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Animal neglect complaints resurface

A Wrenshall-area farm with roughly 50 horses and cows is under investigation again, following renewed reports of animals being underfed and lacking care.

The spotlight on the farm returned Monday at the Carlton County board meeting in Cloquet, where concerned residents reported harrowing details, and both the county attorney's office and a statewide nonprofit humane society reported ongoing investigations into the farm.

"I've been watching these horses and cows on this property since 2019 and they are continually being neglected," Dawn Hiller, of Duluth, told the board. "It's just taking too long. ... These horses and cows need someone to speak up for them."

Hiller noted the animals have scant grass to graze on, especially given drought conditions this past spring, lack water, and "are eating bark off trees."

A neighbor near the farmer's pasture on Carlton County Road 4, Christine Merritt, of Wrenshall, also spoke, detailing how the animals escape fencing and have caused roadway accidents, close calls, and end up grazing on her property in search of nourishment.

"It's very sad," Merritt said. "I used to love to watch him drive the horses up to graze his field next to mine, but the last few years they've been coming in they've been malnourished - their ribs are sticking out ... colts die because their mothers can't nourish them."

The farm was previously investigated in 2019, when the farmer voluntarily reduced the number of animals and no criminal charges were filed.

County Attorney Lauri Ketola declined to address the current investigation with the board, saying, "I can't engage in public comment at this time. It's a pending law enforcement investigation at this point."

The Minnesota Federated Humane Societies, which investigates animal maltreatment and abuse throughout the state's 87 counties, also appeared before the board. Kathleen Zweber, president of its board of directors, gave a brief statement saying it was grateful for the team approach to the investigation and that it was hoping for a "lawful conclusion." Zweber took no questions due to the ongoing status of the investigation.

Commissioner Gary Peterson seemed moved by the proceedings. "I'd like to see this go on the front burner and get this resolved as soon as possible," he said. "I hate to see animals get hurt like this."

Carlton County auditor/treasurer Kevin DeVriendt, who is related to the farmer, also spoke.

"I just wanted to, on behalf of my family, apologize to the board, Attorney Ketola and Sheriff (Kelly) Lake, for all the extra time and effort cases like this cause," DeVriendt said. "So, sincere apologies from my family."

The Pine Knot generally does not identify people who are under investigation until they are charged with a crime.

Merritt said she's tried speaking to the farmer.

"I've talked to him about improving his fence which they go right through," she said. "I don't want the man to lose his livelihood of the cows. He's running 20-some head of cows and 30 horses on 20 acres. It isn't enough. ... I'd like to see something done."

The 2019 case involving the farmer featured a similar arc, with reports from concerned citizens yielding further investigation, including involvement from the Animal Humane Society, another nonprofit in the state that oversees animal adoption and aids in rescuing animals involved in "critical" situations. At the time, an investigator with the group told the Pine Knot the farmer was cooperative and things at the farm were improving following a difficult winter. The sheriff's office was also involved.

"People wanted us to seize all the animals and throw [the owner] in jail for life," Sheriff Lake said at the time. "That isn't how things work. It was addressed as soon as we got the complaint and we are working with the humane society. The primary goal is to make sure the horses are taken care of. Things don't happen overnight."

Minnesota state statute prohibits animal neglect, harm, abuse, torture, cruelty, overload and depriving animals of necessary food, water or shelter.

County halts land sales

Carlton County has ceased sales of tax-forfeited property following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May which figures to deny counties from profiting off tax-forfeited properties.

"In order to minimize our exposure I have ceased all land sales - what was up on the county website, we took it off," land commissioner Greg Bernu told the board. "We're not entertaining any new applications for lands to be sold."

The only applications being processed are for repurchases, in which property owners buy back their properties after settling outstanding debts.

Bernau told the newspaper that the county averages roughly 10 cases a year of tax-forfeited property, including only five last year. It's a far cry from St. Louis County, to the north, which could face budgeting complexities now that the sale of tax-forfeited profits have come into question.

"They're 10 times the size of our county, meaning they've got 10 times the problems," Bernu said.

In May, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in "Tyler v. Hennepin County" (Minnesota) that counties violate property owners' Fifth and Eighth amendment rights when they take property above and beyond what's owed without "just


The court deemed any surplus funds belong to the owner of record at time of forfeiture.

"The question is how far back?" Bernu said, reciting a question that figures to be wrestled with at the state legislature next session.

Recorder Kristine Basilici said her office has heard that fallout could include up to "a six-year lookback," into tax-forfeited land sales. Ketola said her office is also studying potential


Bernu said Carlton County could avoid the harshest financial outcomes because the county is "under water on the properties," meaning it invests more money than it makes on most tax forfeitures. Costs for things like asbestos abatement and demolition outstrip what the county makes on resale. Recent history includes one vacated commercial dry cleaning property which cost the county in excess of $100,000 in terms of clean-up and demolition.

It's a small percentage of local tax-forfeited properties that turn a profit, Bernu said.

Additionally, the county has a policy of keeping property owners in their homes and encourages repurchase by the property owner in cases of tax forfeiture.

A lot of tax forfeited properties are decrepit and on lots so small as to not be able to be rebuilt upon according to updated jurisdictional zoning and codes. Many are drug houses, Bernu said, and the majority of dwellings and commercial properties are so neglected they need to be knocked down.

"It's a miserable deal for the county," Bernu said.

While sales of such properties will cease, the tax-forfeiture process will continue when necessary, officials told the board.

Pine Knot News writer Dan Reed contributed to this story.