sheriff deputy on June 2, which allegedly showed brown and also some short, sparse green grass on Dassinger's land. Oestreich said he was concerned that the grass would run out depending on how long the seizure case was drawn out. The photos also showed a horse that had a gash on its chest, which Oestreich believed had not been treated.
Connor, a certified equine massage therapist, was hired by Dassinger to take care of his animals, beginning Jan. 1, 2017. Connor was a veterinary technician for three-and-half months in South Dakota, though he was not certified as a vet tech.
In October 2016, Connor came to Dassinger's ranch to discuss a plan for them to work together. Connor said they spent one day building fences and gates when he noticed the facility "needed some help." He wanted to know if Dassinger would put in a facility to allow him to train horses. He claims this was not done.
Connor claims that he recommended to Dassinger that he "pour" his animals, which involves putting a liquid on the animal that will help kill lice and worms. Dassinger said after the trial he has never poured his cattle and does not believe it pays to do so.
Connor said he was told to give the horses one bale of hay every other day, though he thought they needed at least two in that time span. Dassinger allegedly told Connor that the mares could eat the snow for water and forage for food. Connor said he did not believe the feed the animals were being given was a high-quality feed that Dassinger claimed it was.
Connor also claimed Dassinger fed him a "unique" type of roast.
"I thought it was pretty good beef, but it turns out it was equine," Connor said. "After I started eating it Mr. Dassinger informed me that it was equine."
Connor worked for Dassinger until mid-April. He ultimately left on April 21, the day before authorities received a call about the animals at Dassinger's ranch.
Connor also claimed that Dassinger owes him money, both for horses he helped sell and for work he had done for the ranch. Dassinger allegedly said he would pay Connor $1,200 a month for his services. This deal was not put into writing, Connor said. However, Connor says he was paid $900 in January and $1,000 in both February and March. He also says he received $500 for the portion of April in which he worked. In total, Connor claims Dassinger owes him $3,000 for mares he sold.
Dassinger's attorney Thomas Murtha questioned whether or not Connor was the one to report the condition of the animals to law enforcement. Connor said he had not started talking to law enforcement until two weeks into the case. However, he had been sharing information, including photos and videos, about the animals' condition with a friend in Wisconsin.
After the trial Dassinger said he had other veterinarians ready to testify on his behalf on Monday. He admitted the animals weren't in great shape, but claims his health condition and poor care by Connor contributed to this.
"They were in poorer shape than I've ever had them in my life," he said.
He also claimed that if the animals were in as bad of shape as the sheriff said they were they wouldn't have recovered.
That's not true. There have been cases of animals which were in body scores of 1 and couldn't stand that eventually recovered - after costly veterinarian intervention.
"The animals continue to get in better and better shape," Dassinger said.
The case was continued due to time constraints and will be picked up at a later date when there is room on the court calendar. The defense did not have an opportunity to call any witnesses and Ehlis indicated that the prosecution had at least one more witness who was set to give testimony in the case. Dassinger's initial appearance in the criminal case is currently scheduled for June 21.
(AGweek - June 5, 2017)
- North Dakota: Neglected horses, cattle to be seized from Gladstone rancher Gary Dassinger
- North Dakota: No one knows what they're doing. One judge says take the animals. Second judge, Rhonda Ehlis, butts her nose in and says give them back. Horses, cattle returned to Gladstone rancher accused of animal cruelty