HARRISBURG - A Chester County woman accused of selling thoroughbreds for slaughter after promising to put them up for adoption will avoid prison by agreeing to enter a first-offender program.
Kelsey Lefever, 24, of Honeybrook, abruptly waived her preliminary hearing on four counts of theft by deception Tuesday in a Dauphin County district court. Prosecutors withdrew a fifth charge, that she had engaged in deceptive business practices.
"We agreed under certain conditions that she enter the first-time offenders program," said Francis Chardo, Dauphin County first assistant district attorney. "She will be restricted from activities relating to horses."
Chardo said Lefever would be banned for life from obtaining a Pennsylvania thoroughbred racing license - and thus barred from any racetrack employment, such as horse training.
She also will be forbidden from acquiring any additional horses for the two-year duration of her probation, the terms of which are to be laid out at a future hearing. Lefever's next court date is an arraignment on April 19.
The defendant left with her lawyer after her brief court appearance and climbed into a pickup truck without comment.
News of the charges against Lefever, a fixture on the regional horse-show circuit and a champion rider and trainer, sent shock waves through the equine-welfare community and renewed calls, including from members of Congress, to ban the slaughter of horses in the United States and end the export of horses for slaughter.
There is no prohibition against sale of horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, where they are butchered and sold for human consumption, primarily in France and Japan.
"This is a lawful activity," Chardo said. "The problem is if the horses were obtained under misrepresentation."
Lefever's attorney, J. Michael Sheldon, said Tuesday that "justice has been served" in what he called "an unfortunate case."
"I think it's in the best interest of justice, the commonwealth, and my client," Sheldon said. "Ms. Lefever is concerned about the safety of all horses, and this doesn't diminish her love of horses."
Prosecutors might disagree. In their written criminal complaint against her, investigators said one witness, a horse dealer, had quoted Lefever as saying: "I killed every one of those . . . horses, over 120 of them . . . Every one of them is dead. I don't even know their names and there wasn't a . . . thing [the sellers] could do about it because they gave me those horses."
Lefever was charged last November after a state police investigation found she had sold four retired racehorses to an individual contracted by a slaughter plant in Quebec after having promised the horses' previous owners she would retrain the horses and find them new homes, according to police documents.
One of the owners, Kevin Patterson, told an investigator that he gave his racehorse, a five-year-old thoroughbred named Beau Jaques, to Lefever with the understanding that the horse - which had suffered a career-ending injury - would be rehabilitated and placed for adoption. He also gave her $200 and 10 bags of feed to help care for the horse until it had a permanent home.
Lefever, who promoted herself at racetracks as a horse rescuer, assured Patterson that she never sent horses to slaughter, authorities said. They said Patterson later learned that Beau Jaques had been sold to a "kill buyer" outside the New Holland auction in Lancaster County.
When a woman who was supposed to adopt Beau Jaques told Lefever that Patterson was looking for the horse, Lefever told her, "Those crazy people don't have to look for their horse anymore because he is in a box in a freezer," according to court documents.
On Tuesday, Patterson was in court and ready to testify for the prosecution when word came that Lefever had waived her right to the hearing. He declined comment as he left the courtroom.
Animal welfare advocates said the case shed light on a dark side of the horse racing industry, but they had hoped for stiffer penalties.
"We are glad this person will be banned from engaging in livelihood that she could not carry out without engaging in fraud," said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "But we would have liked to have seen a lifetime ban from horse ownership."