Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.


While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.

Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site


Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

On Thursday, the Obama administration asserted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights did not extend to military and intelligence officials working abroad. By repeating a script well-rehearsed by former presidents Bush and Clinton, Obama endorsed the very sentiment that has led to military abuses in the past.

When he was found by officers of the Canadian military, Shidane Abukar Arone —a Somali citizen— said he was searching for a lost child. It was 1993 and Arone’s country was broken by famine and conflict —circumstances that would lead, seven months later, to a botched U.S. military operation and the deaths of 18 Delta Force rangers.

Detained on suspicion of trespassing, Arone was taken into custody on the evening of March 16, 1993. Sometime that evening, allegedly uttering the words “Canada, Canada, Canada,” Arone succumbed to grievous injuries sustained at the hands of the Canadian military. In the hours prior to Arone’s death, members of a highly-trained commando team subjected him to senseless beatings and, while restrained, sexual abuse. One of the team members, Master Cpl. Giasson, found the badly-beaten detainee semi-conscious and bleeding. “In Canada we cannot do this,” he told a fellow officer. “But here…”

“The Somali Affair” was one of Canada’s most embarrassing and deplorable cases of detainee abuse. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, however, these stories are disturbingly (historically) common. With such a somber backdrop, yesterday’s US declaration on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is even more damning.

The treaty was designed to extend human rights responsibilities (and protections) to a country’s military and intelligence forces stationed overseas. Previously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the UN’s interpretation of the treaty’s scope, claiming the covenant only applied to US territories under formal jurisdiction. Yesterday in Geneva, the Obama administration agreed.

Intended to ban arbitrary killings, torture, unfair trials and imprisonments without judicial review, the treaty  —ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992— continues to create tension between legal advisors who say ignoring global implications of the treaty is  “not legally tenable” and military officers who say the treaty will complicate future U.S. military operations.

The military argument, now, is party line: The United States has too many responsibilities abroad to be subject to such restrictions. Full stop. For others, the treaty is simply unnecessary as American moral fiber remains superior to any document canonized by the United Nations. (This is, I’m afraid, the legacy of American Exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world). But proposing that a military’s expansive scope should be met with the shrinking of its responsibility seems inexcusable. And presuming protection will be guaranteed by enlightened leadership is a most dangerous game.

These positions ignore what we —the public— already know about the military at war and under stress: Traumatic environments alter one’s views of what is right, wrong, and the grey area between. The acts captured in Abu Ghraib’s debasing pictures —taken by men and women who willingly degraded the value of human life— were imagined by Americans committed to their country’s cause. The “War on Terror” carved lines into Middle Eastern sand that eventually obscured the boundaries drawn by law. Sure, there was a failure in leadership, and individual decisions are never a reflection of one’s environment alone, but the soldier’s willingness to take part in abuse is born out of the very fraternity needed to stay alive far from home.

In the end, social psychology might be a blunt tool to explain, exactly, why one Canadian soldier burned Mr. Arone’s genitals with lighted cigarettes. But research does explain why people, who would otherwise object to such treatment, or intervene against such acts, decided —in these cases— not to. That’s why yesterday’s decision by US officials serves as the highest order abdication of responsibility  —it echoes the twisted logic of permissibility: “not at home, but here…” And that, of course, is particularly exceptional.

Fact-Checking Knoxville’s ABC News affiliate: Tennessee Walking Horses

I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

When I started reporting my latest AJAM story on allegations of horse abuse in a little town of Maryville, Tenn., I told people I was “agnostic about horses.” This usually prompted a laugh, but it was true: I certainly didn’t want to see any animals abused —horse or otherwise— but my life had afforded only a few —random— opportunities to see these animals up close.

Now, three months after starting the story, I usually receive a few emails a week from concerned readers on the topic of horse abuse. I wish I could respond to all of them —and in this format— but I will take a stab at one message I received this morning. Lacking any text, the email included a link to this piece, written by a reporter for an ABC News affiliate out of Knoxville, Tennessee.

While I could talk in the abstract about the writing of this piece, and the struggle this reporter seemed to have with particular facts about pending bill, H.R. 1518, or the PAST Act, I figured I’d copy and paste it below and annotate my way through. My additions are noted in bold.


MORRISTOWN (WATE) – Tennessee walking horses are at the center of a major debate on Capitol Hill.

AM – Agreed.

A Kentucky congressman has proposed a bill making some major changes to how the horses are handled.

AM – The proposed bill will restrict the use of particular “action devices” commonly used on Tennessee Walking Horses.

According to the president of the East Tennessee Walking Horse Association, Ken Estes, the bill would mean a hit of millions of dollars to the local agricultural economy.

AM – As a point of privilege, I think this quote can stand. As a point of reportorial professionalism, I’d like to see documents that would indicate the amount and extent of money that might be lost.

He says most of the tools they use to get the horses to walk the way they do would be eliminated. Without their signature walk, the walking horse industry would be eliminated.

AM – I’ve heard this charge time and again. While I’m no trainer, I have heard from many trainers that the TWH industry would not disappear with the new Federal restrictions, just that the individuals who have used abusive tactics to make their horses profitable in the circuit would be forced out of the industry. 

“I’m going to put a 6 inch chain on him. This is called an action device and the bill would eliminate it totally. It would eliminate any type of boot or action device,” Estes said, as he put a small chain around the horses lower leg.

AM – The reporter fails to ask about soring at all. Sure, the action devices are specifically noted in the bill, but the context of the proposed amendment has been shaped by generations of trainers who have used —and continue to use— caustic chemicals to abrade or sensitize the skin. The “action devices”, in this context, are used to exacerbate the pain.

He also showed us how a heavier horse shoe used on the horses now, would be replaced with a much lighter one.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers played a story done by ABC’s Nightline in May 2012. It features a Humane Society expose that shows the animals being tortured to walk the way they do.

AM – Lawmakers showed the 2012 video highlighting the case of Jackie McConnell. 

The proposed bill was a response to that publicity.

AM – The proposed bill was a response to ABUSE IN THE WALKING HORSE INDUSTRY —abuse that was captured on film in the McConnell case, but has been a feature of the TWH community for many years. 

“The Humane Society has used us as a fundraiser to get people to send in money. They have made a whipping boy out of us, so to speak,” Estes explained.

AM – Should have prompted a direct question to HSUS. The reporter either didn’t ask, or didn’t include HSUS’s response.

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could end a million dollar industry.

AM – Fair statement. Misconceptions certainly abound in this story.

“Well most of the horses that people pay millions of dollars for, when they take their equipment off, they are worthless. They become just a horse and they drop in value to $300-400,” he said.

AM – Ancillary concern. Estes doesn’t speak to why horses would not be valuable if, save the action devices, they still took part in TWH competitions.

“It’s just money. When you hurt an animal, it has feelings too,” said Stacy Jordan with the Hamblen County Humane Society. The Humane Society of the United States has come out saying the ones who oppose the legislation are the ones making money from the abuse.

AM – I think this is an overly simplified quote, too. Don’t know if it really cuts to the heart of the matter. 

Estes says that for an 1,100lb horse, chains and heavy shoes don’t qualify as abuse.

AM – For individuals who watched the testimony on Capitol Hill (and if you didn’t here is a summary), the question was not whether chains or heavy shoes qualified as abuse, but that the industry has been poorly policed, abuse (soring and otherwise) has persisted, and that action devices have been used to hide some instances of abuse from horse show investigators.  

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could now end a $1 million industry.

“I can’t imagine the financial repercussions of this to the horse industry in the area,” Estes said.

AM – Neither can I. Because I’ve never seen the numbers. 

The bill would also increase the number of inspections by the USDA.

AM – And a series of other things: http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/house-bill/1518


I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

Postmortem: Abuse in Tennessee Walking Horse community

Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled out onto the highway, leading the large trailer towards the point of exchange —McNutt Farm in Maryville— as a cruiser from the County Sheriff’s department cruiser pulled off the highway’s grass median to serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, the digital clock reading 6:43, and typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”

I nearly missed Gino Bachman’s phone call as I pulled off the highway and into an IHOP parking lot. My cellphone, which I thought I’d stashed somewhere on the passenger seat, was lost amongst a scarf, camera bag, and an escaped notebook. As I searched the interior of the car, everything was cast in the dull blue glow of the IHOP sign.

“Don’t go in the restaurant,” Gino said, as I answered my phone on the last ring. “John just got off the 75 and should be there in 25 minutes. I’ll meet you there in 15.”

“There” was the parking lot of a neighboring Home Depot. After I inched my rental car into one of the many open spaces, I looked at the clock —5:56 am.

A little after 6:12 am, Gino pulled in beside me—the engine of his Chevy Silverado vibrating the Blount County SPCA decals that adorned both the driver and passenger side doors. He nodded a quiet welcome as I climbed into the cabin of the truck.

By 6:20, Gino and I arrived at Weigal gas station just outside of Maryville. There, under garish industrial floodlights, sat a 44-foot long white trailer towed by a heavy-duty black pick-up. Inside, ‘John’ and his assistant, ‘Audrey’, greeted Gino with tired smiles (The couple refused to provide their real names).

Two officers from the Blount County Sheriff's office stand with McNutt Farm owner, William McNutt, in front of the transport truck and trailer on November 8, 2013. Due to concerns over security, the transport vehicle removed its license plates and any identifying markings, and received a police escorted to McNutt Farm. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Two officers from the Blount County Sheriff’s office stand with McNutt Farm owner, William McNutt, in front of the transport truck and trailer on November 8, 2013. Due to concerns over security, the transport vehicle removed its license plates and any identifying markings, and received a police escorted to McNutt Farm. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Their trailer held the five remaining Tennessee Walking Horses, which had been seized from Larry Wheelon’s barn the previous April. During the first return —of seven horses the previous weekend— John was confronted by some of the horses’ owners at the IHOP in town. This morning, he’d stopped to remove the vehicle’s license plates and identifying stickers — an attempt to preserve the anonymity required to safeguard the animals they often transported for the Human Society of the United States (HSUS).

Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled in lead of the large trailer on the highway, joined moments later by a county sheriff’s department cruiser, which would serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, our small convoy creeping closer to the point of exchange, I noticed the digital clock read 6:43. I then typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”


I’d written that sentence before, more than three months earlier, after receiving an email from a good friend, fellow Columbia alumnus and astounding writer, Addie Berard. She asked if I was interested in an animal cruelty investigation. I told her: “It depends,” but mentioned I’d be happy to make the connection and discuss details with her contact.

The story focused on a case brought against a celebrated horse trainer and subsequently dismissed in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.

Two weeks later, around midnight, I was looking out a dark, fogged plane window as it taxied into the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was destined for a small town I’d never visited, in a state I’d never travelled to, in a region I knew little about.


Less than 20 miles from Knoxville, the small town of Maryville lies on the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, surrounded by vast tracts of pasture and farmland. Here, in a town of 27,000, Tennessee walking horses have a rich history: School teachers provide inexpensive riding lessons on their own farms, show horses take the field during half-time celebrations at high school football games and children often visit Walking Horse stables on class field trips. Visitors don’t have to look hard to find license plates plastered with the rearing silhouette of a horse, the Walking Horse icon, or overhear residents who eagerly divide the town into two types of people: “horse people” and the others. It was here that Larry Wheelon’s case came before a county judge.

