Published: 15:00, 13 June 2016
Three people have been convicted of running a scam which involved drugging sick and potentially dangerous horses and selling them to unsuspecting buyers.
Two equestrian centre partners and a vet were found guilty of being part of a conspiracy to con people into buying “substandard” horses.
Judge Martin Joy warned Charlotte Johnson, Aniela Jurecka and vet David Smith they face going to jail.
It was alleged the animals 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.
In a conflict of interest, Johnson and Jurecka, both 28, used their own vet, 66-year-old Smith, to carry out deliberately “cursory and inadequate” examinations of the horses before they were sold, Maidstone Crown Court was told.
Prosecutor Dominic Connolly said in his opening speech that a large number of horses had been sold and “misdescribed” in a criminal way.
"They had significant behavioural issues which made them entirely unsuitable for novice riders" - Dominic Connolly, prosecuting
Adverts on the internet and in publications such as Horse and Hound targeted novice riders looking for “safe” horses.
“The Crown’s case is those adverts grossly misdescribed horses being offered for sale,” he said.
“Representations are made as to their physical wellbeing and their calm and placid demeanour, and their suitability for first-time riders when, in fact, they had significant behavioural issues which made them entirely unsuitable for novice riders.
“On a number of occasions that resulted in a number of 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”.
Mr Connolly said an important part of the case was that physical ailments and behavioural issues were masked by the use of sedatives before the horses were inspected and tried out.
“As a result, they were sleepy, apparently docile and placid,” he said.
“It was only after the purchase when the effect of the sedatives began to wear off that the true nature and temperament of the horses were revealed. A number of the horses were lame.”
Mr Connolly said prospective purchasers were tricked into using Johnson and Jurecka’s vet Smith instead of an independent practitioner.
“The Crown say Mr Smith was fully aware of the conflict of interest,” said Mr Connolly. “He was motivated by personal gain – namely his fee for carrying out the examinations.”
The trial began three months ago and the jury retired on Wednesday.
Johnson, of Wagtail Place, Hayle Park, Maidstone, Jurecka, of Prospect Place, Collier Street, and Smith, of Lower Farm, The Street, Finglesham, near Deal, all denied conspiracy to commit fraud between June 2008 and December 2013.
During her evidence, Jurecka denied giving horses the drug bute, formally known as phenylbutazone, to hide lameness and said: “That is a load of rubbish. Some of my horses were jumped on bute.”
Bute is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used for the short-term treatment of pain and fever in animals.
Jurecka added that it was a drug “everyone keeps in their tack room”.
Judge Martin Joy granted Jurecka, Johnson and Smith conditional bail until sentence but warned they were all going to jail.
In scathing comments after the verdicts, he said they had been convicted on overwhelming evidence of committing the offence over a long period, defrauding a large number of customers.
“How many exactly is impossible to quantify,” he said. “You deliberately targeted buyers who were novice, inexperienced or unconfident riders.
“Each of you was involved in a long and dishonest course of conduct by telling lies about the history, temperament and health of horses, which were frequently drugged to make the animal docile.
“It was the docility in a horse that was what each of the customers in this case wanted.
The judge said horses were frequently described as "bombproof", but one witness likened them to unexploded bombs.
"You defrauded buyers and risked the lives and safety of riders and also of their children and, of course, that of the horses themselves" - Judge Martin Joy
"It was the use of drugs on wholly unsuitable horses that caused an apparently docile animal to be dangerous and cause fear, falls and injuries, and potential injuries to children and adults.
“They were presented as docile horses suitable for beginners and children,” said Judge Joy.
“In reality, they were entirely different animals from that and also from what they had been made to appear when being shown and demonstrated to customers, and from how each was described and advertised.
“You knew the truth about each animal and you defrauded buyers and risked the lives and safety of riders and also of their children and, of course, that of the horses themselves.”
Several customers were thrown and at least one was in hospital for two months with life-threatening injuries. Others had broken ribs and one was left unconscious in a ditch.
