LEXINGTON — Horses are dying from illness and the heat at an overcrowded ranch here that federal prosecutors allege was being run with drug money from a ruthless Mexican cartel.
Eleven horses have died and others have become sick and hurt since FBI agents raided Zule Farms June 12, prosecutors reported to a judge.
Because of the health issues and other concerns, the judge in Texas has agreed to let the federal government sell all of the more than 450 horses linked to the drug cartel. About 380 of the horses are at the Lexington ranch.
“There is good cause to sell these horses sooner rather than later,” U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks wrote in an order filed Thursday in Austin, Texas.
Prosecutors had been pushing the judge for permission to let the Internal Revenue Service sell the horses.
The ranch's owner, Jose Trevino Morales, 45, and his wife, Zulema Trevino, 38, were arrested in the June 12 raid. The couple left their son, Jose Trevino Jr., in charge of the quarter horse ranch.
“It has ... been made clear that the ranch is running on a skeletal crew,” prosecutors told the judge.
Overdue for care
FBI Special Agent Scott Lawson reported that a veterinarian found that many of the horses at the Lexington ranch are overdue for hoof care and in danger of becoming lame.
“The veterinarian has also noted that some of the ... horses have wounds that need care while others suffer from persistent diarrhea,” the agent wrote. “The veterinarian, as well as other industry sources, has reported that there are too many horses on the Oklahoma ranch, given the size of the property.
“Many of the wounds are a result of this overcrowding. Specifically, horses have kicked and bitten other horses due to their close proximity,” the agent wrote. “The veterinarian reported that a number of yearlings had hairless, small lesions on their bodies, likely the result of a fungus.”
A federal grand jury in May indicted 15 people, accusing them of involvement in a money-laundering conspiracy.
In the indictment, the grand jury alleged the powerful Los Zetas drug cartel spent millions of dollars in drug money “to purchase, breed, train and race quarter horses in the United States and Mexico.”
Appeal is possible
The grand jury alleged two Los Zetas leaders sent drug money to their older brother, Jose Trevino, to finance the racehorse operation.
The judge ordered the IRS to “place the net proceeds of the sales into an interest-bearing account pending the outcome of this case.”
The defendants could ask an appeals court to block the judge's order. The judge made his order effective in 20 days to let the defendants have time to appeal “if they so choose.”
The money in the account will be forfeited to the government if there are convictions in the case. The money would be released to the defendants if they are acquitted.
The judge agreed with prosecutors that yearlings specifically need to be sold so they can be trained.
“Some of these horses are rapidly approaching the age at which they must begin their training if they are to realize their full value as racing horses,” the judge wrote. “If these horses cannot be sold in the coming months, the record suggests they will drop precipitously in value.
“Further, because the length of a horse's racing career is obviously limited, the value of the race-ready horses declines with each passing race.”
Prosecutors told the judge that Jose Trevino had at first agreed to the sale but then changed his mind. The judge wrote “nether Trevino's ‘sentimental attachment' to the horses, nor his purported concern about theoretical civil liability,” was sufficient to outweigh the substantial justifications for sale of the horses.
Prosecutors told the judge Monday that four fouls at the Lexington ranch died from a pneumonia outbreak and 35 other foals had been isolated from the herd due to illness. They also told the judge Monday that one mare had died and another mare had to be euthanized.
Four more fouls and another mare died Wednesday and early Thursday morning at the ranch, according to court records. Prosecutors reported a veterinarian concluded the heat in Oklahoma “was likely the main reason for the deaths.”
The judge also agreed to the horse sale to save the government money. Federal authorities took direct control of 49 of the most valuable horses in June, removing 11 from the ranch in Lexington to keep them from being moved to Mexico, court records show. The cost to the government to board those 49 horses already exceeds $500,000.