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Man sentenced in starvation death of three horses in Becker County

Michael Erwin Dahl. File photo

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — A man accused of letting three horses die from starvation, exposure and neglect has been sentenced in Becker County district Court.

Michael Erwin Dahl, 42, of Shakopee, Minn., was sentenced Dec. 27 on a felony charge of mistreatment — torture of animals. Two identical felony charges were dropped in a plea agreement.

According to court records, on Jan. 24 the White Earth Tribal Police Department was contacted about three dead horses on property near Strawberry Lake Store, on the White Earth Reservation in Becker County.

A police investigator talked to a woman from out of the country who had left her horse in Dahl's care. Dahl also had two horses of his own on the property. She had wired money to Dahl to buy hay for the horses, and had been texting him about the welfare of the horses. The investigator reviewed the texts.

On Jan. 30 the police investigator and a veterinarian with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health went to the property to examine the dead horses. They determined the horses had lost significant body condition, there was little or no food available there, and there was evidence that their nutritional needs had not been met. Hypothermia and starvation during extremely cold winter weather may have contributed to their deaths.

On Dec. 27, Dahl appeared before District Judge Jay Carlson, who stayed imposition of sentence and ordered him to serve 18 days in jail, with credit for two days served, and fined him $1,000 plus $1,090 in court fees and $44 in restitution. He was ordered to get a complete diagnostic assessment and follow the recommendations, with his probation officer to monitor the process.

He is not allowed to have ownership custody or control of any pet or companion animal, and is subject to visits by an animal control officer. He was placed on supervised probation for four years. Successful completion of probation will result in a misdemeanor conviction.

The investigation was spurred by Amber Shaide of Fargo, a former horse-breeder with deep ties to White Earth who had gifted one of the horses to Dahl, who had been considered something of a spiritual leader in the region.

It wasn't just any old horse she had given to Dahl. The 2-year-old filly was the great-granddaughter of the famed racing horse Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner in 1973, Shaide said in an earlier interview.

She said she gave the filly, worth several thousand dollars, to Dahl as a gift in a spiritual ceremony.

Another horse, a 7- or 8-year-old gelding, was owned by an Irish woman who visits Minnesota regularly on a visa.

Those two horses together were valued at about $6,000, Shaide said.

They rode together on a 2015 Honor the Earth ride with Winona LaDuke, she said. The third horse was an American paint horse, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, that Dahl got from a horse rescue organization in northwestern Minnesota. It was valued at $800 to $1,000, she said.

"I bred horses for about 15 years," Shaide said. "I should have just went over there myself and checked on them."

But she didn't because of her late work schedule, icy roads and early winter darkness.

She said McQuaid, in Ireland, grew worried because Dahl, who for weeks reassured her that everything was fine, had quit responding to her questions about how the horses were doing.

The horses were found dead in late January, Shaide said, but she believes the filly likely died prior to Christmas. Her young body was covered in ice, likely from the Christmas day rainfall.

The paint mare likely died next and the gelding died last. "He was beyond fat, for a horse," she said.

There was evidence that the horses had been gnawing on wood towards the end, and the two older horses died with their heads through a fence, trying to reach grass.

Ironically, had the horses not been so well-behaved, they likely would have lived, she said. Adjacent to their pasture was a field with round hay bales that they could have eaten. But they wouldn't knock down the fence.

"More aggressive horses would have been eating," she said. "They would have gone out of that fence."

One of them was so well-behaved that you could put a yellow string on the ground and she wouldn't cross over it, Shaide said.

The horses apparently survived as long as they did on snow — the water tank there was half full of solid ice, she said.

"Which meant no tank heater out there," she said.

At least three neighbors in the area told Shaide they would have happily given Dahl hay for the horses, had he asked.

She said the man who usually provided hay at the Dahl place at one point brought a load there, but Dahl couldn't pay him, so he left without delivering it.

"He said if he knew what kind of shape the horses would be in, he would have left it for free," Shaide said.

After learning of the horse deaths, Shaide notified Animal Humane Society investigator Wade Hanson and the White Earth Tribal Police.