RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A Wake County woman faces nearly 80 years in prison after investigators found more than 20 dead horses in small pens.
Deputies arrested 64-year-old Janet Elaine Laven Burleson for 23 felony counts of killing an animal by starvation and one count of felony cruelty to animals. Investigators said 22 horses and a Rottweiler dog died from starvation.
Warrants revealed a second Rottweiler survived by eating parts of the other dog.
District Judge Eric Chasse informed Burleson in court Thursday that each of the charges has a maximum punishment of 39 months, which totals 78 years if convicted on all counts. Chasse kept Burleson’s bond at $250,000 and assigned a public defender to serve as her attorney.
Three women from the Horses for Hope therapeutic riding center sat in the courtroom gallery and held up pictures of some of the dead animals while Burleson faced a judge.
“I wanted to show the judge, hold them up so somebody could see what these horses looked like out there,” Horses for Hope CEO Gwen Roberts said. “They’re very gruesome, and I wanted somebody to see so they wouldn’t let her off. I did not want her to walk today. I wanted her behind bars and to stay behind bars for a long time.”
Roberts found the animal carcasses last week. She said a friend noticed Burleson bring horses to the Wake County property in 2018, but had not seen anyone come to the site in about a month.
The friend called Roberts to check on the animals, due to her familiarity with horses.
“My heart sank. I cried,” Roberts said. “I saw them laying down and I just turned away and I cried. I said, ‘I think they’re dead,’ and then when I composed myself, I went back to see if there was any movement, and there was no movement. They were all dead.
“It was shocking. I didn’t even know what to do. I’d never imagined I would ever see that many horses dead at one time. It’s hard enough to see one, but to see 21 of them, it was very hard to see.”
Roberts realized she had heard the name Janet Burleson before because of a book written by Burleson titled Helping Hooves: Training Miniature Horses. Burleson and her husband trained miniature horses to serve as guides for blind people, similar to seeing-eye dogs.
Horses for Hope works with people with disabilities, and using horses to help the blind is an attractive concept for Roberts.
Burleson raised horses for years on a farm in the Vance County town of Kittrell. The gate of the now-abandoned property there has a padlock on it. A sign next to the gate says This Property Protected By Rottweiler Security System. The two dogs recovered by Wake County deputies were Rottweilers.
Tips from neighbors and Burleson’s family members indicated that “she was the one who owned and had brought the horses to the property sometime over the past summer, but then stopped caring for them a few months ago.”
A necropsy report Wednesday “indicated the animals died due to starvation.” Burleson’s brother encouraged her to meet with investigators after the report from a medical examiner.
Neighbors near the Guide Horse Foundation farm in Kittrell said Burleson moved out a few years ago, but some horses remained on the land until late 2018. One man said he saw Burleson removing equipment within the past couple of months.
Burleson’s next court date will be Feb. 14. Roberts said she plans to attend.
“I want to hear her side of the story, I want to know why she just let those horses just starve to death and die,” Roberts said.