A pair of horses strayed from their owner’s land in Palmetto last fall, and a St. Landry Parish political controversy erupted more than six months later.

The controversy centers on the parish’s celebrated animal control director, Stacey Alleman, whose handling of the Palmetto horses was the focus of a recent St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office criminal malfeasance investigation. Sheriff Bobby Guidroz declined to arrest Alleman, but, in an unusual move, did not close the case. He instead handed the file to District Attorney Earl Taylor without any recommendation. Taylor announced Friday his office would not prosecute Alleman.  

Alleman has garnered widespread support for her efforts in St. Landry Parish, where animal abuse is more rampant than elsewhere in the state, according to advocates. Lack of data makes that difficult to prove, but Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, said he has “never in my 31 years seen any place that barely comes close to what we see in St. Landry on a regular basis.”

“Burning, torture, mutilation, dogs tied up on railroad tracks. The list goes on,” said Dorson, who founded the Humane Society of Louisiana in 1988.

As recently as Friday, two horses were found sick, starving and dehydrated in a field in Melville. The Humane Society, along with animal control, rescued them and took them to an equine clinic in Opelousas.

Dorson said Alleman has worked tirelessly to combat the problem in four years as the St. Landry animal control director. She is relentless in responding to calls of stray animals, and in her use of social media to find new homes for them, he said. With Alleman at the helm, St. Landry Parish Animal Control and Rescue’s Facebook page has received more than 50,000 likes.

Alleman’s fans, including celebrity advocates such as Cathy Bissell of the Bissell Pet Foundation, hail her willingness to personally transport animals to no-kill shelters across state lines. Bissell, who surfaced at a Parish Council meeting May 15 to support Alleman, told council members she had “never met a (shelter) director like Stacey.”

“There are many shelters like this around the country, but this one has an amazing director who puts her heart and soul into it,” Bissell told council members.

But Alleman has come under criticism – and criminal investigation -- for her handling of the Palmetto horses, which were reported to animal control by a farm manager on Oct. 12, according to Alleman. It wasn’t the first time the manager had complained about horses on the property, Alleman said, and the manager was upset.

With the help of a wrangler, Alleman captured and held the horses at the parish’s shelter as she tried to locate the owner through social media. Unable to do so, Alleman eventually found spots for the horses in a Joshua, Texas horse sanctuary. The owner, Jeremy Simoneaux, then contacted Alleman in late January looking for his horses, but the horse sanctuary had already found new owners.

Simoneaux said Alleman failed to properly scan microchips inside the horses, which he says would have produced ownership information. Alleman said she tried to do so, but the parish’s scanner detected a microchip in only one of the horses, and that microchip did not yield any information. Malfunctioning equipment is a possible culprit, but the problem could have been with the scanner or the microchips.

Whatever the cause of the mishap, Simoneaux said he spent more than $2,500 in travel and reimbursements to the would-be new owners to reunite with his horses. The ordeal included a dizzying 25-hour road trip between Baytown, Texas, where Simoneaux works, and multiple stops at his home in Palmetto, he said in an interview.

“I drove to Palmetto, got my horse trailer, drove back to Baytown, slept four hours, drove to Breckenridge, which is almost to Abilene, picked up one horse, left there, drove two hours north of Dallas to Decatur, picked up another horse,” Simoneaux said in an interview. “I drove back to Palmetto, brought my horses to another piece of property that I have, and then drove back to Baytown to go back to work the next day.”

The animal control director is required to sell off stray livestock following a series of notices in the parish’s official journal, according to parish ordinance. The timing of the auction is not clearly established in the ordinance, though 16 days appears to be the minimum holding period. The maximum would be 26 days if the auction notice is published as soon as legally allowed.

Simoneaux’s horses were held 48 days, and there was no auction nor notices in the official journal. Alleman said she never bothered placing notices in the official journal, which is a newspaper in Eunice, because she figured social media was more effective. As for the auction, Alleman said that would have spelled doom for Simoneaux’s horses.

“If we had just sent them to the sale barn, they would have butchered them,” Alleman said. “He would never have had them back.”

Simoneaux also said Alleman demanded $1,400 to get his horses back when he initially called animal control – payable in cash only. That prompted Simoneaux to complain to Sheriff Guidroz, who then launched his investigation.

The amount Alleman asked for was the cost of caring for the horses, said Parish President Bill Fontenot. The cash payment was necessary, he said, because the shelter has no credit card machine, which he acknowledged is problematic. Fontenot said he has now authorized the shelter to accept checks.

