There’s a mystery unfolding in south central Pennsylvania: Who killed Joseph Meyer’s horses?
The trail riding and lesson stable owner has no dearth of enemies, or trouble. His neighbors admit in public hearings to calling him “a habitual liar,” a “creep,” “delusional” and an “arrogant carpetbagger.” His attempt to continue operating and expand Allimax Farm resulted in a contentious, protracted 10 month zoning battle with West Hempfield Township. Local horse owners reported him to PETA and actively tried to shut his stable down. Protestors in 2010 demonstrated outside the farm after a horse named Beauty died there. He was charged with two counts of cruelty to animals after he failed to obtain veterinary help for a second horse, Dusty, whose bacterial infection he treated himself over the course of about two weeks. The mare was seized and euthanized. Meyer was cleared the following year when Lancaster County Judge Harold Kneisley ruled that he acted slowly to treat the mare but without malice or cruelty.
On March 21, 2013, Meyer, a former history teacher, called 911 to report that eight horses at a farm he rents in Lower Windsor Township, York County, had died. The next day a pony at Allimax Farm in West Hempfield Township, Lancaster County died. All suffocated, foam billowing from their labored nostrils. None of them was insured.
Meyer on March 26 sent this email to Pennsylvania Equestrian: “For the past three years, animal rights activists have been out to destroy me. Trespass, vandalism, defamation, and using public agencies for harassment has gone unpunished, and now they have escalated to poisoning horses. This week, my herd of 43 horses was poisoned. Ten died, four of them were pregnant mares, due late this spring. My family was threatened, and is now in hiding. I will take care of all my obligations. Communications can be done by email, I will answer when and if I can.”
In a YouTube video posted on his website March 29, Meyer said, "Someone killed nine of my best and most beloved horses. This has ruined my business and I had to close it down after 14 years of 20 percent growth per year. In addition, my family was threatened and we had to go to a safe place." He asked for PayPal donations to support the remaining horses.
In a second YouTube video posted days later, Meyers said that for four years animal rights activists had been ganging up on his stable because they don’t believe horses should be used commercially. The day the York County horses died, he said he had fed, gone for hay, and returned around 1 pm to find a mini dead and a Morgan mare depressed and foaming from the nostrils. Four minis, all in one paddock, died. Four of eight horses in another paddock died, along with a Welsh pony foal, he said.
The Lancaster County poisonings were less potent, he continued, and while six horses fell ill only the pony died. The perpetrator poisoned the horses he uses the most, and therefore had to know him, he said.
A third YouTube video showed one of the affected ponies with foam billowing from its nostrils.
Police in West Hempfield Township and Lower Windsor Township are investigating, as is the Large Animal Protection Society (LAPS) and the York SPCA. Lancaster County no longer has a humane officer associated with its Humane League.
West Hempfield Township’s investigating officer Sergeant Tim Coyle said April 19, “LAPS is taking the lead, we are documenting what’s going on. We generally let the agencies handle these investigations because that’s their specialty.” Citing the ongoing investigation, Douglass Newbold of LAPS would not comment on the case.
Coyle said Meyer was not unknown to the local police. “His neighbors didn’t like him so much. The main dealing was over zoning issues, traffic and parking. The neighbors would complain and they’d call us to get involved.
“It seemed like he always just did enough” to stay on the legal side of animal welfare laws, Coyle said. “He danced a fine line, not illegal but just enough.” He said he was unaware of any financial issues. “I think he had a goldmine there.” Coyle said the owner of the pony that died wants the stable shut down and is cooperating with police. “There’s nothing that can be done about her animal,” Coyle said, “she just wants him out of business.” He also said he understood Meyer is currently in Kentucky.
In an email April 19, Meyer said, “Necropsies were done on two horses. Both pointed to the effects of poison. Tissue, fecal, and blood samples were tested, and common poisons were ruled out. The horses died of poison, but we don't know yet what poison. Testing is expensive, and no one wants to pay for the extensive testing required. The state lab at Harrisburg is holding samples in case someone chooses to pay the money.”
