FARGO - Bill Kiefer and his bay mule made a conspicuous presence at last summer's Cow Town Hoe Down celebration in New Salem.
Kiefer, a stranger to most in this farming and ranching community of 951 in western North Dakota's Morton County, gave rides to kids on his mule one afternoon during the annual July festival, which features a parade, street dance, cow chip tossing contest and demolition derby.
He raised a few eyebrows when he stopped for a beverage in the beer garden while shepherding his underage rides. The man spoke with obvious pride about his mules, especially a prize pair named Waylon and Willie.
"He's just walking around, talking all kinds of craziness," said Sandy Kobs, who attended the celebration and had a brief conversation with Kiefer, whom she'd never seen before. "He was proud of his mules."
Kiefer, who wore bib overalls and a felt hat, struck some as eccentric. He seemed to have ambitions of becoming a major mule breeder.
"Everybody was saying, 'Who was that? Who was that?' " Kobs said. "Then he was gone and nobody ever saw him again."
Six months later, at the end of January, Kiefer would gain statewide notoriety when Morton County officials confiscated 119 malnourished horses, donkeys and mules from his property northwest of New Salem - and found another 96 dead.
Days later, in adjacent Burleigh County across the Missouri River, authorities seized 38 horses and found three dead. Three horses were so weak they later died.
Now Kiefer, a longtime Fargo investment executive and financial adviser, is charged with multiple misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in one of the biggest such cases within memory in North Dakota.
Animal rights supporters have seized on the case as an example of the need to provide felony punishments for aggravated cases of abuse and neglect, as provided by a bill pending in the Legislature.
Kiefer, who has not made any public statements about the allegations and did not respond to multiple telephone messages from The Forum, was well-known in Fargo business circles.
He was an avid hunter and longtime member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a game conservation group, and once helped raise money for the Red River Zoo, according to Forum archives.
Before the allegations of animal abuse and neglect, Kiefer briefly made news headlines last August when he announced his write-in candidacy in the U.S. Senate race.
Two years earlier, Kiefer organized an effort to unite North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota into a single flagship university, an idea that failed to gain traction.
Signs of Kiefer's impending troubles, the first hints of which would surface not long after his folksy appearance at the Cow Town Hoe Down, indicate he was not paying certain bills, including hay.
But their awful significance would become clear only in retrospect, with the grim discovery of dead horses and mules, some piled together, the malnourished survivors described by one rescuer as "on their death beds."
Many of the survivors had bite wounds - signs of aggression in what had become a battle for survival in the depths of winter.
One of Kiefer's prized mules apparently was one of the casualties, said Kobs, a self-described "horse person" who helped transport the confiscated animals to a horse rescue ranch near Hawley, Minn., last weekend.
"Unfortunately Waylon didn't make it," she said, "but Willie did."
'Death on the land'
Horses from Kiefer's pasture northwest of New Salem kept getting loose, prompting calls from neighbors. The reason they bolted would become clear later.
In late November, Kiefer approached a neighboring rancher, Curtis Feland, to ask if he could borrow some hay to "tide him over." In fact, Feland already had noticed that Kiefer's horses and mules were grazing on his side of the fence.
"They reached over that fence in desperation in order to get all the grass they could," said Marshall Feland, who owns and operates the White Butte Ranch in partnership with his son.
Curtis Feland agreed to allow Kiefer to take some hay, presuming he would take a few bales. But later he discovered that Kiefer had helped himself to 100 bales, with a value of $4,000, Marshall Feland said. Another rancher in the area is suing Kiefer, claiming he failed to pay for hay worth $6,000.
"This guy, it's sad that he ever got out here," Marshall Feland said. "I don't think he knew what he was doing. It just infuriates me that this guy comes out to this country. He was death on the land."
By Dec. 6, the situation had become serious enough that a state animal health field inspector and a Morton County deputy sheriff visited Kiefer's property to evaluate his horses and mules.
Two veterinarians returned to Kiefer's ranch on Dec. 18 to evaluate approximately 190 horses and mules. Most scored low on a 9-point body condition scale, some of them emaciated.
