About the HiCaliber investigation

An inewsource investigation of HiCaliber Horse Rescue that began in February 2018 has uncovered allegations of fraud, animal cruelty and improper veterinary practices at the Valley Center nonprofit. Multiple state and local government agencies also have been involved in investigating HiCaliber, including the California Veterinary Medical Board and state Attorney General’s Office.

Senior inewsource reporter Brad Racino has interviewed dozens of people and reviewed hundreds of pages of public records as part of this ongoing investigation.

Below is all of our coverage of HiCaliber.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue ensnared in allegations of animal cruelty, fraud

 February 28, 2018

Horse enthusiasts from across the country are accusing HiCaliber Horse Rescue, a Valley Center nonprofit, of animal cruelty and fraud based on first-hand accounts and the organization’s social media posts. Local and state authorities are looking into the allegations.

The woman who runs the nonprofit, Michelle Knuttila, is a proud, tough-talking and foul-mouthed former animal control officer who describes herself as “a smart business woman” who has “built an empire.” She denies any wrongdoing and told inewsource on Tuesday her critics “have turned this into a witch hunt.”

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Strong reaction to inewsource report on HiCaliber Horse Rescue

March 3, 2018

After inewsource broke the story Wednesday about HiCaliber Horse Rescue facing allegations of animal cruelty and fraud, we were flooded with emails, phone calls and online messages from supporters and critics of the Valley Center nonprofit.

Web traffic on the story shows it has reached readers in all 50 states and more than 40 countries.

We are continuing to pursue multiple angles on this story and toured the HiCaliber ranch on Friday with its founder, Michelle Knuttila. She defends her business model and contends she uses the legal practice of euthanizing rescued horses by gunshot only when a horse is suffering and beyond treatment.

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Eyeballs, Del Mar and manure: More on HiCaliber Horse Rescue

March 22, 2018

A horse peeks outside its stable at the HiCaliber Horse Rescue in Valley Center on March 2, 2018. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

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.

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Attorney General’s Office halts HiCaliber’s fundraising, spending for failing to file tax docs

March 5, 2018

HiCaliber Horse Rescue, a Valley Center nonprofit embroiled in allegations of fraud and animal abuse, can no longer raise or spend money until it submits proper financial disclosures to the state.

The California Attorney General’s Office sent HiCaliber a letter Friday stating the nonprofit is considered “delinquent” for failing to submit federal and state tax forms for 2016. Both account for revenue and assets, and allow the state Justice Department to ensure donations are not “misapplied and squandered through fraud or other means.”

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Former HiCaliber board members distance themselves from horse rescue’s financials

March 5, 2018

Two former board members of HiCaliber Horse Rescue said Monday they never reviewed the troubled organization’s 2014 tax filing, contradicting what HiCaliber reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

Miles Dunbar and Niki Avila said HiCaliber’s 2014 federal tax filing, called a Form 990, was inaccurate in stating financial information had been shared with its board of directors.

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Former board member and veterinarian details problems with finances, medical practices at HiCaliber Horse Rescue

March 6, 2018

Daniel Grove served on HiCaliber’s board of directors from its inception in 2013 until 2016 and was the Valley Center nonprofit’s primary veterinarian during that period. He also joined two other former HiCaliber board members in saying he never saw the group’s finances, which contradicts what HiCaliber reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

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HiCaliber volunteers say disease outbreak at Valley Center ranch not disclosed
An active outbreak of a highly contagious equine disease called strangles has occurred on the HiCaliber Horse Rescue ranch in Valley Center and is not being disclosed to anyone on the outside, including people who have adopted horses from the nonprofit over the past few months, five former HiCaliber volunteers told inewsource.

HiCaliber donor funds used for mobile phone spying, Weight Watchers; documents shared with district attorney
The founder of the nonprofit HiCaliber Horse Rescue spent thousands of donor dollars intended for rescuing and rehabilitating horses on late-night fast-food and bar tabs, mobile phone spy technology, Weight Watchers and other purchases from October 2013 to March 2015, according to financial documents provided to inewsource.

Fourth HiCaliber Horse Rescue board member never saw financials
Another former board member of HiCaliber Horse Rescue has come forward to tell inewsource she never saw financial paperwork or detailed receipts while helping to oversee the Valley Center nonprofit.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue back to fundraising after filing financial paperwork
The action comes about a month after the Attorney General’s Office prohibited the nonprofit from soliciting donations.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue shutting down amid investigations
HiCaliber Horse Rescue is closing, according to the group's Facebook post on Saturday.

Investigations continue into HiCaliber Horse Rescue despite closing announcement
Local and state agencies are continuing their investigations into HiCaliber Horse Rescue, despite an announcement over the weekend that the Valley Center nonprofit is closing.

HiCaliber horses not welcome at parade over fears they’ll infect other animals
HiCaliber Horse Rescue has been asked not to bring its horses to the Valley Center Western Days Parade on Saturday because of concerns some of its horses have a highly contagious equine disease called strangles.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue set to close Saturday as investigations of nonprofit continue
State and local agencies are continuing to investigate allegations of fraud and improper veterinary practices at HiCaliber Horse Rescue as the Valley Center nonprofit approaches its voluntary closing date Saturday.

Critics accuse HiCaliber of questionable fundraising campaign built around a dead horse
Despite statements from the founder of HiCaliber Horse Rescue that the Valley Center nonprofit is closing, it continues to take in animals and was accused by critics this week of misleading fundraising campaigns, including one built around a dead horse.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue approaching move-out date, mum on details
The attorney for HiCaliber Horse Rescue has said the nonprofit planned to move out of its Valley Center ranch by mid-September, but no one from the group would confirm that Friday.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue still hasn’t left Valley Center ranch; founder blames critics
More than a week after its announced move-out date, HiCaliber Horse Rescue has not yet left the Valley Center ranch it rents.

HiCaliber Horse Rescue being evicted, sued for more than $4 million
HiCaliber Horse Rescue, which has faced animal cruelty and fraud allegations for months, is being evicted from its Valley Center ranch and sued for more than $4 million.

Trashed ranch left behind after HiCaliber Horse Rescue eviction
HiCaliber Horse Rescue, which has faced animal cruelty and fraud allegations for months, was evicted Thursday from the Valley Center ranch where it has operated for more than four years.

‘Death lives here,’ property owner says of destruction left by HiCaliber Horse Rescue
Travis Fox walked his 15 acres in Valley Center little more than a week before Christmas, half in anger, half in disbelief. Trees, bushes and flowers were dead, thousands of feet of fencing was destroyed, and rat droppings lined the cupboard inside one of his homes.