By Meghan Keely
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER AREA —
One defendant in an animal cruelty case involving horses was cleared of charges Thursday, while two other cases were continued.
Martin Rust was all smiles Thursday afternoon after a four-hour hearing at which District Judge Lorinda Hinch, Mercer, found him not guilty of animal cruelty.
Rust, of Perry Highway, Mercer, and his estranged wife Nicole Rust and her partner Marvin Stickney, both of Symons Road, East Lackawannock Township, were accused of a combined 78 counts of animal cruelty after 29 horses in their care were seized in October by the Humane Society of Mercer County. The society said the horses were living in deplorable conditions and were malnourished.
Rust, who represented himself, told Hinch, “I’ve never owned any of these horses. I was married to Nicole, but we have been separated for two years. We communicate because of our children, and I would help with the horses if she needed it.”
Hinch said she accepted that Rust did not own the horses, nor was he responsible for their care and found him not guilty.
She then continued until 1 p.m. Feb. 6 the case against Nicole Rust and Stickney.
“I have to look at information on every horse. Each horse is a different count and there are 29 counts,” Hinch said. “It is a very important case and the defendants should be concerned with the consequences attached.
“I, however, do not intend to impose jail time upon Nicole Rust or Mr. Stickney.”
Hinch made her decisions after the lengthy hearing in which Assistant District Attorney Cynthia A. Gilkey presented several witnesses and multiple exhibits.
Mercer County Humane Officer Tom Swartz said he was called Oct. 9 to investigate the well-being of eight horses at 6713 Wise Road, near the Hermitage-Lackawnnock Township line.
“I observed manure everywhere, moldy hay, hay and dirt in the water troughs and debris everywhere,” Swartz said. “The ribs of the horses were showing. It was uninhabitable conditions and these horses were in poor health.”
Swartz said he went to see the horses’ owners, Rust and Stickney, to tell them about the complaint and what needed to be done for the horses on the Wise Road land.
When he got to their Symons Road home, a veterinarian was checking on a horse.
“There were actually 22 horses on the Symons Road property, but one passed away. The vet was there checking on this horse,” Swartz said. “I checked on the other horses ... and realized they were all underweight and malnourished. You could see their bones.”
Swartz said on Oct. 11 he received a call from the Rusts saying another horse had gone down on the Symons Road property and another veterinarian was on the way.
“When I arrived on the scene all three defendants were at the property,” Swartz said. “They said it was rat poisoning or that someone poisoned the horses. There was another vet from Greenville Veterinary Clinic there. The vet and I went around the property and saw nothing visible that would be a hazard or poison.”
Swartz said during his second visit he noticed only one improvement since his previous visit – fresh grain.
Swartz said the eight horses were removed from the Wise Road property two days later. Then, on Oct. 15, 21 horses were taken from the Symons Road farm and placed at foster and rescue farms.
Also testifying were Dr. Dean Eichstadt of Greenville Veterinary Clinic in West Salem Township and Dr. Richard Roseberry of the Anna Horse Rescue in Albion.
They ranked 15 to 17 of the horses at 1 or 2 on a scale of 9. The rest were mostly ranked 3; one received a 4.
“An ideal horse should be a 5 or 7 on the scale,” Eichstadt said. “A 1 or 2 means the horse is emaciated, a 3 is thin, and a 4 is moderately thin.”
Both vets said the horses suffered from rain rot, a bacterial skin disease; parasites; tooth disease; skin wounds; matted manes; hoof problems; malnutrition; and various other health issues.
“The conditions of the farm were poor,” Roseberry said. “Not the proper way to take care of a horse. To look that malnourished would take a normal healthy weight horse around two months to get that thin.”
Eichstadt said he advised the owners to get higher quality hay and check it for toxins; to feed the horses additional grain so they could gain weight; to minimize their exposure to manure; and to deworm the animals.
Veterinarian Dr. Corrine Flanery, who examined the eight horses from the Wise Road property, described the same medical issues but she ranked most of the horses a 3, with one a 6, on the 9-point scale.
Defense Attorney Al Lindsay cross-examined only a few of the witnesses and offered no evidence or witnesses.
He said in his closing argument that the animal cruelty law requires the prosecution to prove cruel mental state and behavior.
He pointed out that the owners called the veterinarians and were trying to work on the problem.
“Is this really cruelty? Horses were not in imminent danger when they were seized. The statute is cruelty. Were they really cruel?”