HiCaliber Horse Rescue, which has faced animal cruelty and fraud allegations for months, is being evicted from its Valley Center ranch and sued for more than $4 million.
Brenda Markstein filed the lawsuit in Vista Superior Court on Nov. 26, alleging damage to the property, breach of contract and negligence. The suit names HiCaliber and its founders, Michelle Knuttila and Romney Snyder. The Brenda Markstein Living Trust owns the property and has leased it to HiCaliber since September 2014.
Markstein was also awarded a judgment last month to evict Knuttila and residents of the ranch.
“It’s a matter of a tenant who didn’t pay their rent and who damaged the property,” said G. Richard Green, Markstein’s attorney. Green told inewsource that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has said it will carry out the eviction, but declined to say when that will happen.
For most of 2018, HiCaliber and Knuttila have battled critics and multiple investigations by local and state authorities, including allegations of improper veterinary practices at the ranch. HiCaliber’s critics allege Knuttila euthanizes horses unnecessarily and without proper veterinary guidance, and the California Veterinary Medical Board has confirmed it is investigating the nonprofit for similar concerns.
In addition, former HiCaliber volunteers alleged a cover-up to conceal a dangerous equine disease outbreak at the ranch.
inewsource’s investigation of HiCaliber also has uncovered Knuttila’s use of donor funds for personal expenses; claims by four former board membersthat they never saw the organization’s financial statements; and questions about the nonprofit’s fundraising practices.
The California Attorney General’s Office stopped HiCaliber from fundraising or spending money in March for failing to file tax documents. It lifted the suspensionthe following month, after HiCaliber filed the paperwork.
The nonprofit’s filings showed HiCaliber took in more than $1 million in 2016, the majority from contributions and grants. The group relies heavily on its online supporters, or “villagers,” who donate through Facebook and other platforms.
Knuttila hasn’t responded to inewsource requests for an interview since shortly after our first story published in February. She did not respond Wednesday to questions about the lawsuit or eviction.
Reached by phone, Snyder, HiCaliber’s co-founder, told inewsource Wednesday she had no comment.
The lawsuit and eviction
Markstein’s lawsuit alleges HiCaliber owes at least $32,500 for failing to pay rent on the property and a tractor since July. Requests for mediation have gone unanswered, the suit says.
It also alleges HiCaliber “maliciously and abusively destroyed” portions of the Valley Center ranch, amounting to at least $2 million in damages and a decreased property value of $2 million. The suit says those acts were “done with a willingness” to “vex, harass or injure” the property owner.
Since inewsource began reporting on HiCaliber, Knuttila has said repeatedly that criticism leveled against her and the nonprofit comes from “haters” who want to see her fail. She blamed donation shortfalls on negative media attention.
“I cannot stay in nor support an industry that justifies hurting each other in the name of animal welfare, when the primary focus is no longer the animals,” she wrote in an April Facebook post.
But her attorney told inewsource in June the group was trying to relocate to a new property and continue operations. Knuttila later said she couldn’t find a new place to operate because her critics were keeping property owners from renting to the group.
HiCaliber originally set a voluntary closing date of June 30, then pushed that to Sept. 15. It is still active on Facebook and asking supporters to donate directly to local stores for hay and other services.
About the HiCaliber investigation
An inewsource investigation of HiCaliber Horse Rescue that began in February has uncovered allegations of fraud, animal cruelty and improper veterinary practices at the Valley Center nonprofit. Multiple state and local government agencies also have been involved in investigating HiCaliber, including the California Veterinary Medical Board and state Attorney General’s Office.
Senior inewsource reporter Brad Racino has interviewed dozens of people and reviewed hundreds of pages of public records as part of this ongoing investigation.To read all of our coverage of HiCaliber, click here.