Woman receives 13 misdemeanor animal cruelty convictions from Charles City jury
After three days of testimony and two hours of deliberations, a former Charles City woman has been convicted on a plethora of animal cruelty charges in Charles City Circuit Court.
A jury of seven women and five men rendered 13 guilty verdicts of misdemeanor animal cruelty against Rhiannon Renee Vitiello, 31, formerly of 9500 Sturgeon Point Road. She was found not guilty on eight misdemeanor animal cruelty charges and had three charges of the same manner dismissed due to a lack of scientific testing that lacked real life atmospheric conditions. One charge of felony unauthorized use of a horse levied against the defendant will be dropped if she returns a horse to its owner by Apr. 8.
On Feb. 22, 2016, local and state authorities arrived at the farm at 9500 Sturgeon Point Road. Former Charles City animal control officer Brandy Colgin testified that she observed what appeared to be malnourished horses and no hay for feed in the fields.
“I tried to contact [Vitiello] but I received no response and the property was gated,” Colgin said.
At that time, Colgin obtained a search warrant for the property and Vitiello’s phone. Colgin along with Amy Woodard of the U.S. Equine Rescue League organized a team to check on the horses on the farm. Once on the premises, the officer testified that she observed horses and one in particular, identified as C1, which was lying on the ground.
Four veterinarians took action in providing care, each testifying about the condition of each of the 20 horses they observed along with conditions of the farm.
“I inspected the horses and provided them a body score,” said Dr. Carlin Kelly, referencing a number system used by equine doctors to determine the health of a horse. “I also noticed there was no hay or grain in the barn where six horses were at.”
“I thought some of the horses were in good condition while others were poor,” testified Dr. Abby Sage, a state veterinarian office representative who was also on scene. “From what I observed, the farm lacked an adequate amount of hay or water for them.”
Two doctors inspected C1, determining the horse needed significant medical attention.
“The horse was laying flat in the cold mud,” commented Dr. Stacy Grovell. “When we approached it, it just continued to lie there. Normally a horse would get up and start moving when someone approaches it but this one didn’t.”
After Grovell treated C1 through the morning and early afternoon hours, Dr. Robert Lee conducted a more thorough inspection. After injecting C1 with an anti-inflammatory painkiller, the horse seemed better. But as nightfall approached, the horse’s condition began deteriorating.
“Around 8 p.m. the horse went down again and you could see he was in pain,” Lee said. “He was beginning to get more violent. His heart rate and respiratory rate was elevated.”
Lee conducted a rectal exam, determining a part of the horse’s intestine had descended and was twisted.
“I felt the feed not digesting and I felt the horse had a colic [abdominal pain] and that his intestines were going to tear,” the doctor added. “Because of the age and the disabled condition, I didn’t think it would survive surgery.”
After a discussion with Colgin on the situation, Lee determined it was best to euthanize C1. Two more veterinarian experts inspected the horse postmortem and commented on their findings.
“The bone marrow fat content of C1 was 16.4 percent. The average for an equine is 81.7 percent,” said Dr. John Buchweitz, a toxicologist and animal bone marrow expert from Michigan State University.
“In my opinion, this horse was malnourished and dealing with starvation,” said Dr. John Moody, who performed the necropsy (autopsy for animals) on C1. “You don’t have to be a veterinarian to tell there was no fat on this animal. The lab results only confirm that.”
Bonnie Vick, who owned C1, testified that Vitiello did not take care of the horse as required in a written agreement with the defendant.
“I placed an ad online for someone to buy Shad [C1] and Robin Peterson [the defendant’s mother] came out to look at her,” Vick said. “Rhiannon picked the horse up in Texas and the horse was in good condition when I sent it with her.
“I signed the contract with her and asked if I could come up and see Shad and she (Vitiello) told me I could come up anytime,” Vick continued. “But every time I asked for pictures of the horse and wanted updates, all I got was that he was doing fine.”
Despite Vick’s attempt to see the horse in Oct. 2015, it wasn’t until a story about a seizure at the Sturgeon Point farm prompted her to contact local authorities. After reaching Colgin, Vick received a picture of C1, who was now deceased.
Special prosecutor Michelle Welsh called two additional witnesses, who testified that Vitiello had reached similar agreements with them.
“Vitiello presented herself to me as a breeder,” said Sheila Tucker. “I contacted her about transporting my horses to her farm in Charles City. We reached agreement that she would take care of my horses in exchange for the birth of one foal.
“I received a tip to check up on my horses on Feb. 1,” she continued. “When I got there, I didn’t know if I was going to throw up or pass out because they were a bag of bones.”
