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Judge reluctantly lets Neff keep two horses

| November 3, 2005 11:00 PM

A Rexford man charged with abusing a herd of horses was sentenced to six years probation Monday after entering a guilty plea to three counts of felony cruelty to animals.

Steven Henry Neff, 53, was arrested in April and charged with 17 counts of animal cruelty following an investigation by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office into complaints about the conditions of his horses. Neff eventually entered an Alford plea of guilty to three of the charges, accepting a conviction without admitting culpability. In court on Monday, he said he entered the plea in the face of a "virtual life sentence." The maximum penalty if convicted on all 17 charges would have been 34 years in prison.

"I basically was asked to gamble my life, and I need to go on with my life," he said.

Neff was convicted on similar charges twice in the past. In 1998, he was convicted on misdemeanor charges and in 2000 he was charged with five felony counts that were eventually reduced to misdemeanors. Through a plea agreement, he was sentenced to six months, suspended, on each count with the sentences running consecutively and fined $1,000.

The 17 horses involved in the current case were seized by the sheriff's office upon Neff's arrest. Under the terms of his plea agreement with the county attorney's office, Neff will be allowed to keep two horses during his probation. The rest of the horses will be auctioned with the proceeds put toward the cost of their care and feeding over the past six months. As of Monday, costs had reached nearly $12,000.

According to court documents, a veterinarian who inspected the animals on Neff's farm reported that the horses were not being given food and water in sufficient quantity or quality, that their basic health needs were not being met and that various hazards such as vehicle parts, farm implements, household furniture and sheet metal created an unsafe environment for the animals. The veterinarian also reported that the hay that had been provided for the horses was "extremely moldy" and that the horses were infested with lice.

Neff has maintained that the charges stemmed more from personal animosities with his Pinkham Creek neighbors than from the condition of the horses. In court on Monday, three of Neff's friends testified on his behalf.

Rick Bredenburg said he has known Neff for 25 to 30 years and testified that while some of Neff's horses were thin, Neff has always tried to make his child support payments first and take care of the animals second while struggling to make ends meet as a professional musician.

"And he's always on the hind end," Bredenburg said, indicating that Neff places his own well-being third in line.

Bredenburg said there wasn't a lot of forage in Neff's pasture when the horses were seized in the spring but that within two weeks there was plenty of grass available.

Neighbor Pete Ransier said the horses had access to two year-round creeks and were free to cross over to his property or to other part's of Neff's property where more forage was available.

"There was plenty to eat," he said. "And there was also plenty on Steve's land if you get away from the buildings."

Ransier also testified to seeing Neff break down crying when he once had to put down a horse that had broken a leg in a fall on a patch of ice.

Scott Brandos also offered positive testimony about Neff's care for horses, telling a story about how Neff helped him nurse a colt with joint problems back to health after two veterinarians had proposed either euthanizing the animal or taking a chance with expensive treatment that had only 50-50 odds of success.

Judge Michael Prezeau was unconvinced by the testimony. He told Neff the case was "frustrating" for several reasons.

"First of all, you act like this is all a big inconvenience to you and you sit up here and talk to me like you don't know why you're here because you're such a compassionate horse person," he said.

Prezeau said he thinks Neff is "tone deaf" to his animal's needs and "too arrogant" to care for them properly. He said he doesn't think Neff should be permitted to have any horses, but he relented and allowed him to keep the two animals specified in the plea agreement.

"I just don't think I should sentence those two animals to be cared for by someone who thinks he's smarter than he is when it comes to understanding their plight," Prezeau said.