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Reward In Kentucky Horse Killings Reaches $20,000 As Support Pours In, Sheriff Says

Free-roaming horses were shot and killed in Floyd County, Ky., in what one resident calls "a very large act of evil."
Courtesy of Megan Goble
Free-roaming horses were shot and killed in Floyd County, Ky., in what one resident calls "a very large act of evil."

A reward for information about the killing of 14 horses in eastern Kentucky has now hit $20,000, according to Floyd County Sheriff John Hunt, whose department is trying to solve a shocking case of animal cruelty. The free-roaming horses are a favorite sighting for locals visiting the woodland southeast of Prestonburg – but someone recently began hunting them.

The horses were found dead from gunshot wounds in a wooded area around a rehabilitated strip mine earlier this week. Hunt's office had initially believed at least 15 horses were found dead, but that number has now been revised, after investigators compared their search data.

The crime sparked outrage in Floyd County and beyond, quickly drawing more reward money. Hunt says that while many members of the public are offering to add more money to the reward, he doesn't think it's necessary.

"It people are going to talk, they're going to talk for $20,000," he says. The sheriff says those offers are just part of what has become a huge public response to the killings.

"Surprisingly, we've had different countries call and pledge support of some kind" or show their concern, Hunt says. "People from so many states have called. We've had professional police officers from, Lord have mercy, thousands of miles away, have called to offer their expertise and training. And just every little thing in the world — people have gone out of their way to show their kindness and concern for these horses."

Describing the state of the investigation on Friday, Sheriff Hunt says his team is trying to recover an intact bullet from one of the horses' bodies, so they can learn more about the weapon that was used. They're also working with animal rescue groups to find homes for the living horses that remain, and to arrange for their transport.

"We have searched the area pretty good and we found six that will be rescued in the next day or two," Hunt says.

That task will be complicated by two main factors: the rough and remote area is reachable only by off-road "side by side" utility vehicles; and the horses are essentially wild animals.

"They're not pets, you know," Hunt says. Describing how some of the horses tend to get skittish, he adds, "They probably never had a bridle or never had a saddle put on them. So, they're not they're not that kind of horse. It'll take some trained people to go back and corral these horses, and then lead them a couple miles off of the mountain where we can load them in a truck."

Once the horses are brought to safety, several volunteer groups have offered to take the horses and put them in a good home, Hunt says.

The reward for information leading to an arrest in the case has been bolstered by local rescue group Dumas Rescue, as well as the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society of the United States.

"It takes a truly heinous person to mercilessly shoot more than a dozen horses and leave them for dead," said Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society, as her group contributed to the total.

Authorities began looking for the horses earlier this week, after receiving a report of numerous dead horses in an area where free-roaming herds have been living for years.

Deputies had to wait a day before reaching the slain horses. Because of the mountainous terrain and wet weather, volunteers such as Megan Goble, whose family owns some of the land where the horses were killed, have offered the use of their off-road vehicles to get the search and rescue teams to the old strip mine site.

"I've done rescue for a long time. I've seen some pretty bad things," Goble told NPR earlier this week after visiting the site. She added, "This was different. This was a very large act of evil, for lack of a better term. I mean, there's no other way that I can describe it."

In the past, Hunt says, his office has gotten calls about horses that have strayed onto private property and become a nuisance. His deputies or a local animal rescue team then removes the horses. But that's not the case here, he says, noting that the horses were up on a wooded and grassy area that runs for miles, bracketed by hilly terrain. The nearest home, he said, would be at least a half-mile away.

"They're really in an environment that would be perfect for a horse," Hunt says. He adds, "The ones that were killed were obviously bothering no one, they were back grazing on abandoned coal property, a mining site, near no one. And a lot of people go back trail-riding with these side-by-side vehicles, and they love the scenery of these horses. So they were bothering nobody."

"They're perfect," he said of the horses. "People love going back looking at them."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.