HiCaliber Horse Rescue Set to Close Saturday as Investigations of Nonprofit Continue

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HiCaliber Horse Rescue’s founder, Michelle Knuttila, gave a tour of the Valley Center Ranch on March 2, 2018. (Brandon Quester, inewsource)

Brad Racino | inewsource

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State and local agencies are continuing to investigate allegations of fraud and improper veterinary practices at HiCaliber Horse Rescue as the Valley Center nonprofit approaches its voluntary closing date Saturday.

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A June 18 post on HiCaliber’s Facebook page said, “We had voluntarily set a closing date of June 30th. We are not being evicted, as some would have you believe. Our rent is paid beyond that date. What will happen as of the 30th, is our adoptions team will be phased out and we hope that the majority of the horses will have found new homes by then.”

Sean Jones, HiCaliber’s attorney, told inewsource on Monday there are “lots of moving parts in this matter.”

“Some benefactors have stated an intent to provide funds necessary to help the organization relocate to a new property and continue operations, but nothing concrete yet,” Jones said in a text message. “The organization is placing as many horses as possible in new homes and not actively taking on new rescues, but it’s impossible to know how soon all the horses will be placed.”

He added: “It’s doubtful that this will be completed by June 30.”

The nonprofit has seen a drop in donations over the past several months, as well as increasing scrutiny on the part of government agencies tasked with overseeing charities and animal rescue operations, including the California Attorney General’s Office, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the California Department of Consumer Affairs and the San Diego County Humane Society.

So far, no agency has filed charges.

HiCaliber’s founder and spokeswoman, Michelle Knuttila, and founding board member Romney Snyder did not respond to requests for comment about the rescue closing.

In the past, Knuttila has said HiCaliber is the “nation’s most active horse rescue.” Though that’s difficult to quantify, the nonprofit does attract more attention – positive and negative – than any other rescue in Southern California.

Tens of thousands of supporters rally behind HiCaliber every week on Facebook, sending in messages of support, requests for adoption and thousands of dollars in tax-deductible donations. These “villagers,” as they call themselves, fund HiCaliber’s operation, which went from generating around $177,000 in revenue in 2014 to more than $1 million two years later – almost all from donations and grants.

HiCaliber’s critics, who also number in the thousands, allege the money isn’t being used to save horses but rather to fund Knuttila’s personal expenses. inewsource obtained HiCaliber’s PayPal records in March and found Knuttila had spent donor funds on late-night fast-food and bar tabs, mobile phone spy technology, Weight Watchers and other purchases.

In an online video shortly after the story published, Knuttila said “the paper trail is solid” and all of the expenses were legitimate.

The allegations of fraud and misuse of charitable assets led to an audit by the state Attorney General’s Office, which ensures “charitable donations contributed by Californians are not misapplied and squandered through fraud or other means.”

That office also halted HiCaliber’s fundraising in March for failing to file tax documents. The nonprofit was reinstated in April after filing the paperwork.

The county District Attorney’s Office has also been investigating HiCaliber. The office did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation’s status.

In addition to the allegations of fraud, critics allege Knuttila is euthanizing horses based on her own medical assessments and not those of a veterinarian. Though she has denied this in the past, Knuttila told inewsource in February, “It is within our right to euthanize every horse here without a reason. They’re our property. … I don’t have to have a vet say, ‘I recommend it for euthanasia.’”

This, in addition to claims that Knuttila has performed surgeries and administered medicine without a license, has caught the California State Veterinary Medical Board’s attention.

A spokeswoman for the board told inewsource on Tuesday its investigation of HiCaliber is still active. Jones said he was expecting to meet with the agency this week to go over HiCaliber’s “horse treatment protocols and see if any changes need to be made.”

Knuttila has said she would rather euthanize horses than adopt them out to HiCaliber “haters” – anyone who has ever questioned the organization or spoke out publicly against it. This has hamstrung the organization’s ability to offload its remaining horses. As of Tuesday, HiCaliber said it had about 60 horses remaining.

The group continues to solicit donations for hay and veterinary care. One online post reads, “There are horses that require daily medications like Previcox. Utilities are over $1000 per month. There are so many expenses and we are so far behind.”

In addition to those expenses, if HiCaliber wants to stay on the Valley Center property it rents, the organization must pay thousands of dollars to San Diego County to continue a process started months ago to obtain a required permit to keep more than three horses on a property.

“If major funding is allocated or another viable property is found, the organization’s operations could continue,” the group’s lawyer told inewsource.

“For the time being, we are focused on working with all concerned agencies and clearing up all existing issues on the chance that the organization remains viable,” Jones said.

Timeline:

“HiCaliber Horse Rescue ensnared in allegations of animal cruelty, fraud”
Feb. 28, 2018

“Strong reaction to inewsource report on HiCaliber Horse Rescue”
March 3, 2018

“Attorney General’s Office halts HiCaliber’s fundraising, spending for failing to file tax docs”
March 5, 2018

“Former HiCaliber board members distance themselves from horse rescue’s financials”
March 5, 2018

“Former board member and veterinarian details problems with finances, medical practices at HiCaliber Horse Rescue”
March 6, 2018

“HiCaliber volunteers say disease outbreak at Valley Center ranch not disclosed”
March 8, 2018

“HiCaliber donor funds used for mobile phone spying, Weight Watchers; documents shared with district attorney”
March 15, 2018

“Eyeballs, Del Mar and manure: More on HiCaliber Horse Rescue”
March 22, 2018

“Fourth HiCaliber Horse Rescue board member never saw financials”
March 28, 2018

“HiCaliber Horse Rescue back to fundraising after filing financial paperwork”
April 18, 2018

“HiCaliber Horse Rescue shutting down amid investigations”
April 21, 2018

”HiCaliber horses not welcome at parade over fears they’ll infect other animals”
May 22, 2018

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