SUMTER -- A forensic veterinarian will lead a team of investigators who will converge today on a vacant Sumter horse farm once owned by a state agriculture official as a two-state investigation into animal abuse expands.
The Humane Society called in Dr. Melinda Merck, forensic veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and her portable "animal CSI" lab to help law enforcement agencies in Sumter and Richland counties in exhuming skeletal remains on an expansive tract of land a mile from Chestnut Oaks Middle School.
Meanwhile, a Humane Society spokeswoman said Friday the organization will expand its probe to a fourth property on Fish Hatchery Road in Lexington County where authorities have received three complaints that horses the Trexlers kept there were being mistreated.
Authorities are looking for evidence in a mounting case of ill treatment of animals in which they filed charges earlier this week against Hazelene Trexler and her two sons, Terry Trexler and James Trexler.
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James Trexler has been suspended from his job as assistant agriculture commissioner.
The public furor started Monday, when authorities, acting on a complaint, seized 28 malnourished horses in the Trexlers' care from a farm near Eastover.
Investigators have since traced some of those animals to a historic East Brewington Road farm in Sumter County, where bones of long-dead horses subsequently were discovered.
Digging was slated to start Friday, but permission to do so could not be secured from the bank that holds title to the property until mid-afternoon.
That cleared the way for Sgt. Randy Wright, a Sumter County sheriff's deputy, and a cruelty investigator from Richland County to do a survey of the property in advance of Merck's visit today.
They were looking to add to 15 plastic yellow markers already scattered about the pasture and amid a grove of pecan trees marking where large bones could be easily observed. Authorities have confirmed the bones are from horses.
"We're gonna basically treat that property as a crime scene ... and try to figure out what happened to the horses," said Liz Perry, director of cruelty prevention for the Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Columbia.
Merck is among the nation's leading experts in animal forensics and has helped the federal government in its investigation of Michael Vick, the disgraced professional football player who pleaded guilty last year to being involved in a dog-fighting enterprise.
Wright said he and fellow officers were looking forward to Merck's help because "a lot of us don't know much about animal remains."
Kelly Graham, the Humane Society spokeswoman, said Merck's lab is capable of producing results quickly. Graham said investigators are looking into allegations some of the emaciated horses seized from the Eastover and Hopkins sites might have been moved to South Carolina from Georgia.
Debbie Whitehead, Sumter County's humane officer, cautioned against rushing to conclusions about the discovery of bones on a livestock farm.
"You're going to see shallow graves," she said.
But over the past year, Whitehead said, she has tried to investigate complaints that horses on the farm appeared to be malnourished, but was unable to verify there was a problem on the property.
Whitehead said she was contacted in late 2007 by a Richland County Sheriff's Department investigator, who had questions about malnourished horses in her jurisdiction.
Jack Garnett has lived across the road from the Trexler farm for 20 years. He said Friday he had been suspicious about the animals' care. Often, he said, "you could see the buzzards over there."
Garnett, a retired phone company worker who was raised on a farm, keeps small livestock on his property, including Rhode Island Red chickens, apricot and Mandarin wood ducks, and chuckers, which resemble large quail.
Garnett estimated the Trexler farm had been home to as many as 80 Arabian horses that appeared to have difficulty finding grass to graze on "because there wasn't any." He said the horses disappeared in September and a wooden fence around the property did as well.
While the horses on the Sumter property might have died naturally, Graham said, the case is being treated as suspicious because of other allegations against the family and the quantity of bones that has been found.