The now-vacant barn Larry Wheelon used to train 27 horses, in Maryville, Tennessee. Wheelon was evicted from the premises in June, less than a month after USDA officials seized 19 of the 27 horses after receiving allegations of animal cruelty. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
The now-vacant barn Larry Wheelon used to train 27 horses, in Maryville, Tennessee. Wheelon was evicted from the premises in June, less than a month after USDA officials seized 19 of the 27 horses after receiving allegations of animal cruelty. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Larry Wheelon is a 68-year-old horse trainer who operated a stable (above) in Maryville. One morning last April, a federal agent, posing undercover, entered the premises looking for evidence that would corroborate a series of tips she’d collected over the previous year. The agent, a 23-year veteran of the service named Julie McMillan, found enough information that morning to file an affidavit with the county judge, gaining approval for a subsequent search of the premise, and then —a week after that— a seizure of 19 horses from the location.

The seizure set off alarms throughout the industry. Wheelon, who has had between eight and 15 previous citations for alleged abuse, was well connected throughout the walking horse community. At the time of the seizure, he was serving as a director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and —perhaps most worryingly— on the association’s ethics committee.

But the history of the Tennessee walking horse is suffuse with instances of abuse dealt to the celebrated animals. Specifically, Larry Wheelon was alleged to have “sored” some of the horses under his care —an act in violation of a federal statute. Soring involves the application of chemicals or action devices to the legs and feet of the animal. The chemicals, which are often caustic, are used to burn and sensitize the horses’ legs. A trainer can then use this associated pain to modify the way the horse walks. When trained in this fashion, the walking horses’ smooth gait is morphed into a high-stepping stride, known in the industry as “The Big Lick.”

At competitions this hectic-looking prance is associated with higher scores and, throughout the competition’s history, greater likelihood of victory. For more than 30 years starting in 1939, the incentives for trainers were clear: if you could sore an animal effectively, you could win both money and prestige. According to some, it was always in trainer’s interest to abuse the animals he was charged to care for.

In 1970, regulations in the industry began to change. In a bill, authored by Maryland’s Senator Joseph Tydings, “soring” was classified a federal offense under the Horse Protection Act. The bill empowered the USDA to investigate instances of abuse within the Tennessee walking horse, and other gaited horse, communities throughout the country.

But enforcement was always the challenge for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which lacked the resources to properly investigate all allegations of abuse. In response, the USDA outsourced some of the regulation to individuals denoted as Qualified Designated Persons, or QDPs, that could be hired directly by SHOW organizations to police the entrants at their events. Outsourcing responsibility to these regulators quickly led to conflicts of interest.

These SHOW organizations were private companies contracted by organizers of horse competitions. In an internal USDA audit in 2010, SHOW-sponsored regulators were found to have recorded lower rates of violations when compared to USDA investigators working the same events. The USDA’s internal investigators noted that the “conflicts of interest” between these QDPs and show organizers led to institutionalized willful blindness.

As described to me, the following situation could easily occur: Trainer A brings their horse in for final inspection before taking the field at a competition. Fellow trainer B, who is also horse breeder, is charged with conducting the examination. Trainer B knows that Trainer A has purchased Trainer B’s colts each season, and will likely continue to do so, provided there aren’t any untoward developments over the remaining shows. Perhaps Trainer B notices something strange about the look or feel of one of Trainer A’s horses —perhaps the legs are a little tender. What are the chances Trainer B will void an upcoming sale by reporting the details of this discovery?

These steady drips of corruption slowly wore away the legitimacy of the SHOW system, and led the USDA auditors to recommend the program be suspended. It wasn’t.

Over time, the low rumbling of continuing abuses became louder. But allegations could only get investigators so far. With the number of people involved and the amount of money at stake, there were few witnesses or participants willing to talk publicly about the industry. Unless, of course, they got caught first.

