Jackie L. McConnell, 60, Jeff Dockery, 54, John Mays, 50, all from Collierville, and Joseph R. Abernathy, 30, of Olive Branch, Miss., were charged with conspiracy to violate the protection act by transporting and showing horses they knew to be "sored" and also falsifying entry forms and paperwork.
The indictments were unsealed on Thursday and filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District at Winchester.
McConnell was under a five-year suspension from showing horses by the USDA due to prior violations of the HPA. The suspension ended on Oct. 31, 2011.
McConnell and Dockery face 47 counts each, while Abernathy faces 10 counts and May only one charge. If convicted, the four face a maximum term of three years in prison for each felony count and up to one year in prison for each misdemeanor.
McConnell was arrested at his barn in Collierville near Memphis Thursday morning. Jackie is the brother of three-time World Grand Champion trainer and Walking Horse Trainer of the Year Jimmy McConnell.
"It would be unfair for me to comment until we have had time to review the indictment and better understand the charges," said Jamie Hankins, president of the Walking Horse Trainers' Association (WHTA). "(WHTA) works tirelessly to educate our members on the Horse Protection Act and the importance of compliance with the law. We continue to dedicate more resources to the education of our members as it relates to the welfare of our great horse and proper training techniques. Once we have had time to review the details surrounding this situation we will be able to comment further."
Dr. Doyle Meadows, CEO of the Celebration, also would not comment on the indictment, telling the T-G Thursday he did not know enough about the allegations to make an informed comment on the matter.
The indictment claimed that the object of the conspiracy was to operate a commercial horse training and boarding business and to intentionally sore the animals "in order to win horse shows and competitions without being detected by the USDA or DQPs (industry inspectors)" and obtain additional customers who paid McConnell to board and train their horses at his barn.
McConnell allegedly arranged and conspired with others for the sore horses to be transported to Shelbyville to enter the 43rd Annual National Trainers' Show in March 2011, the Spring Fun Show, and the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in August and September of last year.
McConnell owns and operated Whitter Stables in Collierville, where he trained and boarded Tennessee Walking Horses, and it is alleged that Dockery and Mays would use various methods to sore the horses on a regular basis before a competition "to accentuate their gait in front of the judges."
According to the indictment, McConnell, Dockery, Mays and Abernathy, "and others known and unknown" are also accused of "stewarding" the horses "in order to reduce the level of reactions in inspections."
Stewarding is the practice of "applying blunt force to a horse's head or nose when it displays an obvious reaction to pain," and the indictment also alleges that the four would use black ink markers to color in scarred areas of the horses to avoid detection.
McConnell would allegedly ensure that others working for him would get a trainer's license to protect himself from being ticketed if soreness was discovered during inspection, since he had been barred from showing horses.
The indictment alleges the crimes occurred beginning in 2006 until September 2011, where McConnell and others would sore the horses, using methods such as applying chemicals to the animal's pasterns and hoof areas. McConnell and others would then mask the external soring by applying numbing agents or using the black markers.
Abernathy allegedly sprayed Lanacane, a local anesthetic, on the pasterns to prevent the horses from reacting to being inspected.
At least a dozen horses were allegedly brought to the Celebration last August by McConnell, using Dockery as a proxy trainer, and during the execution of a federal search warrant at the staging barn in Bedford County, the pasterns of all 12 horses tested positive for chemicals prohibited by the HPA.
The indictment also notes a number of times that the horses were sored and stewarded, stating that one sored horse, "Cash Sweep" was entered and placed second in a horse show in Humboldt on May 6, 2011, while two others were cited for HPA violations
Also, McConnell allegedly used Dockery as a proxy trainer during last year's Trainers' Show, entering "Moody Star," and three other horses, despite being on suspension at the time. "Moody Star," and another horse shown were allegedly sored.
On May 26-28, at the Fun Show, three horses were entered, and McConnell used his cell phone to direct the showing and exhibiting of the horses. All three were sored, according to the indictments.
According to a 2007 article in the T-G, McConnell and "Moody Star" were favored in the Celebration's contingency of champions, but both were declined entry into the show ring on the final night of the show due to a scar rule issue.
The horse, listed as being owned by O & W Moody Ltd/Wilsene Moody on the Walking Horse Report website, was named world champion in the 3-year-old preliminary round at the Celebration in 2005, and crowned World Grand Champion 4-year-old in 2006.
Moody, who was contacted by the T-G back in September after federal authorities allegedly executed a search warrant at McConnell's stage barn in Bedford County said, "I moved part of my horses last week and I moved star Sunday. He was turned down Saturday night and that is usual procedure. You move them after they're turned down ... (We) moved to Brad Davis and we are very pleased with the progress."
Moody would not comment further at the time regarding who was training Star prior to the move.
The indictment is the result of an investigation by the Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven S. Neff and Assistant United States Attorney M. Kent Anderson will represent the United States in the case.