Chris Bentley came home one August evening in 2010 to find her horse missing from his corral.
Bud liked to wander the area near Bentley’s home, about 11 miles outside of Thermopolis. But at day’s end, he’d return to the corral, where grain and hay waited. When the old bay failed to appear that night, Bentley went looking for him.
She’d adopted Bud about 15 years earlier, a weak and destitute colt that had been separated from his mother. The lack of nutrition early in life resulted in arthritis as he aged. He still made for a fine a pet, hanging around the yard like a dog.
“The same temperament: waiting at the yard gate for treats, very friendly,” she said. “He wasn’t afraid of anybody.”
Bentley found Bud in a pasture within 100 feet from her home, dead from a bullet would. She ran back inside and closed the curtains.
“I was absolutely petrified because I couldn’t imagine what happened,” she said. “My first thought was there was some crazed maniac doing a drive-by shooting, or someone shooting from the ridge. I had no clue.”
Bentley would eventually learn that David Larson, the undersheriff of Hot Springs County, shot her horse. The officer assumed Bud was a neglected stray and decided to put the animal out of its misery. According to court papers, Larson never checked whether the horse belonged to Bentley, even though he killed Bud on her property.
Last fall, Bentley and her husband, Larry, sued Larson in U.S. District Court, alleging he trespassed on their property and killed Bud without legal justification. On Wednesday, they settled with the undersheriff for $2,700 and the cost of their legal fees.
Larson never apologized for killing Bud, Bentley said. But the judgment provides some comfort.
“Hopefully law enforcement will learn they have to follow the law,” she said. “People deserve a little respect on their private property.”
Larson was fired from the department for unrelated reasons, according to the lawsuit. His attorney, Senior Assistant Attorney General Patricia Bach, did not respond to a message left Wednesday. In court papers, she stressed her client’s decision to settle the case was not an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
In a legal reply to the lawsuit, Bach said her client “shot the neglected animal to end its suffering.” At the time, he did not believe the horse was owned by the Bentleys.
Bud was far from neglected, Chris Bentley said. In fact, she gave him all the food and water he could want and babied him more than other horses.
The horse had been sick a few weeks before his death. But Bentley cared for him and his health had started to improve, she said.
“I did what I could,” she said. “If the good lord was going to take him, he was going to take him. He wasn’t suffering. If it was hard to watch, I would have rethought some of my options.”
According to the lawsuit, the shooting occurred after two off-duty officers spotted Bud while driving on a road that passes through the Bentley property. Larson responded to the scene along with a veterinarian.
The vet noted Bud appeared “thin, crippled and in tough shape – but not in imminent danger,” the suit states.
Wyoming law required Larson to notify a brand inspector to determine the animal’s owner, Bentley said. Bud had a legible brand, but no one called the inspector. Nor did anyone contact the Bentleys.
“All they had to do was make one phone call,” Chris Bentley said. “But they took it upon themselves to decide.”
Earlier this month, the Bentleys added Hot Springs County Sheriff Lou Falgoust to their lawsuit. They claim his deficient department policy toward animal euthanasia contributed to Bud’s death.
At a deposition, Falgoust testified his deputies were expected to use good judgment and exhaust all possibilities before killing an animal. However, he could not specifically identify how those expectations were passed along to his officers, the lawsuit states.
Falgoust’s attorney, Larry Jones of Cody, declined comment when reached Thursday.
For her part, Bentley hopes the court case will encourage officers to check with an inspector before euthanizing what appears to be a stray animal. If the officers had simply followed the law, the whole episode could have been prevented, she said.
“We need to stand up for our rights,” she said. “If Larry and I hadn’t gone ahead and pursued this, I’m pretty sure it would have happened again.”