Friday, March 24, 2023

Ongoing court delays frustrate horse advocates in New Hanover animal abuse case

Four of the rescued horses at Horton's Rehab Ranch in Pender County. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton's Rehab Ranch)
Four of the rescued horses at Horton’s Rehab Ranch in Pender County shortly after they were rescued from the Woody family farm in mid-July. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Horton’s Rehab Ranch)

WILMINGTON — Carrying out justice is often a long, drawn-out affair.

The court date for the Woody family has been continued five times since the trio was charged with animal cruelty after their horses were discovered severely malnourished on their Greenville Loop Road farm last summer.

RELATED: Horse neglect likely took time, some allege it was intentional; New Hanover Sheriff still investigating

It began when a horse was seen eating grass on the side of Greenville Loop Road, just north of Hewletts Creek, leading an animal control officer to the nearby Woody farm where one horse was stuck in a mudhole, severely malnourished. The horse, named Jordan, died on the way to a nearby animal hospital.

Of the thirteen horses found on the farm, seven were ultimately rescued due to their malnourished conditions.

A sixth court date was set for February 13 on Tuesday morning. This time it was delayed because the defense attorney for Robert and Judy Woody had “developed a conflict and needs to get out of the case,” according to Samantha Dooies, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office.

The attorney, Addison Palanza, was exiting Courtroom 200 at the New Hanover Courthouse late Tuesday morning, which was crowded with the usual morning docket of misdemeanors including drug offenses and DWIs.

“There are no winners in cases like this,” Palanza said. “It’s tragic.”

Images posted on Tuesday by Jessie Malpass, who adopted four of the rescued horses, show a 20-year-old mare named Rita shortly after she was rescued (left) and now. (Port City Daily photos/Courtesy Jessie Malpass)
Images posted on Tuesday by Jessie Malpass, who adopted four of the rescued horses, show a 13-year-old Quarter Horse named Boone (whose name was changed from Mr. C) shortly after he was rescued, left, and now. (Port City Daily photos/Courtesy Jessie Malpass)

Ongoing delays

The court first set a date for the Woody family, including daughter Sarah Woody, on August 28 but at the time requested a continuance so the defendants could retain counsel. In September the court delayed a hearing again for administrative reasons. And at a November 20 appearance, it was delayed because the court was “awaiting [an] invoice from animal services,” according to Dooies.

The three defendants were not present Tuesday morning, as they were on November 20 when they were sitting on a bench outside the courtroom, Robert Woody in a wheelchair beside his wife and daughter. Each said “no comment” in their first response since the rescue.

Jennifer Witkowski, a horse trainer and advocate in Pender County who has closely followed the initial investigation and ongoing court delays, was in the courtroom Tuesday morning. She later described it as a frustrating process.

“The equestrian community will continue to follow this case, as long as it takes, to help see that justice is served,” Witkowski said. “It’s incredibly frustrating for some, and we appreciate their patience as our community knows they still have ownership of four horses, which we hope animal control is checking on.”

Lieutenant Jerry Brewer of the New Hanover Sheriff’s Office said on Tuesday that animal control officers were in constant contact with the Woody family and that a visit occurred on November 18, when the horses were found to be “in immaculate shape.”

Jewell Horton, Pender County’s animal shelter manager, was also present Tuesday morning. She runs Horton’s Rehab Ranch (which is not affiliated with the county) and took in five of the Woody farm horses before they were adopted.

One of those horses was a 22-year-old Apaloosa named Brutus. According to Horton, Brutus put on a healthy amount of weight but could never recover from a bout of laminitis of the hoof. She said he was recently euthanized on her farm.

Alleged intentional neglect

A photo, dated October 21, 2018, from Sarah Woody's Facebook page; the photo appears to show Woody riding 'Hollywood,' her horse. (Port City Daily photo / Facebook)
A photo dated October 21, 2018 from Sarah Woody’s Facebook page, appears to show Woody riding ‘Hollywood,’ her show horse. (Port City Daily photo / Facebook)

The continuance is the latest of a lengthy investigation and subsequent court delays.

Two weeks after the discovery, the Sheriff’s Office said it was overseeing an investigation into the matter but was not pressing charges against the Woody family. At the time, Lieutenant Brewer said they were cooperating with the investigation and that Robert and Judy Woody had “fallen on hard financial times” due to certain medical conditions.

“Because he’s in a wheelchair, and then their truck broke down, he hasn’t been able to travel and get hay for the horses … Sometimes you have to look at things and take in the totality of the situation, but this just kind of got out of their hands faster than they probably realized it did, versus someone meaningfully hurting an animal,” Brewer said at the time.

In early August, Horton, Witkowski, and a professor of equine medicine at North Carolina State University, Kate Hepworth, said that the conditions the horses were found in were likely due to intentional neglect over a long period of time.

Although a horse’s breed, age, and initial health condition should be considered, Hepworth said “it would probably take multiple months” for a healthy horse to reach the level of malnourishment discovered when they were rescued.

Witkowski described Sarah Woody, the daughter, as an “accomplished horsewoman.”

Ms. Woody was formerly employed by Reagan Equine, the animal hospital in Wilmington where the horses were first assessed before they were transported to Horton’s Rehab Ranch, according to Witkowski. (Woody listed Reagan Equine on her LinkedIn page but later deleted it or made the page private).

Witkowski believed the Woody family had neglected some horses at the expense of others, noting that Ms. Woody had considerable experience with the animals as a vet student at Cape Fear Community College and through her professional capacity showing horses.

“The horses that she has showed, including her current horse, Hollywood, appear from photographs on social media to be well taken care of, which supports that she has a working knowledge of how to care for a horse appropriately, and that she simply chose to not care for her other animals to the same degree,” Witkowski said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at or (970) 413-3815

Related Articles