Gino Bachman, right, compare examination notes with fellow SPCA investigator Crystal Wallace (foreground) and SPCA volunteer, Patti Patterson (background), at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. That morning, the SPCA oversaw the return of the final five seized horses, originally seized from Larry Wheelon's stable in April 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Gino Bachman, right, compares examination notes with fellow SPCA investigator Crystal Wallace (foreground) and SPCA volunteer, Patti Patterson (background), at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. That morning, the SPCA oversaw the return of the final five seized horses, originally seized from Larry Wheelon’s stable in April 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

That’s why the stories of Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell were so critical. Davis, who ended up serving jail time for violating the terms of his parole, has since spoken publicly about the practice of “soring” among trainers today. Jackie McConnell, who was secretly videotaped by The Humane Society of the United States abusing his horses in 2012, pled guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty—and avoiding prison time as a result. Their message: the abuse continues.


When I arrived in Maryville, my goal was to understand the case against Wheelon. Among the many I spoke to, attempted to speak to, cornered at road-side restaurants, or interrupted outside the local court house, most individuals seemed divided: The case against Wheelon was either a conspiracy brought by the USDA, HSUS and the SPCA in order to set a precedent, or it was the just desserts for a man who had made his career abusing animals for personal benefit. There seemed to be no middle ground.

What I learned, however, was how a story can so quickly be lost to the so-called “talking heads” and that the reporter, often, can do little to avoid it. For instance, my strategy in Maryville was to speak with everyone who might have a comment on the case —from the county’s district attorney to the server at the local Huddle House, a road-side diner. What became clear, however, was a fundamental miscommunication between those involved in the case, and the reporter (me).

On one side, Wheelon’s supporters presumed that my presence in Maryville was, in fact, a product of my bias. They believed that I had shown up at the behest of the HSUS and USDA to try and proverbially hang Wheelon before a jury could. I was, to them, an outsider who had already taken sides. For Wheelon’s critics —which included the USDA, HSUS, SPCA and a number of other organizations and individuals— my interest in the case was a mixed blessing: publicity might be valuable in the fight to bring Wheelon to justice, but there was a hesitation about being open and honest with a member of the press. Recognizing that both sides were so polarized —and acting in line with their own interests— my role was defined for me, and not by me.

My attempt to offset the imbalance often bore little fruit: calls, messages, notes, and impromptu arrivals among Wheelon supporters were not often welcome. Most of my attempts at contact were rebuffed, or met with “no comment” —and in some cases a clear charge that I was in some way “working for the enemy.” It was that charge that angered me most.

And throughout the reporting process, I was —with few alternatives— forced to rely on many sources who had a clear interest in seeing Wheelon found guilty. I recognized the challenges for both parties battling in the press, but the experience only affirmed my belief in the strength of openness and disclosure: a reporter can provide a clearer evocation of a situation only if both parties are willing to share what they know, how they know it, and why others (outsiders who might read such an article) should come to understand it.

For that reason, if the article for Al Jazeera America seems weighted in favor of the prosecution, of the critics of Wheelon and what he allegedly represents (i.e. abuse towards horses in the industry), it is due to the countless unanswered questions I asked of others.


In the trips I made to Tennessee, I consulted the court record, interviewed a wide range of sources, and tried to corroborate testimony from sources I knew had lied to me in the past. I worked to tease out the small details —whether the gate to Wheelon’s barn was open or latched the day Julie McMillan, posing undercover, entered— from the more polarized testimonies of “He’s a guilty man” or “They’ve got the wrong man.” These comments were offered in knee-jerk fashion by most people I spoke with.

I even tracked down Wheelon personally, asking for his own thoughts or feelings on the conduct and practice of the USDA. The response: I don’t want to be quoted. I don’t want to talk. But I’m being persecuted by over-reaching federal organizations.

Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon's stables last spring, looks out of the only window in his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013.  (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon’s stables last spring, looks out of the only window in his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

What I failed to include in the article, and this is largely the result of editorial taste and space, were the challenges in cooperation between members of the prosecution. Wheelon’s case was originally handled by Assistant D.A. Ellen Berez and, since the dismissal in August, is now being handled by another assistant —a young and, according to some, more “aggressive” lawyer.

