The investigation into circumstances surrounding the death of 25 sheep during a storm in late February has been officially concluded.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department—after a high-profile 10-week investigation subject to rumors and public scrutiny—announced May 9 that no criminal wrongdoing was found, and, after conferring with the District Attorney’s Office, no charges would be brought to longtime rancher and shepherd Jean “JB” Jaureguy.
On Feb. 28, a hiker walking through the green belt of Heritage Ranch—a sprawling rural gated community near Lake Nacimiento—discovered a small part of a 700-head flock of sheep huddled against bushes in a ravine. Some of the animals were dead, and others were barely breathing. It was the afternoon after the first night of rain from a days-long storm named Titan, preceded by severe drought that left little forage on the ground for livestock to eat.
The next day, hiker Adam Weissmuller and his wife, Jennifer, went back and captured a series of cell phone videos that soon landed on YouTube. The videos, which showed the sheep up close, as well as a scene where Jaureguy and two employees were loading up sick and dead sheep into a livestock trailer, were narrated by impassioned words of shock and disapproval.
“The Sheriff’s Office recognizes that any loss of an animal is tragic,” the department wrote in a news release. “The Sheriff’s Office further recognizes that such a loss can be very emotional to all involved. But our role is to be an independent finder of facts and to determine whether a crime has been committed. We can’t base our investigation on emotion.”
During the investigation, the department surveyed various flocks kept by Jaureguy to assess the overall health of his 6,500-head herd and determine whether best management practices were used. Two of the dead sheep were exhumed and taken to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at University of California, Davis. A necropsy showed that while the two specimens were underweight, food had recently been provided.
“We had to decide if those deaths were the result of criminal negligence, and we did not find that to be the case,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Tony Cipolla told New Times.
The investigation also considered when the sheep were sheared, which happened not long before the storm. Jaureguy told investigators that the sheep have been sheared the second week of February for the past 53 years. Because contracted crews migrate from one place to another throughout the season, shearing is scheduled months in advance without the luxury of accounting for weather.
Attorney Jeffrey R. Stein, representing Jaureguy, told New Times that in the end Jaureguy’s long-term stewardship as an “appropriate and responsible caretaker of his animals” prevailed.
“Providing a thoughtful examination of an emotionally charged issues is the best that we can hope for from our legal system,” Stein wrote in an email to New Times. “The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office deserves our thanks for evaluating the issue on the facts and not the emotions.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay