Travis Fox walked his 15 acres in Valley Center little more than a week before Christmas, half in anger, half in disbelief. Trees, bushes and flowers were dead, thousands of feet of fencing was destroyed, and rat droppings lined the cupboard inside one of his homes.
Fox and his wife, who live in Nevada, bought the property nine years ago and dreamed of having it serve as a safe-haven for horses and kids with disabilities. Brenda Markstein said she and Travis thought renting to HiCaliber Horse Rescue would do that. But four years later, the property was an arena of hoarding, death and dismemberment.
Volunteers by the dozens had turned up to help Fox and his family clean up. Their work uncovered grisly reminders of what went on at HiCaliber, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating horses and finding them “new, loving homes.”
They found cow skulls and bones a few feet from the main driveway. They called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove the carcass of an endangered bobcat found in a garbage bag in a freezer, next to a package of Omaha Steaks, a headless chicken and a horse leg. They uncovered a stillborn horse in a pile of manure.
“Death lives here,” Fox said, as Brenda shuffled through one of the houses on the property – past chewed up banisters, buckled and urine-soaked flooring and bird droppings caked in the tile shower.
“We have four homes on this property and this is not even the worst – that’s the scary part,” Markstein said. All four homes were occupied by HiCaliber staff and volunteers.
HiCaliber, which called itself the “nation’s most active horse rescue,” hadn’t paid rent in six months, owing more than $30,000, despite raising in excess of a million dollars from donors around the world in 2016 mainly through social media. Publicly, HiCaliber stated donor money was used to rescue and rehabilitate horses, but local and state agencies have records showing it was also spent on late night fast-food, mobile phone spy technology, bar tabs, computer games, Weight Watchers, and other personal expenditures.
As Fox spoke to inewsource, his wife came up to tell him HiCaliber’s founder, Michelle Knuttila, was sitting just outside the property, waiting to collect what she and her colleagues had left after being evicted a few days prior: A birdcage, DVDs, boxes of donated goods, discarded beer bottles, a PayPal debit card, a tanning bed.
“She’s not stepping foot on this property,” Fox said to his wife.
Knuttila, a 39-year old former San Diego County animal control officer, is the polarizing center of multiple local and state investigations for fraud and improper veterinary practices related to her management of HiCaliber. Fox and Markstein are suing her for more than $4 million in damage to the property and loss of value. Many of the volunteers that showed up to help Fox and his wife were the same people who, in Knuttila’s eyes, are her “haters” – responsible for helping tear down the fundraising powerhouse she had built over several years.
Knuttila has refused to talk with inewsource since an interview in March. But at that time, she said, “I don’t understand how you get this big and this successful and make such an incredible impact on these horses only to be made out to be the bad guy. If anything we’re being creative and inventive in finding new ways to things. If we’re doing it wrong, I’ll own it.”
She has called the allegations against her a “witch hunt.”
inewsource has been investigating HiCaliber since February. It has uncovered questionable fundraising practices, talked to former volunteers who said there was a highly contagious outbreak of an equine disease being kept under wraps at the ranch, and reported multiple ongoing local and state investigations.
Fox is frustrated with the pace of the investigations.
“The DA, I understand, has been notified about this, it’s gone all the way to the state attorney general,” he said, “and all I keep hearing is, ‘It’s being investigated.’”
The California Veterinary Medical Board is investigating Knuttila for unlicensed activity, scope of practice or standard of care issues. Four former HiCaliber board members have distanced themselves from the group, saying they never saw the nonprofit’s financials.
A search for the HiCaliber website shows it’s no longer active, with a server error message. As of yesterday, people were still giving Knuttila money – an online fundraiser to give her “a hand up” had raised more than $2,400.
She has also segued into her next venture, called #AlphaMare Village – an online “positive gathering place for women looking to improve their lives through increased and believed self worth.” It’s unclear if she’s raising money through that outlet, since the group’s Facebook page is private.
Fox isn’t just angry with how Knuttila and HiCaliber treated his property, but also with how the county handled the myriad code violations HiCaliber has stacked up over the past year, including literal tons of manure piled head-high along walkways and far more horses than allowed by the county without a permit.
Fox said his mouth dropped when the county called in March to tell him HiCaliber had approximately 187 horses on the property, and he asked to hear the number again.
“I said, ‘ma’am, the property is only 15 acres – you couldn’t fit that many horses on there unless they’re side by side and stacked on top each other,” Fox said.
The county then sent him a bill for $1,100 – for the permit process HiCaliber never completed, Fox said.
“I said, ‘I’ll see you in court. I’m not paying your bill. You guys have had plenty of time to get involved in this.’”
inewsource asked the county about Fox’s concerns over the lack of enforcement. A spokesman replied,
“The County understands it is challenging when a property owner is not in the region and there are issues on their property. However, ultimately it is the property owner’s responsibility to maintain their property. The goal of the County is to bring the property into compliance. In this particular case, the County recognized the property owner was out of town, leasing the property to HiCaliber, so the County located the owner to bring the condition of the property and existing violations to the owner’s attention so we can work together to move the property into compliance. Throughout the process, the County took enforcement actions consistent with other cases.”
A case management conference for the lawsuit against HiCaliber is scheduled for May 2019.