BEND, Ore. - (Update: Clarifying 2007 domestic violence plea, later dismissal)
A horse trainer's criminal history and an organization’s alleged lack of transparency has led to the cancellation of a popular summer horse adoption event.
The Oregon Rescue Challenge is a competition that's been held at a riding facility in Powell Butte, featuring rescued horses in hopes of getting them adopted. But now it’s canceled, largely in part due to incidents dating back to 12 years ago.
Geraldo Morales was charged with several counts of animal abuse in 2007. He’s was found guilty of two counts, paid a fine and spent 10 days behind bars. He also faced domestic abuse charges which were dismissed in court.
However, based on the charges and court testimony, some horse rescuers still want nothing to do with him.
The owner of Harmony New Beginnings Animal Rescue in Sheridan is one of those people.
Joy Laudahl said Wednesday she has several complaints against the Oregon Rescue Challenge. She said her three big issues are Morales’ criminal history, the fact ORC was not transparent about that fact and her belief that organization officials were acting unethically overall, considering Morales’ wife was on their board.
The story that has been spreading on social media, along with several photos of written court testimony, is that Morales kicked a colt to death and used blunt force trauma, causing the horse’s death.
Morales claims that’s not what happened.
“It wasn’t that I kicked him and he went down,” he said. “(The colt) went down because he reared up and slipped on the stall (and broke his withers). It was a tragic accident.”
Further details of the incident allege Morales put a hose up the horse’s nose and sprayed water in it. Morales explained that’s what he was taught to do to make a stubborn horse cooperate, and it was only later he realized the horse was seriously injured.
“What I was taught when I moved to Oregon was an old school method, ‘We make the animals do what we need them to do’,” he explained. “What I've learned since then, and I've sought out actively and I teach it now, is to have a willing partner, without any resistance.”
Still, Laudahl and several others said they had no idea Morales was a convicted animal abuser.
“For me it’s very black and white,” she said. “He’s been convicted (of) domestic violence and animal abuse. I just think he can do a lot in the world without having access to his victim base.”
Several others reached out to NewsChannel 21 on social media, saying when they asked ORC about these criminal acts in previous years, board members did not answer them, blocked them, or even kicked them out of their event.
As complaints spread across social media, several horse rescue organizations wrote a letter to ORC, asking them to exclude Morales from the event. They also asked Cyndi Davis, then the grou's president, to step down and for Morales’ wife to also step down as well.
Davis said they were given a weekend to decide what to do, but half of the board members were out of town. She said that made the process especially difficult. At a meeting, she agreed to step down, but Morales and his wife were out of town at the time.
By that point, though, board members say the damage had been done, and this year's Oregon Rescue Challenge would be canceled. A statement posted to their Website detailed the "negative social media campaign" and noted that Morales had participated in other equine rescue events previously.
Davis, also the founder and owner of 3 Sisters Equine Refuge, told NewsChannel 21 this is a case of cyberbullying gone to the extreme.
Davis denied the claims they’d hidden Morales’ criminal past.
In a 2007 domestic violence case charging Morales with fourth-degree assault, menacing and strangulation, online court records show Morales entered a guilty plea and the criminal case was dismissed late the following year, after he completed a domestic violence diversion program.
Davis said she has worked with Morales for five years and that his success with dozens of rescues speaks to his character, not his past.
"His sentence was handed down on social media. That was unfair and unjust,” Davis said. “For me, his sentence, when you look at him as a human being and humanity is, why wouldn't you offer him forgiveness 12 years later?”
For now, the Oregon Rescue Challenge is on hiatus. The controversy, though, continues.
"Maybe he's a great guy and maybe he’s changed," Laudahl said. "But I’m sorry, I don’t want my rescue tied to an animal abuser.”
Morales, meanwhile, said he just wants to move forward and keep helping horses, proving that he's learned from his past.
“I felt like I've already done this in the court of law," he said, "and now I have to do it in the court of public opinion.”