A call to the Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory confirmed that the horses had been examined by Dr. Laura Boger, a pathologist, who said she was not able to comment.
This was not the first time Meyer complained that his horses had been poisoned. In May, 2012, newspaper reports said that he claimed animal activists deliberately sickened some of his horses by placing in pastures “a mixture of chopped apples, brown sugar and poison.” His April 19 email referred to that incident: “This is the second time my horses were poisoned, but the poison is different and more deadly this time. No investigations were done then, and time will tell about this one.”
One substance capable of causing the symptoms and death is monensin, which is used extensively in the beef and dairy industries to prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract. According to Wikipedia, “Monensin has some degree of activity on mammalian cells and thus toxicity is common. This is especially pronounced in horses, where monensin has an LD50 1/100th that of ruminants. Accidental poisoning of equines with monensin is a well-documented occurrence.” Accidental poisoning can occur when feed plants that mix feed for a variety of livestock switch from cattle or goat feed to horse feed. Or, horses could maliciously be fed cattle or goat feed.
According to the York Daily Record, officers from Lower Windsor Township and the York SPCA forcibly entered and searched Meyer’s home the first week of April. The article said Meyer had contacted humane officer Nicole Boyer, and arranged to meet her at the farm March 24 to give her a sample of the grain he had found the day his horses became ill. Meyer did not make the meeting. He sent an email to the York Daily Record that police had kicked in his door on April 3 and searched the house. “We were looking for the feed sample,” documentation of his care for the remaining horses, and a timeline of the horses’ health that he had offered, Melissa Smith, Executive Director of the York County SPCA, said in the article.
In his April 19 email, Meyer said, “The York SPCA with their bias against the animal owners, searched my house, barn and seized all my financial records, over three filing cabinets full, including all my personal family records, kids school records, diplomas, and legal files. They also took samples of feed and hay. They also seized one horse, a two year old that had lost weight over winter, and was in a stall getting special care, alleging ‘possible abuse.’”
Meyer said in the email that the grain samples were in the possession of his attorney.
“Yes we did, we took them all,” said Lower Windsor Township Police Chief Tim Caldwell. “The search warrant was filed by the York County SPCA. We were there because it is in our jurisdiction. We did not go through the files – the SPCA did that. The goal was to find out what’s going on. We were contacted by Mr. Meyer’s attorney and serious charges were leveled, that PETA had done this because of the way he bred horses. What’s going on? Why is he no longer available? Why is he in hiding? We are trying to obtain information and he is not cooperating. We are not taking a complaint over YouTube or by email. If you don’t have the decency to sit down face to face, what is that? I can promise Mr. Meyer that he’s welcome to come here, that he can feel safe in the police department. He can be sure no harm will come to him here.
“As I understand, horses began dying around noon on Thursday the 21st. We received a phone call from Meyer around 7 am Friday. He identified PETA as the organization that he thought was killing the horses by poisoning them with a heavy metal. Then he fell off the face of the earth. For two weeks there was no word. He never physically came to the station. There was no complaint filed as to the physical threats he needed to hide from, no evidence, no facts regarding PETA.
“There are a number of horse farms close to his,” Chief Caldwell continued, “and there have been no complaints from anyone else. There must be 15 horses within a mile, some right across the street. He is the only one reporting dead animals.
“We will continue to work with the SPCA and York County district attorney to pursue this but it would be helpful if he came and talked to us. He has said he does not like working with the SPCA but he doesn’t get to make that decision. The SPCA takes this seriously. If an organization is hurting people’s livestock we want to get them stopped.”
Jennifer Manderscheid, Humane Officer for LAPS, related in an email April 12 that a pony remaining on the Lancaster County farm “looked great and there were no violations. The Meyers are dealing with auctioneers right now to sell the equipment that is on the farm, since they owe back-rent for the farm and need to pay so that they are not evicted before the horses are re-homed. Rebekah (Meyers’ daughter, who remained to care for the horses at both farms) also mentioned that they could sell the horses through these auctioneers, but LAPS had already offered her help to re-home most, if not all of the horses, so that we know where they are going. I think they are looking to sell the younger and better conditioned trail horses to help with outstanding bills, but to re-home the older ones at no charge.”
