Dallas, Ore. – A mom & daughter duo who operated an illegal unregistered equestrian business in Oregon were convicted after pleading guilty to three felony counts and one misdemeanor count of animal neglect. The plea was part of a deal struck with prosecutors after being indicted by a Polk County grand jury of 14 felony counts of animal neglect, charges which were originally started as misdemeanors.
NW Horse Report’s exclusive coverage from the Friday plea and sentence hearing, as it did not appear any other reporters or media outlets were present.
The indictment against Sandra Brownell, 60, and Jessica Brownell, 29, came after authorities raided the property on August 30th, 2022. The situation was reportedly so bad for several horses that a veterinarian was immediately called.
The veterinarian, later identified in court documents as Dr. Chris Wickliffe, a renowned local veterinarian who owns Cascadia Equine Veterinary Clinic near Linn-Benton Community Collage, ultimately determined that several horses needed to be euthanized on-site.
Around this time, the Brownell’s had apparently been in the middle of a summer “kids horse camp”, as detailed in our original reporting back in September. Multiple sources had also alleged the Brownell’s business to have engaged illegal and “under the table” work, as well as volunteers, including minors. Others said the kids camp itself was a means to not only generate revenue, but have young children cleaning stalls and doing other “barn chores”.
Since the business was not registered, it was likely unable to file and pay any payroll taxes, did not have workers’ compensation coverage, and did not have the required certificates from the State to employ minors 14-17. It is generally illegal for a for-profit business to have unpaid “volunteers”.
The case resulted in the Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton calling in Deputy District Attorney Jacob Kamins, who serves as the State’s Special Animal Cruelty Prosecutor.
When asked by the judge as to their plea on each of the four counts, both Jessica and Sandra Brownell responded in a quiet and low tone, “Guilty”.
Both Brownell’s pleaded guilty to the following charges; 2 counts of felony animal neglect in the first degree, 1 count of felony animal neglect in the second degree, and 1 count of misdemeanor animal neglect in the second degree. Per the agreement with the State, the judge dismissed the 10 other counts.
During sentencing, Kamins detailed to Polk County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Park much of the conditions many of the horses and other animals were found in– details which brought some in the courtrooms galley in tears. Kamins also asked the Judge to allow Joy Laudahl, Co-Founder of Harmony New Beginnings Animal Rescue, the 501(c)(3) organization which was called in by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to assist with the seizure of horses, to detail the care and treatment the horses needed.
The Brownell’s attorney lightly objected to Laudahl making a statement, saying “In the interests of time, kind of– I don’t know that there’s a provision– I know the victim has a right to speak, [but] I don’t know a caretaker of animals has the right or that we need to go into this.”
The Judge ultimately disagreed and allowed Laudahl to detail her organizations experience in caring for the animals, “The law very clearly designates animals as victims… I think it is appropriate to hear briefly from their caretaker.” said Judge Park.
Laudahl went on to expand on the horrific conditions she and her team witnessed with the horses at the Brownell’s property, both on-site and during examinations after the animals were removed.
“These horses had so much filth in their feet that the feet were actually rotting underneath.” said Laudahl.
Laudahl also explained how four of the rescued horses required the use of a “sawzall” in order to “get their feet back into shape.”
Kamins had also detailed that the Brownell’s negligence in caring for the animals was all part of an illegal business that had operating for years, including after nearly being brought up on charges in 2017.
“Fast forward to 2022, and the Brownell’s are running a business, an unlicensed business called Salt Creek Equestrian, which is designated in advertising materials as a horse day camp, promising parents quote ‘a unique day camp to fit your scheduled and enrich your child’s love of horses.’ ” Kamins said when addressing Park.
Both Sandra and Jessica Brownell declined to give any statement, although their attorney did speak on their behalf by explaining that his clients got “in over their heads.”
“These are neglect charges– these are neglect convictions–they got underwater, they got in over their heads, they got too many animals and they couldn’t keep up with it.” said their attorney.
“This is not an intentional thing. These are not people that intended to hurt animals or to hurt anyone else.”
Their attorney then went on to explain that his clients did not want to speak prior to sentencing, “I have spoken with both of the Brownell’s and they don’t want to make a statement at this time, but we have discussed the statement that we could make, which is and [sic] that there was no intentional harming of animals or anything like that going on here, and sometimes people just get in over their heads.”
Judge issues Sentence
After confirming directly with the Brownell’s that they did not wish to make a personal statement before sentencing, Judge Park explained that it was one of the more serious cases he had ever seen, “I have to say, I’ve seen a number of these cases over the years– I practiced criminal law for almost 20 years– what has been described to me is one of the more egregious, at least the worse case that I’ve come across.”
Judge Park went on saying, “While I certainly understand [the Brownell’s attorney’s] point about how somebody can get in over their heads very easily, but [sic] what has been described to me I think goes way past the ‘in over the head’, and goes into more of a willful negligence.”
“[It] seems clear that you ladies would have known something was amiss, and these animals needed more than you could give… that’s the real tragedy.” said Judge Park.
The Judge’s sentence for the most part followed the terms of the plea deal, with some deviation. Ultimately, the sentence for each defendant included 36-months of probation; prohibition of possessing any domestic animals or any animals of the genus equine for 15 years, or pigs for 5 years; 150-hours of community service, allow law enforcement to conduct property searches, completion of mental health treatment, and monthly restitution payments.
