The investigation inewsource began last month into HiCaliber Horse Rescue involved dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of public records. Some of the material uncovered hasn’t made it into the stories we’ve written but does provide additional insights into how the Valley Center nonprofit operates.
The public documents include details about HiCaliber’s ongoing compliance issues, what happened when the nonprofit brought 94 horses to the Del Mar Fairgrounds during the Lilac fire and claims made by Michelle Knuttila – HiCaliber’s founder – during ongoing investigations by multiple government agencies.
Knuttila stopped responding to inewsource requests for comment after March 5 but did sit down for an in-depth interview a few days before that. She has also addressed inewsource’s findings through videos meant for her “villagers” – or supporters – on HiCaliber’s Facebook page. Those comments are included throughout this story.
Eyeball and organ donations
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles investigated HiCaliber in early January at the request of San Diego County and San Diego Humane Society, which have potential conflicts of interest with HiCaliber’s board of directors and Knuttila. She was previously a county animal control officer and had a work-related disability claim against the county.
Why this matters
Since inewsource began reporting on HiCaliber, the group’s PayPal account has been frozen, and the Attorney General’s Office ordered HiCaliber not to solicit or disburse charitable assets until it submits 2016 financial information to the state.
Knuttila told investigators she dissects horses after they’re euthanized to donate organs. She said the University of California Davis “takes eyes” to study an eye disease called uveitis, and the San Diego Zoo “takes reproductive organs for a rhino study.”
The zoo confirmed to the county it has received donations from HiCaliber – 27 sets of gonads over the past two years, the majority from castrations.
But a UC Davis official whose name was redacted said it has no record of doing business with HiCaliber.
“I have made direct contact with all eye researchers within the school of veterinary medicine including equine ophthalmology faculty,” an unnamed person at UC Davis wrote to the county on Feb. 18, “and there is no one who has any knowledge or association with receiving eyes from this or any other rescue.”
Sick horses and the Lilac fire
When the Lilac fire erupted in Bonsall on Dec. 7 – burning 4,100 acres and destroying 157 structures over several days – Leah Bjerknes watched the blaze from her back deck. It was windy, she recalled in an interview with inewsource, so she and her husband stayed home to monitor the fire’s spread.
The HiCaliber ranch was less than two miles from Bjerknes’ Escondido home, as the crow flies. She was a volunteer at the nonprofit for about two years and worked on the feeding and farrier teams until this month. She said she received a call the day of the fire from Knuttila, who wanted to know what Bjerknes thought of the threat.
“I said there is no way this is going to turn back to the ranch at the moment, with the amount of wind and the direction the wind is going,” Bjerknes said. She told Knuttila she wasn’t evacuating but would call her if the fire shifted.
“Thirty minutes later, she evacuated the horses,” Bjerknes said.
During the fire, the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds served as an evacuation site for livestock and eventually housed around 850 horses. Julie Morton, who volunteered at HiCaliber for nearly a year before stopping this month, told inewsource she drove down to Del Mar from her home in Wildomar at 1 a.m. to care for the horses that first night.
Morton said she walked into an overwhelming situation – more than 80 HiCaliber horses gathered in an arena with “a lot of commotion going on” – and one additional HiCaliber volunteer there to help.
The horses stayed at Del Mar for eight days. According to emails the fairgrounds provided to inewsource, HiCaliber was “taking truck loads of donations” from the facility, in addition to Knuttila fundraising for her nonprofit through Facebook and other online means.
Laura Ward, deputy director for San Diego County’s Department of Animal Services, requested Del Mar staff – or security – stop HiCaliber from taking any more donated goods.
“This group is very untrustworthy,” wrote fairgrounds official George Bradvica to others at the fairgrounds.
Knuttila told inewsource earlier this month she knows “nothing of this.”
“No one ever spoke to me, and never once did we take any of their goods,” she said. “Can I just go back and say if we were taking donations, wasn’t that the point? I’m not saying we were, but if we were taking donations, wasn’t that the point of them being donated, was for the horses there to use?”
