DEL RIO, Texas — A federal grand jury has collected evidence that shows U.S. government officials allowed the slaughter of hundreds of wild horses taken from federal lands, falsified records and tried to prevent investigators from uncovering the truth.
The chief prosecutor and grand jury foreman in the investigation wanted to bring criminal indictments against officials of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but the case was closed last summer after federal officials in Washington--including officials outside the investigation--intervened.
"I believe that my investigation was obstructed all along by persons within the BLM because they did not want to be embarrassed," the prosecutor, Alia Ludlum, wrote in a memo last summer. "I think there is a terrible problem with the program and with government agents placing themselves above the law."
Ludlum's memo is among thousands of pages of grand jury documents in the case obtained by Associated Press. Those documents also show that the grand jury foreman was incensed that federal officials were blocking the investigation, and that his requests to indict them were ignored.
Ludlum, 35, formerly an assistant U.S. attorney, is now a federal magistrate at the courthouse in Del Rio, which serves West Texas. She refused to be interviewed for this story, but she acknowledged the authenticity of documents obtained by AP.
Spokesmen for the departments of Justice and the Interior denied that their agencies did anything wrong, but they refused to answer questions. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversees the BLM and by law is responsible for protecting wild horses, refused to be interviewed.
Wild horses and burros, which compete with domestic cattle for forage, have been protected by federal law for 25 years. The BLM decides how many animals can survive on public lands, rounds up the excess animals and lets people adopt them for about $125 apiece. After a year, an adopter can receive a title to an animal, if the BLM finds the animal is receiving proper care.
The law says it is a crime to kill a wild horse or burro taken from public land. It prohibits anyone who adopts one of the animals from selling it for slaughter.
Ludlum wanted to indict BLM officials for allowing horses to be slaughtered.
Recent AP investigations have found that thousands of the horses are eventually sold for slaughter, and that the whereabouts of tens of thousands of adopted but never titled animals are unknown. The BLM has attacked the AP's reports, saying its investigations show that slaughter "is occurring to a far, far lesser degree than was alleged."
Babbitt refused to be interviewed, but the last person to serve as his chief at BLM said Babbitt has known all about problems in the wild horse program for a long time.
Jim Baca, who quit as BLM director in 1994 after a falling out with Babbitt, said in an interview that he discovered the program was in turmoil and wanted to take steps to correct it.
He said Babbitt told him to back off. "The orders were: 'Don't make waves; we've got enough problems,' " Baca said, adding that his efforts to shake up the program went nowhere.
"Babbitt thought it might cause problems and he didn't want any controversy, he didn't want to make anybody unhappy, and so this program just festered," Baca said. "When they wanted me to leave BLM, that was one of the reasons they gave me: 'Why the hell are you raising problems about horses?' "
At the time, Babbitt attributed Baca's departure to "different approaches to management style and consensus building." Meanwhile, the federal investigation in Texas had begun.
Records show that the grand jury saw evidence and heard testimony that:
* BLM agents placed 550 horses with dozens of people who were told they could do as they wished with the animals after a year, including sell them for slaughter to make money, which is against the law.
* The BLM ignored its own regulations and gave the Choctaw Indian Nation 29 newly born, unbranded colts to sell so the tribe could raise cash to pay the BLM for a mass adoption of 115 wild horses, which is against the law.
* A Texas BLM compliance officer, Don Galloway, arranged to keep 36 horses for himself and told two undercover investigators he planned to sell them for slaughter, which is against the law.
* BLM managers pressured employees not to talk to investigators. In one case, a BLM district manager tipped off the subject of a search warrant that law enforcement agents were about to visit his house, which is against the law.
* BLM officials falsified adoption documents and falsified computer records of brand-identification numbers used to track adopted animals, which is against the law.
"We want these charges filed, and we want to be notified of what was done, regardless of who these people are, please, ma'am," the grand jury foreman told Ludlum, according to transcripts.