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5 owners of seized horses file lawsuit against Butler County rescue organization

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

A Butler County animal rescue organization illegally seized and sold horses and drummed up media attention for donations, five horse owners claimed in a lawsuit filed against the rescue group.

The owners sued Equine Angels Rescue, its founder Pamela Vivirito, state Trooper Shawn E. King and Brian Burks, a veterinarian at Fox Equine Center, claiming fraud, civil rights violations of due process, unreasonable searches and seizures, invasion of privacy, trespassing and racketeering. The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday in Butler County Court.

The plaintiffs are: Brian Arendosh of Fairview, Geraldine Geibel of Summit, Elan L. Lewis of Clearfield and Debra Gaus and daughter Jessica Gossett of Polk, Venango County.

Vivirito said Friday that she doesn't have the legal authority to seize horses and only took in horses after state police ordered their removal.

“If this ever goes in front of a jury, the pictures (of the horses) will tell the true story,” Vivirito said. “(The horse owners) are mad, and they are retaliating because they were exposed.”

State police charged Arendosh, Lewis and Geibel's son, Gerry, who had horses on his mother's farm, with animal abuse offenses. Equine Angels seized horses from Arendosh and Lewis, the lawsuit said.

Vivirito's group took custody of 18 horses from Gaus and Gossett's farm, though they were not charged, according to the lawsuit.

Cranberry attorney John Haller, who represents Equine Angels and Vivirito, did not return a phone message Friday.

King did not return a phone message.

The lawsuit accuses Burks of misrepresenting the health of horses to the media to “justify the illegal taking of these horses.”

Burks examined horses in the Arendosh, Gaus-Gossett and Lewis cases. The horses in those cases were abused, he said.

“I would say, in general, people who have animals taken away from them in any county, and in any state, tend to get a little bit upset,” Burks said.

The lawsuit claimed that Vivirito and Equine Angels trespassed on the owners' properties and sometimes entered closed buildings, taking pictures of animals illegally and passing them to King, who used them to file charges.

“Vivirito would and did give the horse owner an ultimatum that they were to sign over ownership and possession of their horses to her or they would be prosecuted criminally and suffer the humiliation and embarrassment of significant media coverage,” attorney Al Lindsay Jr., representing the horse owners, wrote in the lawsuit.

Vivirito said she never trespassed on owners' property. She said photos were taken from public property, and she was accompanied onto private property by a state trooper.

After the Arendosh seizure in March, state police cited Vivirito with trespassing on his property, but District Judge Tim Shaffer dismissed that charge last month, according to online court records.

The lawsuit also questions whether the organization is truly nonprofit.

The organization is considered by the Internal Revenue Service to be a public charity, according to the IRS website.

Vivirito said the organization charges new owners from $300 to $500 in adoption fees and that the horses are checked for how they are doing with the new owners.

“(The fees) don't pay for a quarter of what we invest to bring them back to health,” Vivirito said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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