Knox County residents Debbie Buckner and Mike Sullivan want their horses back.
Animal-control officers seized the animals last year, but to get them back the couple says they must cave to government extortion.
As reported, Knox County sheriff’s and animal-control officers invaded the couple’s property as part of an animal-welfare check. They arrested and abused Buckner after she asked for a search warrant, a federal lawsuit filed by the couple says.
The same lawsuit says two of the animal-control officers — Frankie Byrne and Candice Michelle Cianflone — are affiliated with nonprofit Horse Haven of Tennessee.
Buckner and Sullivan say they had sour relations with Horse Haven before they lost their horses.
According to its website, Horse Haven helps abused and neglected horses.
Byrne and Cianflone dislike Buckner and Sullivan, and the feeling is mutual, Sullivan said.
The act of Byrne and Cianflone invading the couple’s property, as government agents, and seizing their horses while at the same time involved with a private group hostile to the couple represents a conflict of interest, their attorney, Van Irion of Knoxville, says.
Irion has said Sullivan and Buckner’s guilt or innocence is not at issue.
“It looks like there are some county officials who abused their authority for personal reasons,” Irion said.
The way Sullivan puts it, what he describes as “a money racket” works like this: He and his wife buy horses that are in bad shape. Byrne and her officers then show up on their property a few weeks later and take the horses, because their respective conditions haven’t improved.
“Every time we go to court on this they say they will drop charges, but in exchange we need to pay Horse Haven more than $40,000 for caring for our horses for a year and a half while they tie this thing up. We just flat out said we wouldn’t do it,” Sullivan said.
“Even if they find you innocent you will owe the rescue money. When they take your animals you are fined whether you are guilty or not, and it costs a butt load of money.”
Horse Haven’s website lists Byrne as a member of its advisory board. Byrne’s LinkedIn profile says she was on Horse Haven’s board of directors from 2013-14. Telephone listings for Byrne were unavailable.
Cianflone, according to the lawsuit, gave the OK for the authorities to seize the horses based on what’s called an Equine Condition Scoring System, which, the lawsuit says, is vague. The lawsuit also quotes the inventor of the system, Don Henneke, as saying no one should use it as a way to seize horses. Henneke also “finds it disturbing local authorities have used it for such purposes.”
Cianflone’s contact information was also unavailable. Sullivan and Buckner, according to the lawsuit, previously complained to the sheriff’s office about her methods.
According to the lawsuit, animal-control and sheriff’s officers brought members of Horse Haven onto the couple’s property May 7, 2015. As reported, it was the same day agents left the property gates open and allowed several horses to escape.
Sullivan offered little detail about the falling out with Horse Haven.
“We got bad vibes about what they were doing and withdrew our support,” Sullivan said.
Horse Haven Executive Director Terry Holley said she could not discuss any aspect of the lawsuit or anything about the horses the nonprofit is holding as evidence.
“The lawsuit is against Knox County Animal Control, not with Horse Haven,” Holley said.
“We don’t make the decision about the animals that are confiscated. That decision is left to animal control, the sheriff’s department and either an ag extension agent or a vet.”
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are Knox County sheriff’s officer Jeanette Harris and an Officer Frye — no first name was given. Tennessee Watchdog left a voicemail at the home of a woman named Jeanette Harris in Knoxville, but our call was not immediately returned.
As reported, animal-control officers ran over Buckner’s and Sullivan’s pet chicken, and the two said they have video evidence to prove it. But officers still “seized said chicken as evidence of plaintiff’s alleged cruelty to animals,” the lawsuit says.
Irion told Tennessee Watchdog incidents such as these happen to other people in Knox County.
Martha Dooley, spokeswoman for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, declined comment.
The lawsuit says officers seized the couple’s dog, alleging improper care after it was in an accident and suffered a broken leg. The dog had a collapsed lung and couldn’t have surgery until the lung healed, the lawsuit says.
One year later, animal-control officers have yet to treat the broken leg; one veterinarian said it’s too late now, anyway, according to the lawsuit.
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