Snow Mountain Stables employee sentenced in animal cruelty case |

Snow Mountain Stables employee sentenced in animal cruelty case

The Grand County Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant at the Snow Mountain Stables on Jan 11-12, 2022. During that investigation, 144 horses were seized, one was euthanized.
Grand County Sheriff’s Office/Courtesy photo

Allegations of animal cruelty at Snow Mountain Stables, a private vendor formerly under contract with the YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, led to one horse being euthanized and 144 being seized, and eventually returned, by law enforcement in January 2022. Investigators issued arrest warrants for Derek M. Zurface, 36, and Theresa A. LaGrande, 24, the former ranch manager and ranch hand, the next month.

The district attorney’s office dropped LaGrande’s charges as the investigation continued, according to Kathryn Dowdell, the 14th Judicial District’s chief deputy district attorney. Dowdell spoke at Zurface’s sentencing April 25, which came after he pleaded guilty to one count of a Class 1 misdemeanor cruelty to animals in March this year. Zurface’s plea dismissed his other 93 counts of animal cruelty, including two felony counts.

Dowdell stated that the people were requesting 14th Judicial District Judge Nicholas Catanzarite to sentence Zurface to the maximum sentence of 18 months in jail for the misdemeanor. 

She presented the court with photographs she said depicted the “horrors” of what happened at Snow Mountain Stables and argued that Zurface intentionally neglected the horses because he thought if the YMCA terminated its contract with the Snow Mountain Stables owner Jim Peterman, he could take over and make a profit.

Zurface did not deserve all of the blame for what happened at the stables, but the district attorney’s office did not have enough evidence to charge Peterman with any crimes, Dowdell said. Even if Peterman had culpability in the situation, she argued, that should not prevent Zurface from facing justice for his actions.

Dowdell highlighted Zurface’s criminal history outside of the charges related to Snow Mountain Stables, including charges for domestic violence and animal cruelty. Dowdell said Zurface had an active warrant for his arrest out of Texas relating to an animal cruelty case that occurred after January 2022.

Sheriff Brett Schroetlin and Humane Society investigators Bobbi Priestly and Kathleen Ruyak spoke during the sentencing as well, showing support for the people’s ask for 18 months of jail time. All three spoke to the severity of the injuries and suffering they saw among the horses during their investigations.

Public Defender Chris Hamsher represented Zurface and asked the court to sentence him to probation without any jail time. Hamsher emphasized the role Peterman played in creating poor conditions at the stables, saying he had only been present at the location six days over two months, and when he did visit the stables, he only came to hand out checks to employees.

Hamsher said witnesses saw Peterman operating heavy machinery while intoxicated during his visits to the stables as well. He also pointed out that Zurface had only worked there for 3.5 months before the investigation began.

Investigators estimated that horses had experienced up to a year of neglect before the investigation, Hamsher said, meaning the blame could not fall entirely on Zurface.

Hamsher cited two people he said worked for Peterman at properties in other states, saying they corroborated the idea that Peterman was an irresponsible horse owner who created the conditions for animal cruelty to thrive.

Regarding the allegation that Zurface let the animal cruelty continue for his own financial gain, Hamsher said the low likelihood of that actually happening means it should be taken with a grain of salt. Zurface, Hamsher said, had no horses or start up capital to purchase the horses he would need to replace Peterman as the YMCA’s contractor.

Zurface spoke during the sentencing as well, saying he feels horrible about what happened at the stables and emphasizing that he has loved and worked with animals his whole life.

After Dowdell spoke again, arguing against some of Hamsher’s points, Catanzarite gave his sentencing. He said that because Zurface has a criminal history that includes probation violations, he felt that probation would not be appropriate for this case.

Zurface may have inherited a bad situation, but the 3.5 months he worked at the stables was long enough to either make it better or make it worse, Catanzarite said. The judge believed Zurface took deliberate steps to make the situation worse.

Catanzarite settled on a 9-month jail sentence, saying the length seemed sufficient considering Zurface had some, but not all, culpability in the animal neglect.

The sentencing order for Zurface lists his total fines and costs at $80,713.60 and $77,852.10 of that comes from restitution. The interest on the restitution will accrue at 8% per year, according to the order.

Zurface has to appear at the Grand County Jail by June 1 to serve his 270 days of jail time, although he has one day of credit for time served. His sentencing also orders him to complete animal cruelty treatment and provide proof to the court by April 30, 2024.

Because the sentence does not include probation, Catanzarite scheduled a show-cause hearing for April 30, 2024, at 4 p.m. If Zurface does not complete the treatment and provide proof by then, he has to appear at that hearing. If he does neither, the court can issue a warrant for his arrest.

The YMCA ended its contract with Snow Mountain Stables when law enforcement seized the horses, and a new contractor, Rocky Mountain Stables, now offers horse rides and other activities at the YMCA property

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