Malfeasance is defined in state law as a public employee refusing to perform her duty or intentionally breaking the law while doing so. Sheriff Guidroz provided multiple reasons for declining to arrest Alleman while speaking at the May 15 council meeting. One reason is that the parish’s animal control ordinance needs updating, said Guidroz, who some animal advocates have accused of being indifferent to abuse and neglect cases.

Another is that Guidroz did not want to seem mean.

“I did not want to look like a bully in going in there and charging this lady with malfeasance, when I myself had issues with this ordinance,” Guidroz said, turning to face dozens of Alleman’s supporters in the standing-room-only audience, some of whom view him as a nemesis. “Don’t think I don’t care, because I do. It upsets me to listen to this nonsense about the sheriff doesn’t care about animals. It’s ridiculous.”

Guidroz did not respond to an interview request through his spokesman.

The prevalence of animal abuse and neglect in St. Landry Parish is hard to explain, said Dorson, the Louisiana Humane Society director. But Dorson suspects a correlation with the parish’s criminal justice system, including law enforcement, prosecutors and judges who he said are habitually inclined toward lenience. Dorson said he wants to work closely with Guidroz to start tracking cases from beginning to end.

“Since nobody seems to be punished or held accountable or culpable, the pattern is endless. The pattern of abusing animals is never interrupted,” Dorson said.

‘That’s not how somebody wanted it handled’

Whether or not Alleman broke any laws, her supporters wonder why Simoneaux isn’t being held at least partially responsible.

“Why is nobody concerned about the fact this owner took so long to come forward? At what point are we going to take some of the responsibility off of our municipal shelters and animal rescues, and put some accountability on to the owners?” said Jamie Clark, director of Acadiana Animal Aid. “The animals were there for six weeks, 50 some odd days. Then months after that he’s coming to claim.”

Simoneaux said he called nearby property owners, but he gave up when none of them had seen his horses. He finally called animal control after someone called to tell him the parish wrangler had picked them up. It didn’t previously occur to him to do so, he said, because he “never had no dealings with animal control.”

“As an animal owner, everybody is bashing me. Of course they are, because my horses went missing,” Simoneaux said. “I work across the United States. I am very seldom home.”

Simoneaux acknowledged being “at fault for allowing my animals to be picked up.” His stepfather, who typically watches his animals, has been sick with cancer, Simoneaux said.

He made no such acknowledgement while publicly relaying his story to council members earlier this month, according to minutes of the May 1 finance committee meeting. He told council members “there is foul play in the system here,” according to the minutes.

Simoneaux spoke at the invitation of Councilman Wayne Ardoin, who gave Simoneaux a sympathetic audience, along with other council members.

“That is a shame that this situation had to happen to him, his animals and his children,” Ardoin said at the meeting, according to the minutes. “I am looking at the money he is owed.”

Ardoin is chairing a special committee that will recommend changes to the parish’s decades-old animal control ordinance, as well as other policies and procedures. While Ardoin said Alleman will play an important role in those deliberations, he responded affirmatively when asked if a criminal investigation into her conduct was warranted.

“We had two horses that was missing. She asked for cash money,” Ardoin said.

Simoneaux, despite his suspicion of the cash-only requirement, said in an interview that he would’ve paid the fee, so long as the horses were returned directly to him. The parish didn’t have the resources for that, Simoneaux said he was told, so he tracked them down himself. He didn’t want to pay the fee on top of out-of-pocket costs, he said, and he won’t press for reimbursement so long as he isn’t forced to pay.

“I really care not to be involved in all that political bashing and stuff that they’re doing. I have my animals back. I’m over and done with it,” Simoneaux said. “But they just keep pushing it, keep pushing it and pushing it. If I get my money back, I get my money back. If I don’t, well, my loss.”

Fontenot, meanwhile, said the parish isn’t likely to come after Simoneaux for the fee. He accused his political adversaries of ginning up attacks on Alleman as a proxy for him, labeling Simoneaux’s less conciliatory comments to the council as “theater.”

Alleman, who said she nearly resigned from stress after news of the criminal investigation broke last month, said she doesn’t understand why the issue blew up in the first place.

“This could have been handled in a very diplomatic way. We could have come to the table,” Alleman said. “But for some reason that’s not how somebody wanted it handled.”

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.