Current leadership allegedly squandered assets & 27-year positive track record under ousted founder
SAN JACINTO, California––Among the 80-odd animal shelters, sanctuaries, and nonprofit rescue organizations foundering in 2019, the California Equine Retirement Foundation (CERF) has probably run through the most money over the past five years.
Along the way, CERF blew the the best reputation of the lot, built for 27 years by founder Grace Belcoure, now 91, ousted in a 2014 hostile takeover.
Acting on behalf of the United Pegasus Foundation, the Animal Legal Defense Fund on December 5, 2019 sued what remains of CERF, seeking to remove the last 20 horses from the premises and evict the present leadership.
“Underfed to the point of starvation”
“For more than 30 years,” summarized ALDF spokesperson Natalia Lima, “the California Equine Retirement Foundation has accepted donations with the stated mission of rehabilitating horses,” specifically retired racehorses, “and providing them sanctuary as a forever home. But according to witness accounts, the horses residing at CERF’s property in San Jacinto, California, were underfed to the point of starvation, with untreated veterinary conditions that caused suffering and death —while the organization has let its nonprofit status lapse, avoiding financial and other oversight.
As well as seeking “to permanently remove the approximately 20 remaining horses from CERF,” Lima said, “the plaintiffs are also seeking a court order that would prevent CERF and its chief operating officer,” Carrie L. Ard, 53, “from operating or being involved with any horse sanctuary in the future and ban them from possessing horses in the future.”
Lost charity status through failure to file
Under Ard, CERF on May 15, 2017 lost IRS 501(c)(3) status as a public charity, after three consecutive years of failing to file IRS Form 990, the required annual accounting statement. The years of failure to file coincide with Ard’s first three years as CERF chief executive.
Whether anyone other than Ard still has a role in CERF is unclear.
Also reportedly listed as a plaintiff against CERF is the Caru SPCA, a California nonprofit corporation formed in 2011 by ALDF executive director Stephen Wells. The Caru SPCA appears to have never have filed IRS 990, nor to have had federal nonprofit status. It has a web site with no “donate” link, but has a blog on pet care issues and has been a co-plaintiff in several other animal neglect cases.
The first status hearing in the case against CERF and Ard “is not scheduled until June 1, 2020 at the Riverside Historic Courthouse,” noted Paul J. Young of City News Service.
Why no motion for immediate relief?
A case in which animals’ lives are believed to be at urgent risk would normally be pursued with an injunction seeking immediate relief. As there apparently has been no such motion––ANIMALS 24-7 asked ALDF if it was pursuing such a motion, but received no response by posting time––the lawsuit may have been filed as a pressure tactic, in hopes of soon winning an out-of-court settlement.
“According to the civil complaint,” Young wrote, “the United Pegasus Foundation and partner groups succeeded in removing — with Ard’s consent — 44 horses from the 30-acre CERF ranch earlier this year, and all of the equines have been undergoing rehabilitation, either at the Pegasus rescue, or at private facilities.”
Before-and-after photos posted to the United Pegasus Foundation web site show the improvement in condition of several of the horses since they were removed from CERF in May 2019.
From store clerk to groomer to straw boss
Continued Young, “The complaint alleges that the CERF ranch went into steady decline after Ard, a former store clerk who started out as a groomer at the facility, took over management, following the ouster of the CERF founder, Gracie Belcoure, who was at the helm going back to 1986,” and was in fact the founder, with her longtime partner Josephine Italiano.
The ALDF/United Pegasus Foundation also charges, Young said, that CERF “eventually ran into financial hurdles, partly as a result of Ard’s alleged penchant for gambling at horse races.”
As money became tight, Ard is said to have cut back on hoof care, vaccinations, and eventually on feeding, buying just 10 bales of hay every other week.
“The amount [of hay] Ard was purchasing was not enough for even a single morning feeding for 75 horses, let alone for two weeks nourishment,” the complaint states, according to Young. “By contrast, Pegasus goes through approximately 22 hay bales per day for 80 horses.”
The ALDF/United Pegasus Foundation details the slow deaths of CERF horses named Eagle Rock and Valentine.
Eagle Rock, Young recounted, “suffered colic, unable to digest food or defecate,” succumbing “after about five days of slow, painful suffering.”
“Valentine died after weeks of misery,” according to the complaint, caused by abscesses in his hooves.
Observed U.S. Racing News correspondent Margaret Ransom, “As the herd of severely neglected horses – almost all off-the-track thoroughbreds – evacuated in late May 2019 from CERF continue to recover at Helen Meredith’s United Pegasus Foundation UPF nearby, questions remain. Many questions. What about the health and well-being of about two dozen or so who remain on the CERF property? What is the status of criminal investigations into their neglect and alleged financial malfeasance? What is the legal status of the foundation?”
ANIMALS 24-7 asked these questions, and others, but found out no more than Ransom already had reported.
