After she was declared mentally incompetent in Washington, an elderly Bellevue woman and her ex-husband accused of abandoning a herd of valuable show horses last winter had dozens of animal-neglect charges dropped in Oregon. Subsequently, the couple's partners in the ranching operation alleged that the woman, once a wealthy psychotherapist, feigned symptoms of mental illness to avoid paying her debts and facing prosecution.
Byrde Lynn Hill and Frank Baxter faced 100 counts each of animal neglect in the second degree, meaning they "unlawfully and recklessly failed to provide minimum care for an animal," after the Wallowa County Sheriff seized 150 Portuguese Lusitano and Andalusian horses last February. The couple—recently divorced—owned and financed Carpe Diem, a 500-acre ranch in the far northeastern corner of Oregon.
When a midwinter blizzard struck in 2011, the ranch was snowed in and cut off from supplies. At some point, the 78-year-old Hill fired the couple in charge of maintaining the property. Not enough hay had been stockpiled, and a well pump broke, leaving the animals without adequate food and water. By the time sheriff's deputies arrived, several horses reportedly had died, while others suffered injuries resulting from downed fences and lack of grooming.
The pitiful conditions are especially shocking considering the horses are worth thousands of dollars each. The ranch's website, now offline, boasted that Hill owned the "largest, traditionally preserved herd of classical Lusitano horses in the United States." According to court documents, the collection included a stallion valued at $20,000.
At one time Hill could afford the extravagant costs of maintaining exotic horses. Court documents say she was once "one of the top therapists in the country," charging $150 an hour. She owns a lavish house on the Bellevue waterfront and a 32-foot racing sloop. But a pair of horrific car crashes ended Hill's career, leaving her permanently incapacitated. After the second, her doctor noted that she was "at a very high risk to have someone take advantage of her from a financial standpoint."
The warning apparently went unheeded: Hill is now nearly penniless, and has tried and failed repeatedly to file for bankruptcy. One court filing says she has $308,000 worth of outstanding debts and an income of just $1,400.
Records from Hill's divorce case, initiated in King County last April, allege that Baxter is to blame for Hill's financial ruin. "Byrde has been the subject of financial exploitation," one document states. "Byrde had a substantial estate, which Mr. Baxter and others have almost completely dispossessed her from." Baxter, 71, did not answer several calls to his Tacoma residence seeking comment for this story.
Given her diminished faculties, a judge ultimately decided that Hill was unfit to participate in legal proceedings. She now has a court-appointed guardian, Michael Longyear, who declined to arrange an interview with Hill.
But not everyone believes Hill is a victim. Vincent and Pretina Shevham, Hill's former managers at Carpe Diem, go so far as to accuse the trained therapist of faking her illness to avoid paying her debts and standing trial. The Shevhams did not respond to several messages seeking comment for this story, but after being fired as caretakers at the ranch, they sued Hill for breach of contract. A jury awarded the pair a $322,000 judgment, but Hill's incompetency could keep them from collecting. Hill's assets now are managed by her guardian, making them much harder to get at through the courts.
"Ms. Hill has routinely used allegations of mental incapacity to gain advantage during litigation," the Shevhams' attorney wrote in appealing the incompetency ruling. The appeal ultimately was denied.
The other result of the incompetency ruling was that Wallowa County prosecutor Mona Williams decided to drop the neglect charges against Hill and Baxter, telling The Oregonian that pursuing the case against the couple would prove too difficult and expensive for the tiny county. Twenty-six of the seized horses were auctioned off last April, netting $62,000 to pay off Hill's debts. The county also recouped all but $12,000 spent caring for the abandoned horses.