Central Valley

Driver in horse-dragging death grieves

SONORA — The Jamestown woman who accidentally dragged a horse to its death behind a trailer Monday night says she's devastated.

Margaret Whitelaw, 55, said she hasn't slept since she discovered her teenage daughter's horse dead behind a trailer in downtown Sonora. The horse apparently fell out of the trailer, which Whitelaw was hauling with a 1999 Dodge pickup. The horse was dragged for almost four miles.

"I've cried for two nights," Whitelaw said. "We're never going to know what happened. All I know is that I destroyed my 14-year-old daughter."

The Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department and county animal control are investigating.

Authorities don't suspect Whitelaw of animal cruelty, said Tuolumne County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. A.J. Ford. Animal cruelty charges are brought when authorities believe a person willfully and maliciously harmed or neglected an animal, Ford said.

"The key words there are 'willfully or maliciously,' " he said. "Based on the investigation so far, it didn't appear at all that there was any malicious intent."

Sheriff's detectives and animal control officers will submit a report to the district attorney when their investigation is complete, said Tuolumne County animal control manager Jennifer Clarke.

The accident happened after Whitelaw and her two daughters went riding at a friend's ranch on Ratto Road in Jamestown.

Whitelaw's 20-year-old daughter and a friend, also 20, loaded two horses into Whitelaw's trailer. The trailer is a 1999 Logan three-horse slant load trailer with a collapsible rear tack room.

Whitelaw said her 20-year-old daughter, Jessica Haynie, has years of experience around horses, as does the friend who helped her load the trailer. Haynie was the 2008 Mother Lode Roundup queen. "We had no reason to doubt that there were any problems," Whitelaw said.

When Whitelaw reached Washington and Stockton streets, she saw from her right-side mirror that the trailer's right door was open.

Whitelaw said she hadn't noticed that before because it was too dark to see that the door was open until she reached downtown, where there were more lights.

When she got out of the truck, she found her daughter's horse dead lying behind the trailer. The horse was tethered to the inside of the trailer. When the trailer's door opened, the horse stepped or fell out, but remained tied to the trailer.

Whitelaw said the rope probably was tied too loosely.

Whitelaw believes she didn't notice the animal falling out of the trailer because she was driving on a "very bumpy" dirt road when she left her friend's ranch.

Horse lovers outraged

Officials found streaks of blood on roads for 3¾ miles, said Sonora Police Chief Mark Stinson. The other horse in the trailer was unharmed.

News of the accident outraged horse lovers. Daniel W. Nickles, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, said he was so upset he called Sonora police to find out whether Whitelaw will face charges. "They should have arrested her on the spot, put her in jail for animal cruelty, and impounded her vehicles," he said.

Whitelaw said she was involved in a similar accident in September. She was a passenger in a friend's car when a horse fell out of a trailer. In that case, the horse, a 26-year-old mare, survived.

Whitelaw said she is a registered veterinary technician and has a degree in animal science from the University of California at Davis. Her family raises potbellied pigs. They also keep three dogs, three cats, three birds and a chicken.

Whitelaw's 14-year-old daughter raised since birth the 3-year-old American quarter horse killed in the accident. The horse's registered name was Plum Rose, but Whitelaw said her daughter nicknamed the horse Midnight Princess. The mare was black with a white crescent moon-shaped mark on her forehead.

Whitelaw owns the dead horse's mother. She said she hopes to have a new foal next year. "We're hoping to get a nice baby in the spring that my daughter can ride again," Whitelaw said.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378.

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