“The CERF property was purchased by the charity in 2016 and has been maintained by Carrie Ard, who is identified on the organization’s Facebook page as its chief operating officer,” Ransom recalled. “Ard was elected to her position in 2014 by a now defunct board of directors immediately after the ouster of CERF founder Grace Belcoure due to concerns about illness and accusations of misappropriation of charity funds. A subsequent lawsuit between CERF and Belcoure was settled out of court.”
After Meredith and others removed 44 allegedly severely neglected horses from CERF with Ard’s permission, Ransom said, “Ard hasn’t allowed any other horses to leave the CERF property and Meredith hasn’t received help from local animal control officers in securing assistance, though she was told one horse has recently been euthanized.”
Even more frustrating to Meredith, Ransom reported, are “the local authorities and their inaction and lack of communication over what may or may not be happening with the horses and the former charity.
“Meredith said that animal control came out to her property once to photograph and document the initial evacuees in May, but nobody has returned. She also handed over a file of paperwork documenting CERF’s history and charity status to local law enforcement, but hasn’t received a reply or a return call or message despite multiple attempts to contact them,” Ransom wrote.
“District attorney should investigate”
“Since day one I have been bugging animal control,” Meredith told Ransom. “The only thing they tell me is that it’s under investigation. Is there a criminal investigation into the neglect? Will there be charges? I don’t know why animal control hasn’t pursued criminal action against (Ard). I told them I would take all of the horses because I knew she was broke and didn’t have the money to feed them, but they won’t do anything at all. They haven’t returned any calls or emails. I don’t know what they’re doing or what it’s going to take.”
Ransom said that CERF, since losing IRS 501(c)(3), has obtained 501(c)(2) status, “which amounts to little more than a funding non-profit,” meaning an organization that raises money for another, “and makes CERF unable to raise or use funds for its own use.”
“The district attorney should be investigating,” Meredith told Ransom. “Who could stop her (Ard) from selling [the CERF property] for much less than it’s worth, packing her bags, and disappearing? And what about people who have left charitable donations in their wills, or those who have been donating funds regularly every year, who don’t know about what’s going on there or the status of the foundation? What about that money? Is there any accountability for that?
“There’s also the issue of property taxes,” Meredith mentioned to Ransom. “I’m fairly sure nobody has paid any property taxes there for years and I don’t know how she’d afford them anyway.”
ANIMALS 24-7 learned that the taxes on the CERF property are currently $17,178 per year, but did not locate any outstanding liens against it.
Ard has said relatively little about CERF and the allegations against her, except in one June 2019 interview with Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter David Downey.
Ard, wrote Downey, “attributed the weight loss [visible among the CERF horses taken in by the United Pegasus Foundation] “to an exceptionally rainy winter and ranch flooding, a string of bad alfalfa lots that failed to nourish horses, and the difficulty aging horses had maintaining weight. She said the rain curbed some horses’ appetites, and damaged their feed to the point that it reduced the nutrition they were receiving.
“Ard declined to reveal the group’s annual budget,” Downey added, “but said it spends about $90,000 a year on feed.”
“No charges are known to be pending”
Added Downey, “Jennifer Parsons, animal control supervisor for the Ramona Humane Society, said her agency is investigating the animals’ treatment and will decide soon, in consultation with police, whether to recommend the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office pursue charges of animal cruelty or animal neglect. The society handles animal control services in San Jacinto and Hemet.
While Parsons told Downey that “The potential for animal neglect charges is ‘very high,’” Downey wrote, no charges are known to be pending.
The alleged neglect at CERF became known to Meredith and the United Pegasus Foundation, Downey said, after Jenny Earhart of Premier Equine Rehab in Orange, California, took a horse named Aguas to CERF for retirement, after deciding that he was beyond rehabilitation for use in rodeo, show riding, or trail riding.
“I didn’t want to leave Aguas there”
“I didn’t want to leave Aguas there,” Earhart told Margaret Ransom of U.S. Racing News, but if I knew if I turned that trailer around, I could not go back, and every horse there would be in jeopardy. By leaving him there, I would have a guaranteed way to get back in. I handed over a check for $450 that day and believed that he’d be fed, and I already had a game plan in mind. I didn’t want to leave him there but I knew that it would help the other horses in the long run and that he wouldn’t be there for long.”
Narrated Ransom, “Almost immediately after leaving the CERF property that day, Earhart reached out to Meredith, mostly because of her reputation as a top sanctuary, but also because the United Pegasus Foundation property is located right around the corner from CERF and Ard had mentioned Meredith was her friend.”
“Initially,” Earhart told Ransom, “I expressed my concerns [with Helen Meredith] and was relieved to hear that she was well aware of the situation,” Earhart said. “She told me animal control had been called three times, but didn’t do anything, so that’s when we together decided to team up and do whatever we had to do to get the horses fed and then ultimately off the property.”