Restitution is expected to get into tens of thousands of dollars, but the final amount and monthly payment requirement is being left open for 60-days for the State to provide a final figure to the court to rule on. Kamin’s told the court that the costs of veterinary and ongoing care for the animals had exceeded $25,000 in just the first month and a half, and that costs continue to increase at the present time.
Should both parties comply with the required probation terms over the next 36-months, including completion of the mental health program, they are permitted to motion the court for a reduction to no less than 5-years instead of 15-years on the limitation. It appeared such a decision would entirely be up to the courts discretion.
The biggest deviation in the sentencing was the judge not ordering the recommended suspended jail sentences which would have totaled a maximum of 90-days, effectively allowing the court the ability order far more jail time in the event the Brownell’s do not comply with the terms of their sentence.
The judge also ordered that neither Brownell were permitted to “run or operate any business, either licensed or unlicensed, during the period of probation involving animals.”, meaning 15-years.
Due to alleged health issues involving her husband, Sandra Brownell was separately permitted to assist in the care of several dogs and cats belonging to her husband. In the event of her husbands passing or move to any home or facility that did not permit animals, Sandra Brownell would be required to surrender the animals within 30-days. She is also permitted to assist other family on her property with the care of 7 cows that are intended for future “subsistence”.
Following the sentencing, Laudahl spoke with NW Horse Report, appearing relieved by the sentence handed down. Many rescue operators have been all too familiar with light sentences that are often pleaded to misdemeanors and result in defendants promptly reoffending.
“There were cats stacked in feces filled crates with no food and water. Two big drafts were put in a stall together as they could not be separated. I truly believe they never had enough room to lay down. The three minis we took out needed hoof care and feed.” said Laudahl in a statement to NW Horse Report following the hearing.
Laudahl also had high praise for all those who helped with the rescue, as well as the ongoing care since September. This included the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, in particular animal services deputy Jodi Whiting, as well as veterinarians and staff from Cascadia Equine, staff from Stormy Ranch, Oregon Farrier School, and countless others.
Kamins expressed much of the same appreciation, in particular to Deputy Whiting.
“The seizure was a significant operation… so a huge thanks to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, especially Deputy Whiting, and other deputies there.” said Kamins, going on to also thank several others.
“Thanks to the DA’s office here for letting me handle this case… and obviously to [Laudahl] and Harmony New Beginnings and everyone who works with her, as well as Dr. Wickliffe and his team.”
Photos obtained by NW Horse Report also showed repeated issues of significantly overgrown hooves, a situation that was further upsetting to those familiar with the Brownell’s who said that Sandra Brownell’s own son, James “JD” Brownell, is a local farrier.
However, NW Horse Report previously uncovered that his business, BF Farrier Services, was and remains unregistered with the State. Online pages for all of the businesses associated with the Brownell’s are no longer available. Photos from the since deleted Salt Creek Equestrian Facebook page appeared to show James Brownell assisting with the horse camps.
Several individuals who have been following the case against the Brownell’s attended the plea and sentencing hearing. While it did not immediately involve jail time as some said they hopped for, many were still pleased with the result, in particular the State obtaining guilty pleas on multiple felony charges and not just misdemeanors.
When asked about his overall feelings following the Brownell’s sentencing, Kamins told NW Horse Report, “I feel mixed emotions, I’m really glad that the horses that were able to be seized and rehomed had that opportunity and I’m thrilled that this business and any business of its type run by either Jessica or Sandra Brownell will not be recurring.”
The Brownell’s and their attorney exited the courtroom with haste following the conclusion of the sentencing without appearing to have any interest in commenting. A call placed to their attorney offering comment was not returned prior to press time, although this was expected after the Brownell’s choose not to make a statement during the hearing.
Laudahl, like several sources that went public in recent months, expressed disdain for others around the Brownell’s who had also witnessed the neglect over a long period of time and said nothing. Others detailed that the Brownell’s would often try to hide the emaciated horses from their customers, as well as engaged in a regular campaign of “intimidation” against those who implied reporting them to authorities.
“The fact that so many horses died before this seizure, all this abuse was done in front of kids at their day camp and it was all lack of basic care makes me sick.” Laudahl said, “So many people saw the suffering and never said any thing. People helped the Brownell’s continue to abuse animals by never saying anything. People need to always speak up for children and animals that have no voice.”
The Brownell’s are due back in court later this year for an update with the judge as part of their bench probation.
Harmony New Beginnings has played a crucial role in supporting law enforcement with animal neglect cases throughout the mid-Willamette Valley for years, having also received the 2021 Rescue Entity of the Year Award from the Oregon Animal Control Council. The organization had also assisted a young equestrian and her family in late 2021, one of NW Horse Report’s most read stories, which detailed the family’s efforts for the return of their horse after an Oregon horse trader falsely told police it died and tried to launder title of the horse.
The horse trader, Geneva Boston, along with several friends and associates, then engaged in a campaign boldly denying the allegations, going so far as claiming documented police reports and statements confirmed by a Sheriff’s office spokesman were made up. This included unsupported claims and other attacks on social media against the horse’s owner and her family, NW Horse Report, and Harmony New Beginnings; including alleging the claims were “defamation”.
Laudahl confirmed there is still a big need for ongoing care of several horses rescued from the Brownells. If you’re interested in supporting the non-profit’s ongoing efforts or donating you can learn more by visiting their website at https://www.hnbar.org.
This story was updated at 2:02pm on 1/8/2022 to include details concerning restitution in the sentencing.