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HiCaliber Horse Rescue Faces Eviction And Lawsuit

The HiCaliber Horse Rescue stable is shown on March 2, 2018.
Brandon Quester
The HiCaliber Horse Rescue stable is shown on March 2, 2018.
HiCaliber Horse Rescue Faces Eviction And Lawsuit
HiCaliber Horse Rescue Faces Eviction And Lawsuit GUEST: Brad Racino, senior reporter, inewsource

A horse rescue organization that's been the subject of criticism and investigations is being evicted from its Valley Center ranch and sued for more than 4 million dollars high caliber rescue was the subject of an eye New Source investigation this year into allegations of improper veterinary practices and cruelty to horses on the ranch. Now the owners of the property claim that high caliber did not pay rent and did millions of dollars in damage to the property. Joining me is a new source reporter Brad racino and Brad welcome. Thanks Maureen. Now this is the latest wrinkle in a story you've been following from early this year. Can you remind us what your first story revealed about high caliber rescue. Yes. So it was late February that we published our first story about high caliber and that story detailed how there were multiple government agencies that were looking into high callipers operations and they were looking at high caliber from different angles so one was accusations of fraud and embezzlement of nonprofit money. Another was looking at the allegations of animal abuse and improper veterinary practices. The county of San Diego for example was looking into them for a permitting process because they just had too many horses on the property. So that was one part of the story the other was this growing criticism that had actually been alive on the Internet for years before I had found it and I stumbled across it that Michele not Tila who was one of the cofounders of the nonprofit had been euthanizing a large number of horses and doing that without proper veterinary input or guidance. That was the accusation and we actually went to the ranch spoke to Nutella and she was very open about her beliefs that if she saw suffering or she was going to put it down and that kind of started this process rolling of eyes we've probably published 17 stories. Now it seems like every month there's a new uncovering a new development that happens at this ranch and so this is like you said just the latest update to this story and wasn't her method of putting down these horses also the subject of criticism. Right. She puts them down using a gun which you know on its face seems really horrific but it's actually totally humane if done the right way. And if the horse is actually suffering and deserves to be put down that's kind of where the line was. Do these horses need to be euthanized she would say yes but all of these critics are saying no they would be totally fine in someone else's hands. Now when there are allegations that there was a disease outbreak among horses on the ranch that was covered up right. About a month after that first story. I spoke to five high caliber volunteers. Now I should say this is a nonprofit that a lot of their operations run through volunteers that show up at the ranch that love horses that take care of them everyday. There are a lot of volunteers at the ranch. Not as many now as there used to be but I I gathered five of them together that collectively had been there for years. And they told me that there was a very dangerous equine disease called strangles that had been on the ranch for quite a while and was not being disclosed to the Southern California horse community that there are people coming there to ride horses to adopt horses just to pet horses. And it was not being told that these horses had this disease and so they were adopting them out all over Southern California. And these people didn't know that the horses they were taking in had this very communicable disease. One of the volunteers actually was someone that did adopt a horse that had strangles and showed us the paperwork proving it. And could you tell us a little bit more about the allegations of fraud against Nutella and the other owner of high caliber ranch. Yes. So as I said earlier a high caliber is a non-profit which means that all of the donations that come to this nonprofit need to be used to further the mission of the nonprofit as we found a couple of months after that first story that Nabilah had been using one of the high calibers bank accounts the PayPal account for personal expenses she was using it for weight watchers she was using it for spyware to install on a computer she was using it for a kid's computer games and a number of other purchases. We found this through public records act requests of the county of San Diego and it was actually a mistake. They shouldn't have given us this but they had forwarded that to the county district attorney's office which told us that the district attorney was also looking into this because of whenever you're doing any kind of embezzlement or fraud nonprofits that's the purview of the district attorney. Now apparently the owners of the property not the owners of the rescue but the owners of the property have won an eviction against high caliber. What did they claim. They said that high caliber has not paid its rent since July so July through December and has not paid rent on a tractor that they apparently also rent from them. It amounts to about thirty two thousand five hundred dollars that is owed to them. They went to court and got this eviction notice. It is now in the hands of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to execute on that route. It usually will happen in this course and it will happen most likely in the next week or so. We don't have an exact but that's what's going on with and the lawsuit that has been filed. What kind of damage did the owners claim was caused. So they claim damage irreparable damage to the ranch's residences this is where Knittel lives along with their kids as do many volunteers actually live at this ranch as well as damage to the farmlands to the barns to the ranch buildings to the pens the stalls the landscaping they just claim that there is millions of dollars of damage done over the years and they've only been there since I only been there since about 20 14 I believe. So over the last four and a half years they've claimed two million dollars in damage to the property and they also there are allegations that is deliberate. Yeah yeah. I asked the attorney for the plaintiff yesterday if he could go into a little bit more detail on that. And he refused to at this point he said this is the very beginning more will come out as the case proceeds. But that is in the lawsuit that this was done. I think the word was vexatious Lahi against the plaintiff that this was done willingly on the part of not only the Tilla but Romney Snyder who was also a co-founder of high caliber. What's been the response from Nutella. Well she was pretty open for about the first two weeks that we started reporting on this and then she completely shut down. She will no longer answer any of my phone calls or emails. She does take to Facebook almost always right after one of our stories publish and finds new names to call me on Facebook but she usually finds a way to explain away these things whether it was the allegations of embezzlement and fraud. She says all those purchases were legit that they have the paperwork behind them but she has never provided them to either us or her followers or volunteers. She has just today I saw it on Facebook. She made a joke about the 4 million dollars saying if anyone wants to adopt a cow from the ranch it'll cost 4 million. So she tends to find a way to spin these things but she has not come up with any definitive proof of her being in the right here on a lot of things now. Brad kind of lost in all this are the animals still on the ranch. What do we know about the horses. Hi gallopers still as well. The problem is to know the things about the horses as you just have to take their word for it because we're not at the ranch. The last Facebook post they did said that there were 21 horses left on the ranch. Now this is down from more than 100. When we started this investigation. But I have no way of proving that the county goes out sometimes to monitor their progress towards getting their permit. They still haven't gotten a permit forces on the ranch so we honestly don't know the state of these horses or actually how many of there are left. I've been speaking with our new source reporter Brad racino. Brad thanks for following this. Thank you.

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.

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.

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 members that 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 suspension the 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.

Knuttila has said the ranch used to house more than 100 horses. By the middle of November, HiCaliber had 21 horses left that were available for adoption, according to a Facebook post.