Three days later, the deputy met with Kiefer to give him the veterinarians' report, along with recommendations to improve the health of his animals, including selling some and separating the animals into groups to improve their feeding.
By late January, it became clear conditions weren't improving. A dead horse reportedly was visible from the gravel road running past Kiefer's place.
On Jan. 24, after receiving calls to check on the welfare of Kiefer's horses and mules, the deputy returned to the property and found a dead horse lying next to a hay corral.
Several horses were outside a fenced-in hay corral, without access to feed. That day a neighbor informed the deputy that there were three other dead horses or mules on the Kiefer property.
The next day, the Morton County Sheriff's Department obtained a search warrant with a judge's authorization to seize the estimated 190 horses and mules.
With severe winter weather on the way, a team arrived on Kiefer's gated property on Jan. 28 to seize the surviving animals. They arrived too late for some.
Officials found carcasses in several out-of-view places, including a pile of 25 that appeared to have been dragged behind a pasture hilltop. Eleven were found dead in a barn, 18 were in a Quonset and nearby stock trailer, with another 20 carcasses found in and around the hay corral and yard.
The same day across the river in Burleigh County, officials who had been monitoring Kiefer's horses and mules also took action, confiscating surviving animals.
Kiefer later would admit to David Shipman, the Morton County sheriff, that his first horse or mule died around Sept. 10, and the body had been dragged over the hilltop, according to court records.
The pasture on his Morton County property was gnawed to bare ground, a deputy testified. Hungry horses had nibbled fence posts, tree bark and wooden panels.
Although it might appear officials took their time in acting, a horse rescue coordinator credited them with acting swiftly once they had evidence in hand. The areas where the dead horses were found were not visible from the road, and the property was fenced and gated.
"This happened in hours," said Alison Smith of the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Mandan, which took the surviving animals and is placing healthy survivors for adoption. "Once they knew what was going on they moved."
The horses were so dehydrated they repeatedly emptied water troughs, she said. Before they were separated, large, dominant animals wouldn't let younger or weaker horses near water or food, apparently a defense mechanism they developed during prolonged scarcity, Smith said.
"It's survival of the fittest," she said. "The mules were in a lot better shape than the horses."
Many of the animals ate manure, which Smith believes they had grown accustomed to eating on Kiefer's ranch to stave off starvation. Many of the horses had to be treated for worms and mange, she said.
Many of the horses seem to be mourning their dead companions. "I'm seeing a lot of sad horses," Smith said.
Horses had refused to enter Kiefer's barn, shunning it because of the dead horses inside, and thus depriving themselves of shelter against the harsh subzero wind chills, she said.
"That kind of multiplied the problem," she said. "That's how a lot of them met their demise."
Still, she added, many were saved and are being nursed back to health. "It could have been a lot worse," Smith said.
Fined for misconduct
Kiefer, who is 62, had a career as an investment executive and financial adviser for more than 25 years. He once was a partner in a Fargo firm called Financial Advantage Investment Services, since dissolved.
On Feb. 12 - the same day his dead horses and mules were buried - he was fined $15,000 by financial industry regulators for misconduct. He sold more than $4 million of mutual funds without collecting a sales charge, and falsified records, according to records.
The deception gave his customers an unfair advantage, and deprived partners and the mutual fund company of revenues, a hearing officer found.
Not much has been seen in recent years of Kiefer, once active in NDSU Team Makers, said Pat Simmers, a leader with the booster group.
His involvement with the Red River Zoo was brief, and involved a possible exhibit of Rocky Mountain elk that never materialized, said Lisa Tate, the zoo's executive director.
Similarly, Kiefer's involvement with the national Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation ended years ago. He served on the board from 2000 to 2003, according to a spokesman for the group.
"The strings were cut years ago," said Mark Holyoak of the elk group. I do know that it didn't work out."
News that Kiefer has been accused of large-scale animal abuse and neglect surprised Simmers, who recalled his admiration of mules, perhaps as a pack animal on hunts.
"I know he's been an animal guy," Simmers said. "He's almost been a recluse here lately. We just haven't seen him. We used to see him frequently."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522