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Grace Foundation files lawsuit against banks over Susanville horses

By: Laura Newell, Telegraph staff writer
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FOLSOM CA - A question of responsibility is at the core of the case of more than 50 neglected horses, their rising medical bills and basic cost to keep them fed.

The Grace Foundation of Northern California, based in El Dorado Hills, has taken the fight to court, claiming they were deceived by Wells Fargo and Bank of America when the foundation was entrusted with the care of the horses.

The Grace Foundation took in, nursed and cared for the neglected and abused equine that were removed from a Susanville ranch last year.

According to the foundation officials, the banks that foreclosed on that ranch are not providing money to help care for the neglected animals.

The cost of caring for the horses and their medical costs is more than $50,000 per month, according to the foundation.

Banking officials deny the allegations, saying they are not obligated to help fund the care and feeding of the animals and are not the rightful owners of the horses.

On Monday, July 9, foundation supports protested the situation by taking 15 horses to Folsom’s Wells Fargo and Bank of America branches.

“We brought the horses to give the media and the banks an understanding of what that amount of horses would be like if they were abandoned on their property or placed in their care,” said Beth DeCaprio, The Grace Foundation’s executive director. “We have worked so hard to do the right thing with these horses and help our community. I am so sad that this situation had to come to this.”

A Wells Fargo official took issue with DeCaprio’s statements.

“Ms. DeCaprio’s claims against Wells Fargo are completely without merit," said Julie Campbell, assistant vice president of Corporate Communications for Northern and Central California Region's Wells Fargo Bank. “Wells Fargo has never owned the Whispering Pines property or the horses that formerly resided there, nor were we involved in the horses being transferred to the Grace Foundation.”

According to reports, the horses’ original owner, Dwight Bennett of Whispering Pines ranch, has been charged with 70 counts of animal cruelty and is currently awaiting trial. He denies all allegations.

Bennett was arrested Oct. 25 and was initially charged with 30 count of animal cruelty. He was later released from custody.

In May, 20 horses were rescued from the Susanville property and 36 more were taken into protective custody in August. Since then, Grace has been responsible for their health and well-being.

The horses were stunted from a lack of nutrients after not being fed or watered for some time, according to authorities.

Bennett reportedly lost his home and was no longer financially capable of caring for the horses that were left to die. He has since filed for bankruptcy, according to reports.

According to DeCaprio, the banks illegally gave the horses to their organization so they do not have legal ownership of any of the horses.

Now, because the Grace Foundation does not own the horses, they can not legally adopt any of the horses out, DeCaprio said.

“We do not have the money to continue to provide the overwhelming cost of the horses care without assistance, yet no one will help us,” she said. “No one has offered a solution on what we can do to continue to care for them, but we would face criminal charges if we did not provide the horses with the care they require.”

Again, Campbell said DeCaprio took possession of the horses from Lassen County, not a bank.

“In fact, in a Lassen County legal document signed by Ms. DeCaprio herself, the Grace Foundation took possession of the horses directly from Lassen County. Despite having no legal obligation to do so, we have provided past grants of more than $20,000 to support the Grace Foundation’s operations,” Campbell said. “We also recently joined with Bank of America to offer $400,000 in additional grants, which were surprisingly rejected by Ms. DeCaprio. We care deeply about the welfare of the animals, but we cannot force the Grace Foundation to accept our offer of support, nor can we allow these false allegations to go unchallenged.”

DeCaprio filed a lawsuit seeking damages.

“On Friday, July 6, with no other option available to us, we filed a $20 million lawsuit (including compensatory and punitive damages) against Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Tim Ryan (bank attorney) and Dwight Bennett (previous owner of the horses),” DeCaprio said. “We also began the process of alerting the media to our plight. We are hoping that everyone will join us in our efforts at undoing this injustice.

“I have been hoping and praying that I would wake up from this horrific Susanville nightmare to find that it was all a terrible dream. Sadly, this is not the case,” DeCaprio said. “The depths of the deceit and lies that are at the center of this case have only added to this tragedy. This week I had to face the hard truth that morality does not have any value if it does not appear on their bottom line.”

More than 50 supporters came out to protest Monday.

“The banks are wrong,” said animal advocate Suzi Johnston. “They are screwing the animals again. The Grace Foundation does so many good things for abandoned and hurt animals.”

Grace Foundation volunteer Molly Tobias, of El Dorado Hills, came out with her son to support the protest.

“I believe in what the Grace Foundation is doing and I think that the banks have failed them,” Tobias said.

Melissa White and her husband Nick also came out to protest with DeCaprio.

“We support the foundation because they do great work for these animals,” Melissa said. “Beth has such a big heart and she will take in everything and anything that needs help.”

To learm more about the Grace Foundation, visit thegracefoundation.com.

~ Penne Usher contributed to this report

For photos of the protest, click here.