An auction of the farm’s equipment has been scheduled for May 1 at 3 pm at the farm outside Columbia, PA.
The horses fell ill just one week after Meyer appealed the February zoning decision which denied him permission to expand his business to house 110 horses on the 113 acre farm near Columbia, up from the 17 currently permitted, and which cited him for exceeding the number of horses allowed.
The zoning board had denied his request to continue indoor riding and lesson activities after dusk, in part because the building being used for an indoor arena had not been approved for that use. The township said it had the right to limit the number of horses because Meyer rented and did not own the farm, and because the operation was a commercial accessory use secondary to the primary use of the farm. A citation for conducting activities such as hay rides and barbeques was vacated, and Meyer received permission to create 30 additional parking spaces along a building.
Meyer had petitioned the township to allow him to conduct what he called “agri-edu-tainment”—combining agriculture with education and entertainment. He sought special exceptions to allow horse shows and other public activities along with expanding the number of horses to 110.
That petition was rendered moot by the closing of Allimax Farm. In an email, Meyer said, “My business is over, I am homeless, penniless, and lost everything. I have been selling assets to pay for horse feed, but everything will be sold on May 1 to pay my creditors (feed mill, repair bills from over winter, utility bills, rents, etc.) For the past month, the bills keep coming, and no money is coming in. Whoever did this knew my business, and knew that I was stretched to the limit by spring, and the week they did this was the first week of spring break, and I was booked full.
“Eleven horses have died. I lost my entire breeding herd of Morgans that I acquired from Texas 10 years ago. Of those, three were pregnant. One of the mini mares was also pregnant. None of the horses were insured. I lost over $150,000 value in one week.
“This destroyed me. I ask, where is justice? I have been hounded by a group who wants me destroyed, and the authorities have not helped me at all. I believe that this incident is just one more attempt by radicals to close down all commercial animal use. I was the biggest trail operation in SE Pa, and an easy target.”
In yet another YouTube video posted April 5, Meyer’s neighbor Kevin Mullen called him a “master wordsmith….who runs roughshod over local township ordinances.” Mullen said Meyer in 2008 told the township his business would have little impact on the neighborhood. Instead, as the business grew, “his customers started knocking on our door, parking on our property, taking photos of our animals, sitting at our picnic table, walking into our house and sitting on our furniture.” A sign for the horse activities “pointed directly at our house. When we complained there was no response, no apology and no attempt to correct the situation. We called the township and the landlord, Don Hess, who immediately came over and took down the sign. All that was needed was to ask in the customer orientation, did you park in the right place?”
Mullen also described horses getting loose on numerous occasions, and neighbors who complained being told not to live next to a horse farm and to go to hell. He said manure was piled into huge piles and only removed once or twice a year, creating a fly problem.
“I’m not anti-horse,” Mullen, who says he grew up on a horse farm, said. “I’m not against the commercial use of horses. I believe in holding a man responsible for what he’s required to do.”
York SPCA Weighs In
Melissa Smith of the York County SPCA said that the cause of death is still undetermined and that they were still working out who the results would be shared with. “Our goal is to determine how the horses died, if from poisoning as the owner says, and if they were poisoned, was it intentional or accidental.” When told that Meyer’s attorney had the grain samples, she said they would be interested in that. She said the YCSPCA had executed three search warrants – the first when files were taken, the second when the horse, which is now under veterinary care, was taken, and the third to look for additional evidence from the property.
“We still don’t even know how many horses died. Some were rendered, others were moved from property to property. Mr. Meyer is speculating that animal rights activists caused the deaths. I think it’s highly unlikely they’d poison the animals they want to protect. We do have a couple other leads we are following up on.” She would not comment on whether Meyer is a suspect.
“It’s a huge source of frustration that he won’t talk to us. As a victim you’d expect your first course of action would be to help law enforcement and that has not happened. It just gets weirder and weirder,” she said.