My reporting also unearthed differences in opinion, and outright tension, between the USDA special investigator Julie McMillan and D.A. Berez. Some of these issues seemed to typify the challenges between federal and local authorities: territory, leadership, latitude and the willingness to take risks are all a function of an individual’s position. These two women appeared to have different theories as to how this case should have been handled.

In fairness, some of the blame for continued confusion or unrest in the case, also lies with the USDA. Their policy, to abstain from commenting on in-progress cases, was a liability for anyone trying to carefully account for the charges against Wheelon. Because the initial hearing had been dismissed, it was —in theory— a closed case, and some of the vague claims and allegations required evidence that the USDA was simply unwilling to provide.

Without disclosing some of the most basic facts, the USDA missed an opportunity to disarm critics who used this absence of information as signs of a conspiracy. Amid silence, it was possible to suggest the USDA was out on a witch-hunt, that they were creating evidence instead of compiling it, and that their case had no merit.

Personally, it was only in the last three days before publication that I, having finally gained access to details omitted from the public record, felt comfortable committing my accounting of the events to the page.


On November 7, at the Hooters restaurant in Maryville, I met with a source who, for their own safety and interest, I will not name. We spoke at length about a wide range of subjects —life, work, and, in so far as we could, the Wheelon case.

This individual asked me about my own job: what it was like to arrive at a place as a relative stranger, trying to piece together puzzles like this. I told him, quite confidently, that reporters in the field (wherever that field may be) have to rely on the edifying role of truth (or the sum of all people’s version of truth, perhaps) to make headway on the most complex issues.

I told them that the persistent lie is one of the most stubborn things to control —that the decision to remain party to a fallacious account is what usually undoes a source or a subject.

As the conversation continued, this individual shared seemingly new information —information that surprised me in its freshness. In the moment, I felt something akin to joy, having turned the latest page in a book of untold length.

But after leaving the restaurant that evening, I sat in my car with the heat cranked, trying hard to stay warm in the bitter fall evening. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the latest round of admissions. I wrote a few notes, adding additional question marks, and then headed back to my hotel. I was struggling with what might be the reporter’s true responsibility: to find consistency amid myriad allegations; to find some acceptable “truth” in the maelstrom of suggestion. (*I did not include this information in the final piece.)


For those who read the piece, and more importantly the comments, it is obvious that a single feature story (even at 2,500 words) cannot capture the extent of an issue.

You’ll also notice that, in Wheelon’s case, no verdict —judicial, that is— has been cast. For the few who took issue with some particulars of the piece, I appreciate your interest, attention and candor. For the Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who have eschewed the practice of soring, who have decided to raise their animals with the respect and care outlined by the statues of this country and by the moral compass of any responsible animal owner, I apologize for lumping you in with anyone alleged to be practicing otherwise. But for the vast majority of readers —either casual or committed— I do beg patience.

Today, Congress will hear arguments on the Whitfield Amendment (noted in the piece) in Washington, D.C. For the first time in more than 40 years, individuals on both sides of the aisle will take the stand to describe, in detail, their stance on stricter regulation within the industry. I feel confident stating that petty banter has stood in for reasoned debate for too long, and I can only hope that this hearing provides a venue for sound arguments based on facts —and facts alone.

For a writer who knew little about this world before taking it on last August, I have learned much from my experiences in Tennessee and even more from those who stand against the mistreatment of animals. Regardless of one’s view on the Wheelon case, however, we should be able to agree on one thing: We owe it to those 19 horses to figure out what really happened in Maryville.

Coach Colt looks out the window of his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. TKNAME was originally seized when USDA and SPCA officials executed a search and seizure warrant on Larry Wheelon's stable this April. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Coach Colt looks out the window of his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. Coach Colt was originally seized when USDA and SPCA officials executed a search and seizure warrant on Larry Wheelon’s stable this April. (Photo: Adam McCauley)