Norman Davis indicated he had known the defendant for 20 years and that Vitiello had similar dealings with him involving a farm in Louisa County.
“I met with Rhiannon about moving stallions and we laid groundwork at a dinner,” Davis testified. “We talked about who was to provide food and who was responsible.
“I started noticing issues,” he continued, pointing to conditions on the farm. “That’s when she told me she wanted to lease the barn in Louisa for breeding and she moved about 18-20 horses there.”
However, a fallout over Vitiello not paying for a number of items that included the lease payment and food led to Davis evicting her from the farm. As part of that eviction, Davis moved the horses from Louisa back to the Sturgeon Point farm.
With the prosecution resting, defense attorney Richard Collins summoned witnesses who said that Vitiello was caring for horses in an appropriate manner prior to the seizure.
“I’ve known the defendant for 15 years and she’s very good with animals,” said Cheryl Reynolds. “I had two horses on that farm when they were seized.”
Reynolds added that she was delivering hay to the farm on the day of the seizure but was denied access to both the farm and her horses. Testimony from other witnesses reiterated Reynolds’ position that Vitiello provided everything the animals needed.
“I was given a regimen on how to take care of each of the horses,” said Nicole McDaniel. “I was told when to feed them, how to clean the water buckets, and what time to feed them.”
“I helped her on the farm with chores when she was gone on the road,” Michelle Graves said. “I lived on the property and Rhiannon left a list of things to do and how to do them when she wasn’t there.”
Day three involved testimony from Vitiello, who elected to defend herself. After providing a history on her involvement with horses, she opened up about the property at 9500 Sturgeon Point Road.
“In summer 2015 I began to buy feed and equipment for repairs of the farm,” the defendant said, referencing her intent to buy the property that belonged to her father. “Race horses came in thin because they had low muscles and I would put them on a feeding regimen.
“There are unrolled bales in paddock E so that horses could eat it and not fight over it,” Vitiello continued as she pointed to a photo of hay bales presented into evidence.
The defendant talked about her relationship with Davis and how events led to transporting horses to the Charles City farm from the Louisa farm by Davis.
“When Norman Davis found out that the farm he was leasing was going to be sold, he needed to move 27 horses,” Vitiello said. “I agreed to move horses to my Charles City and five came.”
A deal was struck between the parties where Vitiello would lease the Louisa farm from Davis at $3,000 a month. Davis was responsible for the care of her horses on that property while she would take care of the ones on the Charles City land. The defendant also said she was in the process of relocating all the horses from Charles City to Louisa when Davis abruptly returned the animals to the Charles City farm on Feb. 14-15.
“Those horses were brought illegally from Louisa,” Vitiello said. “I told him not to bring the horses to the farm because it was an ice storm on the way. He didn’t have permission to touch them or move them.
“All my supplies and feed were in the process of being moved to Louisa,” she continued. “I went from having five horses on the farm and ended up with 20.”
The defendant said she was running to a variety of stores to get feed for all the animals, equally distributing what she had until a new shipment of hay arrived. She then testified about the Feb. 22 seizure of the horses.
“I was bringing each horse into the barn to feed individually when I heard C1 down in the pin,” she said. “He had went down two days before and I went inside to call a vet.
“As soon as I went to the front porch to make the call that’s when I saw the cop cars and called my then attorney,” Vitiello continued. “When I saw the cops and trailers at the gate I had a gut feeling they were going to take everything.
“After the seizure began, I was begging to feed and water the horses but I was denied that opportunity and the opportunity to call the vet as the search was being conducted,” she concluded.
“Rhiannon Vitiello treats horses unequally,” Welsh proclaimed in closing arguments. “She’s looking to score the next big deal. She knows what the horses need but doesn’t give it to them.”
“There is a lack of context here,” rebutted Collins. “When the horses were on the Louisa farm they were in Mr. Davis’ care. I was right about Davis and I was right about the body scale. A thin horse does not mean it has been deprived of food.”
Two hours passed before the jury emerged. A lone charge of felony animal cruelty was deemed a misdemeanor by the panel of 12. Of the remaining 20 misdemeanor charges, Vitiello received guilty convictions on 12. The other eight charges resulted in not guilty verdicts, presumably through testimony that revealed the horses identified in the indictments were in good condition.
The jury recommended that Vitiello serve one year in jail and receive a fine of $2,500 on the misdemeanor charge related to horse C1. On the other 12 misdemeanors, a recommendation of 15 days in jail and a $100 fine on each was presented, bringing her total time of incarceration to 18 months and fines to the sum of $3,700. Formal sentencing for the defendant is scheduled for Apr. 21.