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CONVICTED: Was justice served?
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Monday, May 1, 2006County: Medina
Defendant/Suspect: Patricia Brooks
It was 2003 when Carol Smith first met Patty Brooks, after Brooks posted an online ad about a horse for sale. Smith and her husband had been in the breeding business for 24 years. Today, they were looking over a new gelding for a friend. They drove down from Litchfield to Lodi to check out the horse. Hiking up their pant legs, they followed Brooks to the back stalls, where Brooks ushered them around her barn like a proud mother. But Brooks' attitude, the Smiths thought, didn't match the state of the horses. "They were standing in literally three feet of manure, with dirty manure caked on them. They hadn't been groomed," Carol Smith says. "We got the idea maybe this lady doesn't know what she's doing."
But Brooks beguiled them with her wronged-woman demeanor and stories of financial hardship. She didn't have many friends, she said, and almost no family. So the Smiths decided to tuck Brooks under their loving arms. Their teenage daughter, Kristen, began helping with the stalls, and Smith tried to talk finance and auctions. "Patty really did have some good breeds and bloodlines," Smith says.
But the Smiths quickly discovered what others had learned years before: Brooks was a hoarder. They watched helplessly as Brooks refused to sell horse after horse - even when one father offered to pay more than $3,000 for a horse for his daughter's graduation. And when Carol and her husband offered to sell a few horses at a reputable auction in Wooster, Brooks kept putting them off. "It was such a shame," Carol says. "The horses she had really could have been something. She just kept too damn many." To the Smiths, it was all so confusing. As much as Brooks clung to her horses, talking about how she loved them, she was equally lax in her care of them. She'd disappear for days, belatedly asking Carol to "check in on them." Once, Carol came over to find one of the mares giving birth and suffering from complications. If Smith hadn't been there, the horse would have died. When Carol tried talking to Brooks, she lashed out at her. And Kristen began to feel that no matter how hard she worked, things would never get clean and never run smoothly. So in April, mom and daughter decided they were done with Brooks. And they were - until that frantic phone call last May.
On the morning of May 23, hours after Carol Smith called in her complaint against Brooks, a team of police officers, animal investigators, volunteers, and veterinarians pulled up to Brooks' Lodi farm. Her face etched with permanent worry lines and her hair a soft gray, Brooks peeked her head out the door. "My animals are fine," she said, belligerently. "You don't need to be here." While officers detained Brooks at the front of the barn, Blake and her crew headed back to the pasture. Blake felt an unnerving sense of déjà vu.
Brooks' 45 horses were in predictably bad shape. Their coats were mangy and ratty, their hooves overgrown and sprouting fungus. Most were underweight, their spines showing through the skin like the keys of a xylophone. A few had open lacerations and burns. In the stalls, manure was piled high, and the bottom of the gates wouldn't open.
Veterinarian Michael Geiger knelt down beside a small, chocolate-colored mare and her young foal. Their coats were soiled; patches of hair were missing from their hindquarters. The baby's legs were so weak, they kept collapsing underneath him. "This foal might not make it through the night," Geiger told Blake. He gathered the horse, cradling it under his arms.
But as bad as the barn's conditions were, things in the pasture were worse. Grabbing a shovel, Blake and volunteers plowed into a raised mound of earth, digging until their shovels hit something hard: bone. As they kept digging, they discovered the gray, disintegrating carcasses of one large horse and several foals. It was just as Smith had feared. By the end of that day, Blake confiscated 28 of Brooks' worst-looking horses, shuffling them out to foster homes around Medina County. When Lady Bones, a particularly emaciated horse, arrived at Cathy Denman's house, Denman nearly cried. "Her eyes looked empty - like she'd given up," she says. "She was probably three to five days from death." Denman stayed up all night with the horse, bringing a sleeping bag into the barn and feeding the horse milk from a bottle. "I don't care what [Patty] says," Denman mutters. "No one who claims to have any affection for their animals could ever let their horses get like this."
At Brooks' October trial in Wadsworth Municipal Court, the horse breeder sat defiantly in the chair beside her public defender, her mouth set in a firm, emotionless line. There was no reason, her face said, for her presence at court. No reason for these 20 counts of animal cruelty. No reason for this band of animal activists to sit in the aisles, hissing at her. "All there was were three horses that were thin - two were Thoroughbreds, and they're supposed to be thin," Brooks would later tell Scene. "One needed dental, and I knew that." At trial, Brooks testified that the problem lay not with her, but with the slumping economy. "When gas prices go up, people don't want the luxury of a horse," Brooks said. She claimed she was trying her best. She'd found a potential buyer for 11 of the horses.
But Judge Stephen McIlvaine didn't buy it. After the two-day trial, he sentenced her to 60 days in jail and banned her from possessing animals of any sort.
A week later, Penny Blake arrived at Brooks' home to confiscate the rest of the horses. Brooks, out of prison while awaiting her appeal, hurled curses at the investigator. "I hope those fuckers go broke," Brooks later told Scene. "Some of those horses have been with me for 10 years. It feels like my family has been taken away." The SPCA, she contends, is the real criminal. "My horses were worth 75,000, 80,000 dollars," she says. They went "shopping in my backyard - that's what they did."
Blake silently piled the horses into their trailers anyway, hoping never to hear the name "Patty Brooks" again. In the months since, her agency has fallen $22,000 into debt while trying to care for Brooks' horses, she says - and learned an expensive lesson along the way. "I've always believed that people learn from their mistakes, and I still naively want to think that," she says. "But unfortunately, it appears that's not always the case."
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