Horses, drugs and confusion
Anger and confusion continue to reign over the upper valley’s equestrian community, even as the future brightens for three young horses that were forced to fend for themselves through the winter in a snow-covered pasture next to Snowmass Creek.
In an telephone interview from Mexico, Conrado Gonzales said Thursday he was dismayed to learn that three of the six horses he left with Mike Gerbaz, a friend and sometimes-partner in the horse business, had been abandoned without food or water.
“I’m surprised. I’m disappointed,” Gonzales said. “I’ve done good for him – I was training horses and breeding horses for him.”
But Gonzales, who was deported last fall to Mexico, isn’t so sure he wants to blame his friend. “Mike’s been good to us. I don’t want no trouble for him,” he said.
For his part, Gerbaz said he was unaware that the horses were even there. He had agreed to winter three of the horses and thought the other three were being taken care of by the Gonzales family.
“When I got a call two and a half weeks ago from [county animal control officer] ReRe Baker asking if I knew anything about three horses in that pasture, I thought, `Oh shit, those horses were never moved,’ ” Gerbaz said.
The situation first came to the attention of local authorities and horse trainers on Jan. 26, when Snowmass Creek resident Nicole Lewis noticed them standing near the road. It was clear to her that all three were in dire need of attention.
“I used to rescue horses from slaughterhouses in New England, but I have never seen anything like what I saw that day,” Lewis said.
The 3-year-old mare was in especially bad shape. She had very little muscle or fat left on her body, so her ribs, shoulders and hips were starkly apparent through her skin and thin fur. One local vet reckoned she would have perished in another week or so if someone hadn’t taken action.
Arrest and deportation
By all accounts from local horse owners, Conrado Gonzales has a reputation as a man who, more than anything else, loved horses.
“I can be without food,” Gonzales said, “but my horses are always eating.”
“He’s like a true horse whisperer – he’s a fabulous horse trainer,” said Carol Dopkin, a local real estate broker and one of the valley’s most avid equestrian enthusiasts.
Dopkin said Gonzales was the only person she could find who was able to break one of her young horses. The horse would allow people on its back as long as its eyes were covered with blinders, but once the blinders were removed it balked at anyone who attempted to mount.
“Conrado was with him for 45 minutes,” Dopkin said. “He was promptly on the horse and it was as calm as could be.”
Gonzales, 27, spent eight years living in the Aspen area, the last five or six as manager of Aspen Valley Ranch in Woody Creek. He and several family members maintained the fields, ditches and fences, and cared for the couple of dozen horses that stay at the ranch over the summer, according to a ranch employee.
In recent years, Gonzales was working on a number of projects with Gerbaz, who owns about 30 horses and has trained and bred them for most of his life. Gonzales purchased two horses from Gerbaz in recent years, including a stallion that’s become of the valley’s prized studs.
But Gonzales’ life here came crashing down on August 21, 2000. That was the day he was arrested for arranging a drug deal and charged with distribution of a controlled substance, according to Colorado Springs attorney Dennis Lane.
Gonzales was jailed for the rest of his stay in the United States, which ended with his deportation in October.
Gonzales told The Aspen Times he became involved in the drug deal at the urging of his brother’s girlfriend, a Chicano woman who went by the name of “Johnnie.” Gonzales said she first approached him in early summer, asking him to loan her money for rent or arrange a drug deal that would earn her the cash she needed.
At first, he said no to both requests. But “she kept bothering me and bothering me, so finally I met a guy I knew at a restaurant, and he told me he had some stuff.”
Gonzales said the dealer refused to meet Johnnie, so he transferred cocaine and money between the two. A few hours later he was sitting in Garfield County Jail with a hold order placed on him by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“What I did was to help the girl, I didn’t get any money from the deal,” Gonzales said.
Lane, who represented Gonzales in District Court, said his client pleaded guilty to attempted distribution of a controlled substance.
He said court documents indicate “Johnnie” was actually a confidential informant for the police.
Gonzales believes she was setting people up for police in an attempt to convince the state to release her husband from prison. “She was turning people in to get him out,” he said.
Gonzales was able to convince Judge T. Peter Craven that he was not a big-time drug dealer. A mandatory blood test turned up negative for banned substances; he had never been convicted before; and about a dozen people, including Gerbaz, wrote letters attesting to his character.
“The judge was sending other people convicted of similar charges to prison for 15 or 20 years,” Lane said.
Gonzales was sentenced to 90 days in jail and probation. But as soon as Judge Craven was finished, the INS took over. Gonzales was transferred to a detention facility in Denver to await his deportation hearing.
The horse shuffle
The Aspen Valley Ranch employee, who requested anonymity, said owner Mary Jane Garth had been looking into Gonzales’ management record at the ranch a few weeks before the arrest and found evidence that he was breeding two stallions without her permission.
“Mary Jane didn’t have a clue there was a breeding operation on the ranch,” the employee said, adding that she demanded the stallions be immediately removed. Gerbaz picked them up with one other horse, a mare, that belonged to Gonzales.
A few weeks later, Gonzales called Roaring Fork Ranch manager Mary Ellen Downing from jail and asked her to take another two horses off his former employer’s property.
Downing held them overnight and made arrangements for Gerbaz to pick them up in the morning. “Mike told me he could take the horses if I couldn’t keep them,” Downing said. “He didn’t hint that it would be any trouble.”
Gerbaz said he returned the two horses to Aspen Valley Ranch, where Conrado’s family was still living, because he didn’t have room to take them for the winter. In October, around the time Gonzales was being deported, Gerbaz left town for a major horse show.
“I told Conrado’s father last fall that if the shit hits the fan while I’m out of town and you get kicked out [of Aspen Valley Ranch], put the horses in Old Snowmass until you find a place for them,” he said.
Gerbaz said the two horses that Downing had held briefly, and a third that belonged to Conrado’s brother Luis, were dropped off in the pasture while he was out of town.
Gonzales said he has been in touch with Gerbaz every few weeks since the day he was arrested to ask about his horses. “I called him to see how they were a month ago, and he said they were OK, ” Gonzales said. “I asked about all the horses – his and mine.”
Gerbaz said that whenever Gonzales asked about the horses, he was thinking about the three he agreed to care for through the winter. “He kept asking me how his horses were and I kept telling him they were fine.” But he maintains he forgot about the three at Old Snowmass.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that Ricardo Gonzales, Conrado’s father and the rest of the family lost their jobs and homes at Aspen Valley Ranch. Most of them, including Conrado’s girlfriend Desiree and their son Conrado Jr., moved to Boulder.
Nobody else apparently noticed the horses either. Animal control officer Baker said she has questioned several people who drive by the pasture on a regular basis and found no one who could recall seeing them until Lewis spotted them on Jan. 26.
Gerbaz took hay down to the horses as soon as he learned they were there and began making arrangements to have them moved to a barn he was leasing beginning Feb. 5. Baker said he’s been cooperative with her investigation.
Last Saturday, the horses were moved to Moon Run Ranch, where they’ve been under the care of Holly McLain. Gerbaz said she offered to take them as a favor, until he could make arrangements for them; McLain said she took the horses out of the pasture on her own, almost in spite of Gerbaz and Baker.
In addition to the three horses in Gerbaz’s care and the three with McLain, Gonzales still has three horses at Aspen Valley Ranch. Gonzales said he is trying to find a way back to Colorado to care for his family and horses.
“I’m not the type of person who would abuse animals,” Gerbaz said. “This is just something that slipped through the cracks. There was a communication breakdown somewhere.”
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.