“Many horses had to be destroyed or retired,” the judge continued. “Many were never ridden at all by the intended riders.
“The impact of this criminal conspiracy was severe and varied. There was a severe financial loss caused by your fraudulent activities and a severe loss of confidence was caused by customers in horse dealers generally.
“A key role was played in this fraud by Smith and the effect of the conspiracy is also to undermine confidence in veterinary surgeons who are there to prevent fraud and to prevent the making of an inappropriate purchase by a buyer of an animal.”
Smith had previously been struck off from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for serious misconduct in certifying animals he had not examined.
He was later reinstated by his college but went on to commit frauds in the latest case.
“So your culpability is very high,” said the judge.
He told Johnson and Jurecka: “You were plainly acting together and selling by fraudulent practice together... and each was as seriously involved as each other.
“Each of you, and particularly Johnson, was ready with an easy lie and the false pretences.”
There were lies such as a horse had been ridden by a lady who had cancer, but she did not actually exist.
“Staff at your yards were paid to drug horses before they were shown to customers and were paid handsomely to support the lies that each of you told,” he said.
“Many of the horses were recently imported ex-racehorses which were totally unsuitable for novices or children, and their sales were only achieved by their being drugged.
“The drugs were supplied by Smith and the horses certified as suitable for purchase by Smith. This was despicable, dishonest behaviour.
"Many of the horses were recently imported ex-racehorses which were totally unsuitable for novices or children, and their sales were only achieved by their being drugged" - Judge Martin Joy
“Smith’s role was in breach of trust of the relationship between vet and client, the buyer who paid your fees. As vet you played a critical and vital role in the success of the frauds.
“The females needed a dishonest vet and you supplied the need, for money, to be that dishonest vet. Large vet bills were incurred by purchasers, also by farriers and many other experts, and also livery bills.”
One victim spoke of running up vet bills of £10,000, as well as the £4,500 cost of the horse, which could not be ridden and was retired in a field.
There was a suggestion 350 horses had been “recycled”, but it was difficult to be precise.
“There was evidence this went on for many years from what was a busy business with a high turnover of many horses being sold a week, kept in barns without light... so that when they came out to be shown to customers or for any reason they needed to be tranquillised.
“The customers were all unaware of that and were never told. They would never have purchased a horse from you if they had been so aware.”
Judge Joy said he was required by law to consider the impact of sentence on the families of the two women.
But he added: “I have no doubt that there must be immediate custodial sentences in this case.
“In relation to Smith, his role is a particularly serious breach of the trust put in a professional man.
“Each defendant has previous convictions and that aggravates the sentences. Subject to submissions, I intend to treat each defendant on the same basis.”
The judge asked the prosecution to produce a schedule of losses or compensation applications, so that the total loss could be identified if possible.
"Passing an injured horse as fit to ride and jump is nothing short of cruel and shows a complete disregard to the veterinary oath" - DC Tracey Brightman
Speaking after the verdicts, Detective Constable Tracey Brightman said: "These horses were obtained cheaply by the Johnson and Jurecka because they had physical problems or aggressive tendencies.
"We believe their issues were masked with drugs supplied by Smith when a potential buyer came to try out the horse.
"The dealers made huge profits on unfit, ill and injured horses working with a veterinary surgeon to ensure their lies were covered with credibility.
‘What they were doing was not only fraud but also putting their customers in danger. In one instance a woman was left unable to walk for a year after being thrown from her horse.
"It later transpired the animal had serious back problems which made it unsuitable for the activities that Smith had passed it for.
"The criminal aspect of the case may overlook the fact that passing an injured horse as fit to ride and jump is nothing short of cruel and shows a complete disregard to the veterinary oath.
"Unfortunately in some cases the horses were so ill they had to be euthanized causing yet more distress to the new owners.
"I would like thank both Trading Standards and The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for their support throughout this extensive and complex investigation."
The trio were granted bail until sentencing on July 11.