Published: 11:00, 11 July 2016
Two women and a vet have been jailed over a “despicable” scam that involved drugging sick and potentially dangerous horses and selling them to unsuspecting buyers.
Equestrian centre partners Charlotte Johnson and Aniela Jurecka and David Smith were convicted after a lengthy trial last month.
The horses, priced from £1,950 to £5,700, were drugged at South East Horses, based at Great Thorn Farm in Marden and at hired land at Duckhurst Farm in Staplehurst, to cover up lameness and other problems.
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It was estimated that hundreds of horses were sold, bringing in potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds for the pair.
In a conflict of interest, Johnson and Jurecka, both 28, used their own vet, 66-year-old Smith, who also has a practice in Hawkinge, to carry out deliberately “cursory and inadequate” examinations of the horses before they were sold.
Today, Johnson, of Wagtail Place, Hayle Park, Maidstone, Jurecka, of Prospect Place, Collier Street, Tonbridge, and Smith, of Lower Farm, The Street, Finglesham, near Deal, were each sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment.
Maidstone Crown Court heard adverts on the internet and in publications such as Horse and Hound targeted novice riders looking for ‘“safe’” horses.
Instead, buyers were left with horses dramatically different to what was advertised.
Several customers were thrown and at least one was in hospital for two months with life- threatening injuries. Others suffered broken ribs and one was left unconscious in a ditch.
Prosecutor Dominic Connolly said: “Those adverts grossly misdescribed horses being offered for sale.
VIDEO: DCI Neil Parker speaks outside court after the sentencing
“Representations are made as to their physical wellbeing, calm and placid demeanour and suitability for first-time riders when they had significant behavioural issues which made them entirely unsuitable. On a number of occasions, that resulted in falls and injuries.”
One witness told the trial that a horse advertised as being “cool, calm and collected” and for which she paid £4,000 turned out to be “potentially lethal”.
Text conversations and a raid at Smith’s veterinary surgery revealed details about the supply of drugs, including Modecate – a controversial behaviour modifying sedative with a long- term effect that mask behavioural problems in aggressive horses.
Mr Connolly said when the horses were inspected and tried out they were sleepy, docile and placid because of the drugs.
He added: “It was only after the purchase when the effect of the sedatives began to wear off the true nature and temperament of the horses were revealed.”
All three denied conspiracy to commit fraud between June 2008 and December 2013 at the start of the three-month trial, but were convicted.
The court heard the loss involving 17 horses which featured in the trial was put at about £85,000.
Judge Martin Joy said the three had been convicted on clear and overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation over about five-and-a-half years.
The number of customers defrauded, he said, was almost impossible to quantify.
“Each of you was involved in a long and dishonest course of conduct by telling lies abut the history, temperament and health of horses,” he continued.
“Horses were frequently drugged to make them docile. Often horses were described as ‘schoolmasters’, which was apparently a technical term, or bombproof, because it was known that victims sought to buy such animals.
“The impact of the drugs was planned to cause wholly unsuitable horses, often ex-racehorses, to be apparently docile.
“When the drugs wore off, sometimes a few days later, sometimes weeks later, the animals were dangerous to be around and certainly to ride.
“That caused falls and injuries and loss.”
One victim described the horses as being like unexploded bombs.
“They were advertised, demonstrated and certified as docile for the buyers,” said the judge. “That was a wicked and dangerous and criminal course of conduct.
“It was dishonest and it caused not only financial loss but suffering to horses. It was cruel. Several of the horses had to be destroyed. It caused distress to animal lovers.
“All three of you knew the truth of what was going on. You risked the lives and safety of riders and that of horses themselves.”
Inexperienced riders were thrown. One suffered serious injuries. Another broke a rib and one was knocked unconscious.
“All three of you bear responsibility for many of the distressing consequences that flow from the offence,” said Judge Joy.
“A figure of £85,000 was put forward by the prosecution as the loss but the true financial losses were, of course, higher.
“It has always been the case that although prosecution has concentrated on 17 horses the losses extend far beyond those.”
The judge said Smith played a key role. He had previously been struck off by The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for serious misconduct and had been before other courts.
There was a huge pile of references speaking in Smith’s favour which were moving.
But Judge Joy added: “I had the opportunity of seeing you in the witness box over some days and you seemed to exhibit an arrogance and contemptuous attitude to clients, their concerns and feelings.
“The evidence disclosed your dishonesty about the provision of drugs for horses over many years. You presented in the witness box as a cynic willing to participate in a long and dishonest scam.”
Jurecka and Johnson acted together and were always ready with lies and false pretences. They both achieved the sale of many horses by systematically drugging them. The drugs were supplied by Smith.
“You certified them as suitable for purpose,” the judge told Smith. “That also was despicable. It was dishonest, fraudulent and dangerous behaviour.
“The involvement of a dishonest vet was essential to the success of the conspiracy. It was at the heart of the conspiracy.
“They needed a dishonest vet. Buyers were steered towards using you.”
Speaking after the sentencing, DCI Neil Parker said: "This has been a complex and protracted investigation.
"I want to acknowledge the victims in the case. They have had to endure a significant wait to see justice handed down as it has been today.
"I am very grateful to all of them for their patience. We should remember that not only were they subjected to financial loss by the defendants, they were also exposed to real risk of injury.
"These horses were not suitable to be ridden or kept as pets. We have heard of victims who have suffered significant injuries having been thrown from their horses and in some cases the tragedy of having to pay for their horses to be put to sleep.
"This must have been truly harrowing and I can only imagine how upsetting this has been for them. The defendants have shown no regard for the welfare of the horses. They have apparently drugged them and exposed them to unnecessary stress.
"They have shown no remorse for their actions. The comments by the judge and the sentences handed down to these defendants can only serve as a very clear message that this type of systematic fraud will not be tolerated.
"I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work by the prosecution team. My officers together with the Crown Prosecution Service and partners from Trading Standards have worked for a number of years to secure these convictions and that is testament of how successful partnership working is between these organisations."