Byrde Lynn Hill: Ranchers Claim Exotic Horse Breeder Faked Mental Illness to Escape Animal Neglect Charges

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After she was declared mentally incompetent in Washington, an elderly Bellevue woman and her ex-husband accused of abandoning a herd of valuable Lusitano and Andalusian show horses last winter had dozens of animal neglect charges dropped in Oregon. Subsequently, however, the couple's partners in the ranching operation alleged the woman, once a wealthy therapist, 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 their prized herd of 150 Portuguese Lusitano and Andalusian horses last February. The couple -- recently divorced -- owned and financed "Carpe Diem Farms," a 500-acre ranch located in a remote area just north of Troy, in the far northeast corner of Oregon.

When a mid-winter 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 had reportedly 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. Lusitanos were originally bred for bullfighting, but they are now used for dressage and other fancy horse competitions. The Carpe Diem Farms website, now offline, boasted that Hill owned "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, and named Fabio for his, "unusual deep gold color with elegantly white full mane and tail."

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An ad for Byrde Lynn Hill's Carpe Diem Farm from the 2008 issue of Andalusian magazine.
There was a time Hill could afford the extravagant costs of buying, breeding, and maintaining exotic horses. She earned a PhD from Utah State University in psychotherapy, and court documents say she went on to become "one of the top therapists in the country," charging $150 an hour for her services. An ad for the Carpe Diem Farm (see above) bills Hill as an "animal behaviorist." 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, and left her permanently incapacitated. According to court records, the first wreck occurred in 1991 when she was a passenger in her Mercedes convertible. The car hydroplaned on a bridge, plowed through a guardrail, and "fell 150 feet into the Columbia River, landing right side up." Three years later, a neurologist wrote that Hill still possessed "high intellectual ability and basic verbal academic functioning," but struggled to maintain focus and attention, and had a "tendency to freeze and space out."

Then, in 2004, Hill was again riding in the passenger seat when her car was involved in a head-on collision that killed the drivers of both vehicles. Four years later, according to public records, Hill was treated for decreased attention span, decreased "executive function," and memory problems. Her doctor noted that she was, "at a very high risk to have someone take advantage of her from a financial standpoint."

The doctor's warning apparently went unheeded. Hill is now nearly penniless, and has repeatedly tried and failed 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, saying "it's probably not in her best interest." Longyear declined to comment on Hill's behalf, saying questions about her estate and the mental incompetency ruling to the documents could be answered simply by viewing court documents.

Not everyone believes that Hill is a victim, with Vincent and Pretina Shevham, Hill's former ranch managers at Carpe Diem, going 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 court records indicate they stand to lose a significant amount of money because of Hill's incompetency declaration.

After they were fired as caretakers at the ranch, the Shevhams sued Hill for breach of contract and won. A jury awarded the pair a $322,000 judgement, but Hill's incompetency could keep them from collecting. Hill's assets and estate are now 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 Shevhams also allege that Hill used the "fabrication of physical ailment to avoid deposition," and claim she used "over a half dozen LLCs to insulate [her] assets."

The Shevhams' appeal was ultimately 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 last week 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 rescuing, feeding, and caring for the abandoned horses.

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