As detailed in an earlier story, a group of HiCaliber volunteers told inewsource an active outbreak of a highly contagious horse disease called strangles has engulfed the ranch over the past several months. The volunteers shared veterinary and quarantine records, photos and first-hand accounts. Knuttila denies an outbreak but said the disease has popped up at the ranch.
Talbot, HiCaliber’s veterinarian, sent a letter to fairgrounds officials on Dec. 8 stating he was “not aware of any medical problems in the group that would require quarantine.”
Morton said people who dislike HiCaliber may have called the fairgrounds and said the group was bringing contagious horses onto the property. To her knowledge, none of the horses were sick.
“But I’m not a veterinarian,” she said.
According to a Del Mar official, the organization has had “no reports from other equestrian owners of any horse illnesses after the evacuations.”
Knuttila and Morton said HiCaliber’s sick or quarantined horses were left at the Valley Center ranch.
Horse rescues and traffic problems
When HiCaliber decided to evacuate dozens of horses during the Lilac fire, residents called authorities with concerns about the traffic problems it caused. That triggered the Valley Center Fire Protection District to later look into how prepared HiCaliber is should a blaze break out closer to the nonprofit’s property, Deputy Fire Marshal Jim Davidson said.
“We have done general business inspections, but we were not aware of the large number of horses that they had,” Davidson told inewsource. There were 183 horses at the Valley Center ranch as of Feb. 22, according to a feeding schedule verified by several volunteers.
HiCaliber’s ranch is in a fire-prone area of the county. Davidson shared concerns about several issues at the ranch and determined actions are needed to address them.
They include a fire protection plan and removing combustible material – including more than 1,000 cubic yards of manure.
“Our primary concerns with HiCaliber are the access in and out of the property, particularly if they would be trying to evacuate horses. That’s number one,” Davidson said.
HiCaliber’s plans for fire protection and removing manure are due by the end of March, he said.
“They haven’t made a lot of progress, but they’ve been very cooperative and pleasant to work with,” Davidson said.
He added that the nonprofit needs to remove combustible construction debris and clean up around the property lines by the end of April. Fire authorities want the work done before the onset of fire season, which often starts in May or June.
If HiCaliber does not comply, Davidson said, the fire district “can impose fines, and in extreme cases, we can impose forced abatement.”
“But we try very, very hard to avoid having to do that,” he said.
HiCaliber is in the process of obtaining an administrative permit to house up to 100 horses on its property, but the total number of horses currently on site is hard to pin down.
Knuttila told investigators with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles in January that 164 horses were on the property, but there are “like 190-something” in “the program.” The Feb. 22 feed sheet showed 183 horses with 59 in quarantine scattered throughout the property.
Volunteers told inewsource Knuttila also hides horses off-site to temporarily decrease the numbers.
“They asked me if they could bring horses to my property temporarily because the (ranch’s) owner was coming,” former HiCaliber volunteer Bjerknes told inewsource, because “they’re only supposed to have a specific amount of horses on the property.” Without an administrative permit, HiCaliber is allowed to have up to three horses on the property – as long as they’re not owned by the property owner and used only for boarding or riding lessons.
The county has observed that HiCaliber is “not taking steps to reduce the number of animals,” according to a Feb. 26 email inewsource obtained. A county spokesman said HiCaliber “stated they plan to move forward with their Administrative Permit by the end of April” and “indicated the reason for the current delay is because the Attorney General has frozen their account and they are unable to spend any money at this time.”
In a Feb. 17 Facebook video, Knuttila said she may be forced to euthanize a large number of horses to comply with the county permit process. Officials at four nonprofit horse rescues in San Diego and Riverside counties have offered to take HiCaliber’s horses, but Knuttila has denied their requests.
When inewsource asked her about her Facebook statement, she said it was a moment when she had “hit rock bottom.”
“I was scared, I was panicked. … I didn’t really think that anybody comprehended what I was facing in that I have to pull the trigger and kill my friends if I don’t find a way to do this,” Knuttila said. “And I had to make that real and tangible. I had to make that fear understandable to our village and to our volunteers.”
More in the series…
We’ll let you know when big things happen.