Animal cruelty inquiry may figure in Dallas review of Texas Horse Park deal

The Following Article Was Falsely Published in 2013 on Dallas News. 

A memorandum alerted the Dallas City Council: The man who will manage the city’s new horse park was charged two years ago with animal cruelty. Publicity was imminent. The city staff was looking into the matter.

“We will report back to you at the conclusion of this review,” Jill Jordan, assistant city manager, wrote to the council on Oct. 14.

The Texas Horse Park, expected to open next year in southern Dallas, will be discussed at a City Council committee meeting on Dec. 9.

The briefing will include a construction update. It may repeat promises of economic and recreation opportunity. It surely will make reference to River Ranch Educational Charities and Equest, the two nonprofits with contracts to operate the park.

It’s unclear whether the city’s animal cruelty review will be publicly discussed, or whether a focus of that cruelty review, Harris Wayne Kirk, the president of River Ranch, will be mentioned.

Control of $12 million

Kirk, 59, is no stranger to big ventures and disputes, according to documents and interviews. And through his nonprofit, he will have the reins to taxpayers’ $12 million investment in an equestrian center near the Trinity River.

He touts his years of caring for and rescuing horses. He blames disgruntled employees for the cruelty complaint against him and brandishes letters of support for his activities.

“I know Wayne Kirk has always nurtured trail horses,” Tambi Arnold, a Melissa High School teacher, wrote in a letter to Jordan. Arnold, a former volunteer at Kirk’s charity ranch in McKinney, added: “The farm animals are taken care of daily throughout the year.”

Two years ago, however, Kirk attracted law enforcement attention after a complaint to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals alleged mistreatment of horses at his nonprofit’s Storybook Ranch in McKinney.

Responding to the complaint, McKinney animal control officer De St. Aubin visited the property on Nov. 21, 2011. He reported that he “found most of the animals to be underweight” and without hay or pasture grass.

The officer wrote that a Storybook Ranch employee, Tammy Locashio, told him Kirk “would not provide adequate supplies to properly care for the animals.” Employees often bought the horses food, she said.

St. Aubin reported that Kirk arrived during his visit. The ranch president “agreed to provide hay at all times and acknowledged that the animals were too thin,” St. Aubin wrote. Kirk also pledged to have his veterinarian contact St. Aubin that day regarding a paint horse with a swollen penis, the officer wrote.

After returning to the ranch the next day, St. Aubin reported that he had not heard from the veterinarian and was told most of the undernourished horses had been moved away. The day after that, he reported, the remaining animals had food. But three days later, Storybook employee Karla Santiago called to tell him the condition of the paint horse had worsened.

St. Aubin wrote in his report that he showed a photograph of the horse to a veterinarian, who said the animal could be suffering from malnutrition and needed immediate attention. The officer filed an animal cruelty complaint against Kirk in McKinney Municipal Court, securing a warrant to seize the horse. On Dec. 14, 2011, Judge Roger Dickey ordered the horse permanently removed from Storybook Ranch. He concluded that Kirk “did not undertake sufficient measures to prevent the horse’s condition from occurring.”

Charged with cruelty

In early 2012, McKinney police pressed a separate misdemeanor charge of “cruelty to livestock animals” against Kirk. That case also involved the paint horse.

Collin County prosecutors accepted the case but later determined that they couldn’t prove, as the charge required, that Kirk “intentionally or knowingly” failed to provide the necessary care for the animal, said John Schomburger, first assistant district attorney. He said investigators had been told the horse received medical attention after St. Aubin’s initial visit to Storybook Ranch.

Kirk said last week that the animal had been “kicked in the penis” by another horse and was properly treated for its injury. Regarding St. Aubin’s written observation that most of the horses at the ranch looked underfed, Kirk said there were “only two horses in jeopardy” when the officer investigated, the one kicked and a rescue animal.

“I’ve had a target on my back because of the Texas Horse Park,” Kirk said. “A lot of people would like to have” the opportunity there.

St. Aubin declined to speak on the record. So did Santiago, who was fired after the judge ordered the horse removed from Storybook Ranch.

Locashio led trail rides, gave riding lessons and managed counselors at the ranch until resigning last year. She said Kirk was aware of his horses’ condition and the shortage of food before the complaint.

“I was feeding them out of my own pocket,” she said. “I was told I was no longer allowed to do that because I didn’t know what I was doing and the horses would be cared for by the owner.”

