EAGLE PASS, Texas - This modest border town may be more than a thousand miles from metro Atlanta, but it's very much on the minds of Georgians horrified about what may have happened to their horses. That's because for 75,000 horses each year, this is where they spend their final days on U.S. soil before being shipped to a Mexican slaughterhouse and turned into horse meat for someone's dinner plate.
Texas authorities have started their own probe in connection to an alleged scam involving more than 50 missing horses from Georgia and across the Southeast. The FOX 5 I-Team broke the story last month of a veterinary school student accused of tricking more than 30 owners into donating their horses with the promise of a better life. The group NetPosse.com says it continues to get new complaints each week.
Many of those owners had developed health issues or personal tragedies that forced them to advertise for a new home for their horses rather than put them down. They told police 23-year-old Fallon Blackwood answered those ads with the promise their horse would live with her own horses on a farm near Boaz, Alabama. But those donated horses have disappeared. Blackwood faces a criminal charge in North Carolina of obtaining property using false pretenses. She's out on bond until her next hearing June 11.
Lindsay Rosentrator of Roswell fears her horse Willie wound up sold for slaughter.
"I hope to find him," she admitted. "But just knowing where these horses go it's just.. I hate feeling so out of control for his well-being right now."
According to a police report with the Maverick County, Texas sheriff's department, a law firm representing Lindsay says Willie and other horses "were taken to Stanley Bros Auction" in Attalla, AL, about 120 miles from Atlanta. Horses destined for slaughter eventually show up at Stanley Brothers' main pens in Bastrop, Louisiana. That's another 400 miles. The company has a Facebook page seeking bids from the public to spare their lives before the "ship date," before the horse heads south to Mexico.
"They're really just saying they're going to be put on the truck so people will feel bad with their bleeding hearts and purchase them," an undercover equine investigator told us. She's a private citizen certified in Texas to investigate animal cruelty. She also volunteers with the Equine Welfare Alliance, a group that has spent years tracking horses through auctions like Stanley Brothers. She asked us not to use her name.
"It's heartbreaking," she explained. "To see these animals just ended up in the wrong place."
Michael and Greg Stanley currently face criminal charges in connection to what happened to a 65-year-old retiree and horse advocate in 2016. Andrew Payne sat in his pickup trying to take pictures of the Bastrop, Louisiana facility. Instead, members of the Stanley family confronted him. On the cell phone video you can hear him being attacked from behind. Payne had to have facial reconstructive surgery. His alleged attackers go to trial in June. They also face a civil suit.
No one from Stanley Brothers would return our requests for comment.
The Maverick County Sheriff's department tells the FOX 5 I-Team it is now investigating whether Stanley Brothers shipped any of the missing horses to Eagle Pass -- about 700 miles from Bastrop -- and whether those horses had the proper ownership records.
We were there when Lynley Edwards of the Edwards & Johnson law firm in Canton filed the complaint. She made clear her goal.
"To find them," Edwards explained. "Find out what happened to them. And help the victims obtain justice."
Eagle Pass is clearly a horse trading hub. We watched a trailer packed with horses work its way over the International Bridge and into Mexico where -- unlike in the U.S. -- horse slaughter for human consumption is allowed. The meat can wind up as far away as Russia and Vietnam.
But just like many of those other horses involved in the Fallon investigation, Lindsay Rosentrator's Willie was sick, taking regular medicine that should have made him ineligible for slaughter and food.
Eagle Pass is the closest border crossing to Bastrop, Louisiana.
"I'd say the chances of Willie coming through Eagle Pass are exceptional," declared the private equine investigator as we stood outside the main kill pen. That's the Chula Vista farm, down a well-worn dirt road a few miles south of Eagle Pass.
We drove down that road and took a walk around the property. Three trailers stood in the parking lot packed with horses and donkeys waiting for the Mexican drivers to haul them across the border and another 10 hours to the slaughterhouse. More horses quietly waited their turn in nearby pens, green tags adhered to their backs.
Green. The color of money. And in this place, the color of death.
"We cross horses to Mexico but everything here is legal," assured Jose Martinez, the manager of Chula Vista.
We brought pictures of Willie and the other missing horses. Martinez agreed to take a look. Quickly.
"We cannot take a picture of every horse," he explained. We brought out Willie's picture.
"Would you remember? This was a big one. 17 hands."
"It would have been some time in February. Middle of February."
"Mmm mmm. No sir."
Another quick glance and he was ready for us to leave. More horses to load. And somewhere soon, more mouths to feed.