Sick, rotting cattle littered field in Loma

A Loma man who owns 61 cows that were seized Tuesday in an unprecedented action by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department said he couldn’t afford quality animal feed or veterinarian care for his cattle, according to court records.

Cattle carcasses, eight confirmed, littered a property at 1320 12 1/4 Road, where a rotting animal in one instance was abandoned as apparent pet food, according to an affidavit in support of a search and seizure warrant, which was drafted by Sheriff’s Department Deputy Ben Lawrence. The owner of the animals, John Lawton, 45, cooperated with the deputies at his property Friday.

“John said that a calf died recently ... from an unknown cause and he was letting his cats eat off it,” the affidavit said.

A complaint Friday by a caller, who is not identified, said cattle appeared “very thin.”

“... One of the animals couldn’t walk and (caller) observed the apparent owner lifting the cow with a loader,” the affidavit said.

Deputies used binoculars to observe several cows that were so underweight the outline of their ribs were visible. One cow was on the ground with straps around it, seemingly unable to walk, the affidavit said. Lawton, who told deputies he worked about 10 acres at 1320 12 1/4 Road and leased a pasture to the south of it, said the cow on the ground couldn’t walk because she fell down a hill March 24.

“John said he thought she was getting better but now (cow) wouldn’t stand on her front right leg either,” the affidavit said. “I asked John if he had called a veterinarian and he said no because they were too expensive.”

Water out of reach

Lawton explained he fed them corn stalks. He said he wanted to feed them hay, but couldn’t afford to, the affidavit said.

Many of the 65 cattle on the property appeared tied up, individually, with baling-type string to various objects such as farm implements and abandoned old cars, the affidavit said. Many appeared thin.

“This seemed to be an unusual situation for cattle to be contained,” a deputy wrote. “John said he’d had problems with cattle jumping the fence and eating more than they were allotted. John said he could feed them individually this way.

“There were no buckets or troughs the animals could reach on their own. A large majority of the cattle were missing patches of hair and had lesions that John said were from lice. I could see ribs, spinal vertebrae and pelvic bone clearly on numerous cattle.”

Two cows were observed down and unable to walk, in addition a bull.

Smell of carcass

Roughly three to four feet from a grazing area, deputies found a dead cow covered in flies, which Lawton explained he hadn’t yet been able to move, the affidavit said.

Two more carcasses were found in a small field irrigation ditch roughly 25 yards away. Lawton explained he had pushed them into the ditch after they died of unknown causes.

“I observed another animal hanging in a shed that appeared to have been gutted,” the affidavit said. “John said that calf died recently also from an unknown cause and he was letting his cats eat off it.”

“Sgt. Beagley asked John to ‘show us some animals you think are healthy.’ John paused for a while and said the calves are pretty good,” affidavit said.

Lawton allegedly acknowledged four cows were dead on the property, deceased “two weeks to many months ago,” although evidence of eight dead animals was found.

“I believe there may have been one more under a cornstalk pile due to the intense smell and significant fly activity but I did not dig under the pile to satisfy my suspicions,” the deputy wrote in the affidavit. “John did not know why any of the animals had died nor did he call a veterinarian for any of them prior to their deaths.”

The affidavit said Lawton around 6 p.m. Friday was given specific feeding instructions, while authorities promised they’d return the next morning.

The feeding instruction hadn’t been followed as of 9 a.m. on Saturday, upon their return, the affidavit said.

“While we were there John began feeding the animals as instructed,” a deputy wrote.

Again, after instructing Lawton about proper feeding, including written requirements, deputies found more problems when they returned Sunday morning. Hay had not been spread as instructed, the affidavit said.

Unprecedented seizure

A livestock veterinarian technician concluded in a report that 65 percent of Lawton’s herd was “very underweight and emaciated.” Evidence of “significant neglect” was observed on nine cattle, four of which were euthanized. At least eight carcasses already at the scene were believed to have suffered under neglectful conditions before the animals died.

“Not all the animals were approachable ... due to their aggressive or fearful behavior,” the affidavit said.

Tuesday’s mass removal of cattle by the Sheriff’s Department was unprecedented in its scale, veterans of the agency said Wednesday.

Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Matt Lewis said the county will start civil proceedings against Lawton toward gaining ownership of the 61 seized animals, which will be sold toward recouping law enforcement costs.

The Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday said it was waiting on the results of laboratory results before moving forward with possible criminal charges in the case.

Attempts by The Daily Sentinel on Tuesday and Wednesday to reach Lawton for comment were unsuccessful.

The complaint Friday that prompted the large-scale seizure wasn’t the first animal-related call handled by the Sheriff’s Department at Lawton’s property.

According to Lewis, Lawton was contacted by deputies on April 22, 2010, after Mesa County Animal Services requested a welfare check on calves and cows reportedly tied up to posts and trucks.

The deputy, who responded the same day, saw no animals were tied up and saw they had access to food and water, according to Lewis.

The Sheriff’s Department reported its findings back to Animal Services, he said.

On May 24, 2011, another complaint indicated animals were tied to machinery with no access to food and water.

A deputy who went to the property saw five cows tied up, Lewis said. Lawton explained the animals weren’t getting along with others, and they needed to be fed individually. They had hay and were being watered, Lewis said.

“All appeared to have normal weight and were not neglected,” he said.

The same observation was made after a follow-up visit June 1, 2011, Lewis said.


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