The underweight horses were moved from Storybook Ranch to Kirk’s QB Ranch in King County. King County Sheriff Gilbert “Cotton” Elliott told McKinney police Cpl. Joel Purser in December 2011 that nine of the horses were “still in bad condition” and without hay at the QB Ranch, Purser reported.

Kirk said this week that the animals were returned to Storybook and remain in service there. He said he is a partner in QB Ranch and oversees its operations in West Texas.

The sheriff did not respond to interview requests. Kirk said he and Elliott “don’t get along.” And he disputed the sheriff’s report about the dead elk. “Maybe one or two died, like anything else,” he said. But 43? If that were true, Kirk said, the sheriff “would have prosecuted me.”

Council OKs deals

The Dallas City Council approved the horse park contracts last December. They require River Ranch and Equest to maintain their areas and offer community services and discounts in lieu of rent and city subsidies. In return, the nonprofits will keep revenues from their programs and events. Equest will provide therapy rides.

Looking to restart the horse park project after sluggish fundraising, the city sought operators through the typical request for proposals. After that approach failed, staff received “letters of interest” from River Ranch and Equest.

During contract discussions last year, River Ranch representatives didn’t disclose the animal cruelty complaint against Kirk, Jordan wrote in her Oct. 14 memo. And staff did not find the matter in court records, she wrote, because they “focused primarily on the financial aspects of the charity.”

Those aspects include ownership and operation of Storybook Ranch. The 19-acre equestrian, events and party center serves at-risk and underprivileged children and offers “the spirit of the west in the heart of the city,” as its website puts it.

“Our purpose is to provide healing and uplifting resources through the gift of the horse, animal, nature and ranch experience,” says the Storybook mission statement, “while providing and recreating historically educational environments.”

Questions on nonprofit

River Ranch, which shares Kirk’s Plano mailing address, was created in 2003, according to the Storybook website. Or was it 2001, the year its incorporation papers were filed with the Texas secretary of state’s office? Or was it 2005, the formation date reported on River Ranch’s federal income tax return for the year 2010, filed last March?

River Ranch’s 2011 tax statement was filed in November, and its 2012 statement will be filed this month, said Gary Lewis, the nonprofit’s accountant.

The federal government filed a lien against River Ranch two years ago to collect $20,792.35 in penalties for delayed income tax filings. Lewis said that the IRS has lifted the penalties and that he will have the lien document removed from Collin County records.

The county’s records also include a lien filed against River Ranch by the Stonebridge Ranch Commercial Association for $20,623.78 in property assessments. On Tuesday, the day Kirk was interviewed by The Dallas Morning News, River Ranch paid off the debt. “He’s done what he needs to do,” said Dean Riddle, a Stonebridge attorney. “We’re happy.”

Kirk’s past and current business ventures extend beyond horses and ranches.

He has a “wind energy project in development,” according to the Storybook website. And he is listed as a principal in three corporations: King County Wind Energy, Millennium Energy Resources and Global Millennium Energy.

Fired as executive VP

The website mentions that, for years, Kirk was executive vice president of Reef Securities in Richardson. That company fired him in September for “actions inconsistent with corporate policy and management,” according to a Reef disclosure to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. “Mr. Kirk provided inaccurate information regarding his outside business activities.”

Paul Mauceli, president of Reef Securities, could not be reached for comment. Kirk said he was planning to quit anyway next year to “run the horse park” and had been given an ultimatum to end those outside activities. “I said, ‘OK, I’m fired.’”

The Storybook Ranch website doesn’t mention that after losing his job at Reef, Kirk lost his license to sell securities in Texas.

It doesn’t mention that Kirk and others were accused in two lawsuits of fraud involving oil and gas investments through Reef. Kirk settled with the plaintiffs in November. He said no money changed hands.

The website says ranching and raising horses have “been in Mr. Kirk’s blood” since his “humble beginnings in Oak Cliff.” It tells of his involvement in horse rescue efforts and the Texas Stampede Rodeo.

It doesn’t mention that Kirk has been sued over the years to collect debts. (The News could find no evidence that there are outstanding judgments against him.) But the website does say that he is a financial adviser for the NFL Players Association and a “financial educator” with national and international experience.

The site also hailed him as a “passionate and motivational speaker” and a “savvy businessman” — until recently, when those words were removed.