South Central District Judge Tom Schneider sentenced William Kiefer to six months in jail or on electronic monitoring for the starvation deaths of more than 100 horses in Burleigh and Morton counties.
Kiefer, 63, pleaded guilty on Aug. 2 to nine counts of Class A misdemeanor overworking, mistreating or abandoning animals — four in Burleigh County and five in Morton County.
Schneider on Tuesday sentenced Kiefer to one year in prison on each count, with six months suspended. The nine sentences will be served at the same time and will be followed by two years of supervised probation, during which Kiefer will not be allowed to own or possess livestock. Kiefer will be allowed to serve the sentence in jail or on electronic monitoring, if such a program accepts him.
The sentence, which will start Jan. 9, was two months longer than what attorneys in the case had reached as a plea agreement. The judge said the longer sentence was warranted, given the number of animals that died, despite Kiefer’s lack of prior criminal history.
"He could easily have reached out for help," Schneider said.
In late January, officials in Morton and Burleigh counties seized more than 150 horses and mules from properties owned by Kiefer after finding 96 dead animals on property northwest of New Salem and three dead on pasture east of Bismarck. Several other animals later died. Kiefer is accused in both the Burleigh County and Morton County cases of failing to provide necessary food, water and shelter to his animals.
According to a complaint in the Morton County case, one count of overworking, mistreating or abandoning animals is in response to a group of horses and mules found dead on a hilltop in the pasture northwest of New Salem, another count is for animals found dead in a barn and a third count is for dead animals in a Quonset and nearby trailer. A fourth count is for animals found dead in a hay yard, while the fifth count is for all the surviving animals.
Three of the charges in Burleigh County are for animals found dead on Kiefer's property, and the fourth charge is for the surviving animals.
Schneider ordered Kiefer to pay $300 in court fees in each county, plus a victim/witness fee of $25 on each of the nine counts. The judge also required Kiefer to make a $750 donation in each county to a humane society or to Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, which helped care for the surviving animals in the Morton County case.
The maximum sentence for a Class A misdemeanor is one year in prison. Misdemeanor charges stemming from the same incident cannot be run consecutive to each other by law.
After Kiefer was charged, the North Dakota Legislature changed the state's animal abuse laws. Now, animal cruelty is a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Animal abuse, neglect and abandonment are Class A misdemeanors for first and second offenses and Class C felonies for third or subsequent offenses.
Morton County Assistant State's Attorney Gabrielle Goter, Burleigh County Assistant State's Attorney Christine Hummert McAllister and defense attorney Charles Stock recommended sentences of one year in prison with all but 120 days suspended and two years of supervised probation, along fines and donations to animal rescue organizations.
Despite their joint recommendations, the attorneys had very different views on what had happened in the case.
Stock portrayed Kiefer, who was not at the Tuesday hearing and has not appeared at any prior hearings in the case, as a horse lover who was trying to keep horses out of slaughter facilities and became "overwhelmed." He said his client sometimes would lie beside horses and try to feed and care for them.
"What good was that?" Schneider asked, pointing out that numerous knowledgeable people would have told him how to care for the animals if he had reached out to them.
But Stock said Kiefer was too proud to ask for help, plus was dealing with mental health issues. He also pointed out Kiefer had no prior criminal history.
The prosecutors did not buy the excuse of Kiefer being overwhelmed. Goter said Kiefer consistently had held himself out to be the victim in the case and made it seem as if the animals on his properties had been left their without his permission by other people. Goter said prosecutors had evidence that Kiefer purchased many of the horses, and the New Salem property had restricted access, limiting the opportunities for someone to abandon an animal there.
Kiefer also told an officer conducting a presentence investigation that he had never had a chance to tell his side of the story. Goter pointed out that he would have been able to air his viewpoint on the situation had he shown up at the court hearing.
"I think the 120 days, in light of the number of animals that did die and in light of the circumstances, is appropriate," Goter said.
She also requested restitution remain open in the case. A man who owned one of the horses who died in Kiefer's care has requested $1,600, of which Kiefer has paid $450, she said.
Stock protested a number of probation conditions to which Kiefer will be subject, including a prohibition on owning weapons and a requirement that he allow probation officers to search his home and vehicle at any time. The prosecutors said those conditions are typical probation conditions and that Kiefer should not be treated differently than any other defendant. Schneider approved most of the conditions Stock protested, plus required Kiefer to submit to a DNA test. Such a test is required in felony cases but is not often included in misdemeanor cases.
The Tuesday hearing was the third sentencing hearing scheduled in the case. Schneider ordered a presentence investigation be conducted after Kiefer pleaded guilty, and sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 10. That hearing was rescheduled to Dec. 5 to allow more time for completion of the presentence investigation and a psychiatric evaluation. Then, the Dec. 5 hearing was rescheduled because of weather and road conditions.