A report came into the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department, citing animal neglect. When a deputy arrived at the residence in Laporte, the first thing he found was two spindly-looking horses.
The second thing: a dead one lying in a shelter.
But when he finally talked with one of the owners—27-year-old Stephanie Nicole Johnson—he got a different story. She told him the two live horses were indeed hers, but she denied the dead horse even existed.
According to a complaint filed in Hubbard County District Court, she’d later admit that, in January, the horse wouldn’t stand up, so she’d shot it. The bullet had hit it in the stomach, she said, because the horse was “moving its head too much” to get a clean shot.
The deputy asked to see where Johnson kept her horse feed, but she refused. She also said she owned five horses, even though previous reports indicated that she had eight.
The deputy left Johnson’s house, but didn’t go far. He parked where he could see Johnson bring buckets of food and water out to the horses while he contacted the department to get a search warrant. Eventually, Johnson approached the squad car.
“Are you really going to do this to me?” she reportedly asked.
When the deputy got his warrant, he and an investigator found not only the horse Johnson shot in the stomach, but two more dead ones. She said they’d died while giving birth. When the deputy observed that there didn’t seem to be any evidence of said foals nearby, she switched her story. One of the horses had died in February during punishing -40-degree temperatures, she claimed.
But it didn't appear the horse had been dead that long. On top of that, there didn’t seem to be much feed around. Certainly not enough to back up Johnson’s claim that she and her husband, Johnathan, purchased bags of alfalfa cubes daily. The trees out back had chunks of bark missing, indicating that the starving animals had chewed it away.
Investigators also found two living horses in a pasture, along with a dead foal. Stephanie said she didn't know it was there, and didn’t know which horse had given birth to it. Whichever it was, it hadn’t been recently. Both the foal’s eyes were missing, and its “intestines were hanging out.”
The final count, according the deputies and a vet they brought on the scene, was five living horses—albeit “slender” to “thin”—and one possibly pregnant animal with “no muscle covering her spine or ribs.”
Four were dead. The remaining horses were seized, but the pregnant mare died soon afterward.
The couple was charged with nine counts of overwork, mistreatment of animals, and torture for depriving the horses of food, water, and shelter. All are felonies.