Belcuore sold house, borrowed money, “threw in her savings”
The CERF saga began, recounted Leonard Navarro of the Reuters news service in 1993, after Belcuore retired as a Los Angeles school teacher in 1978 and began attending horse races.
“After finding out that the fate of most racehorses was the slaughterhouse,” Navarro said, “Belcuore sold her house in Los Angeles, borrowed money from the bank, threw in her savings, and bought the ranch” that became CERF, “which was little more than five acres and a house. She added a second house, another five acres, paddocks and a barn, and invested $80,000 of her own money,” hiring three employees.
“The racing industry was initially cool to Belcuore’s ranch,” Navarro wrote, but the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the now closed Hollywood Park Raceway soon began hosting benefit events to help CERF grow and thrive.
CERF in 1988 relocated from the initial rented premises in Temecula to a nine-acre site in Winchester, California. Belcuore apparently bought the property in her own name and that of her longtime partner, Josephine Italiano, who is three years younger, but Belcuore and Italiano leased the land and buildings to CERF for 99 years.
Such arrangements are fairly common for animal sanctuaries, as banks are often reluctant to loan money to nonprofit organizations without substantial collateral, while leasing property to a nonprofit organization is a way for founders to in effect pay themselves without having to declare the income as a salary on IRS Form 990.
“I bet on every one of these”
By then CERF had reportedly rehomed more than 200 thoroughbreds, with about 60 on the premises at any given time.
“I bet on every one of these guys when they ran,” Belcuore told Sports Illustrated in March 1994. “I screamed for them all then. I can’t stop now.”
The present troubles originated after Belcuore, experiencing health issues, made Ard a CERF board member.
Belcuore, 86 then and 91 now, “said she was ousted by her appointed successor, Carrie Ard, and now can’t even step foot on the CERF ranch,” reported Jackie Moe for the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the Orange County Register in August 2014.
“Belcuore provided a letter dated April 6, on CERF stationery, announcing that directors had removed her from the board and rescinded her position as CEO,” Moe continued.
“There’s nothing I can do”
Belcuore responded in June 2014 by serving Ard and CERF with a 10-day notice to do maintenance on the ranch or face eviction. The notice was later withdrawn, but by then the parties were suing each other.
“Belcuore lives in a house next to the ranch and sees, but can’t touch, horses she has known and cared for over the last 10 to 15 years,” Moe wrote.
Said Belcuore, “I feel like a mother whose children have been taken from her. I look out the window and see my babies … but there’s nothing I can do.”
Responded Ard, to Moe, “We have no comment to make. We are in the middle of litigation.”
“Ousting Belcuore was somewhat controversial,” summarized Ransom for U.S. Racing News, “due to her status as the founder and operator [of CERF] and reputation for providing outstanding care. After her removal, CERF and Ard sued Belcuore in 2014 to extend the sanctuary’s lease on the Winchester property to 99 years and also for $100,000 in alleged misappropriation of assets. It turned out an extension on the lease wouldn’t be necessary because in 2016, CERF received a $2.4 million donation [apparently a bequest] allowing it to purchase the property it currently sits on in San Jacinto.
“Where is that $1 million?”
“In about April of 2016, (CERF) bought the property and paid $1.4 million for it,” Meredith told Ransom. “I know because I received the same amount at the same time. So they paid for the property and there was a million dollars left, but what we all need to know is where is that $1 million and where did it go, if it’s obviously not being used for the horses?”
Property records show that the actual purchase price paid for the San Jacinto property was $1,320,000. The transaction was completed on February 24, 2016. The property was apparently acquired from the estate of Robert E. Osborne, a land developer and Paso Fino horse breeder.
Osborne, 72, died of cancer in April 2013, eight days before he was due in court for a trial readiness conference, facing charges of felony conspiracy, perjury, and attempting to file a false record, plus misdemeanor political money-laundering. Eight codefendants had already accepted plea bargains, including four former San Jacinto City Council members.
After CERF relocated, Belcuore and Italiano sold the Winchester site for $465,000 on October 12, 2016.
CERF property “should be sold & assets transferred”
Continued Ransom, “For the past couple of years Ard has not applied for yearly grants from the accrediting organizations who would normally be responsible for spot checks, such as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the California Retirement Management Account. Without grants and accreditation, no organization has the ability to inspect the properties.”
“She had received a huge grant and had $1 million left over to care for the horses, so the TAA and CARMA had no reason to think anything untoward was going on,” Meredith said.
Meredith told Ransom that the United Pegasus Foundation can accommodate the former CERF horses on the United Pegasus property in San Jacinto by moving some of the horses who were previously in San Jacinto back to the original United Pegasus sanctuary in Tehachapi, which it still owns.
The CERF property, Meredith recommended, “should be sold and all assets transferred to other non-profits, as dictated by the CERF bylaws, but that’s getting way ahead of where we are now with the horses.”