May 8, 2013 Updated: May 8, 2013 at 5:40 pm
After months of false starts, state authorities have opened a formal criminal investigation into Tom Davis, a southern Colorado wild horse buyer who admitted to breaking state laws while shipping hundreds of federally protected wild horses to an unknown fate out of state.
Last week, the Conejos County Sheriff's Office opened the investigation at the request of state brand commissioner Chris Whitney, who said Davis, of La Jara, admitted to the commissioner that he broke brand laws.
A ProPublica report published in The Gazette in September detailed how Davis, a proponent of horse slaughter, purchased truckloads of protected wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management. Davis said he then shipped the horses to what he called 'good homes ' all over the country. None of the horses has been accounted for. Wild horse advocates believe they illegally went to slaughter. Davis denies this.
Colorado law requires a state brand inspection when livestock is sold or shipped more than 75 miles. Brand records show Davis received more than 1,700 horses from the BLM, but shipped only 765. None of the horses is in his possession, meaning almost 1,000 were shipped or sold without an inspection.
Davis admitted as much to ProPublica in 2012, saying he did not want brand inspectors to know where the horses were going. When the reporter suggested that was illegal, Davis replied, 'Since when is anything in this country done legal? '
He could not be reached for comment last week.
Each violation of the brand law is misdemeanor punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
After the ProPublica report, state agencies dithered, unsure how to enforce the law. The brand commissioner thought it was the job of the district attorney in Alamosa. The district attorney said it was not. Nothing happened with the case until a Gazette inquiry in early April.
After being contacted by The Gazette, the district attorney, David Mahonee, referred the case to the Conejos County Sheriff, where it was seemingly forgotten again.
'We don't have any open investigations, ' Undersheriff Chris Crown said in late April. 'If Davis didn't get a brand inspection then you need to need to speak to the brand inspector. '
Brand Commissioner Whitney, notified by The Gazette that there was no investigation, said last week he called the sheriff's office and the undersheriff assured him he would open an investigation.
The undersheriff could not be reached for comment.
On Wednesday, the district attorney confirmed that the sheriff had opened an investigation. 'I can't say more than that, but I know they are working it, ' Mahonee said.
The federal government is also investigating Davis for allegedly selling wild horses to slaughter in violation of agreements he signed with the Bureau of Land Management.
Repeated calls to the spokesman for the Interior Department's inspector general's office regarding the investigation were not returned.
Contact Dave Philipps