Horse abuser sentenced to probation; effort underway to toughen law

Published: Jan. 12, 2018 at 8:05 AM CST
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A man who molested horses in two local counties last year was sentenced to probation Friday for misdemeanor animal mistreatment charges.

A judge sentenced Sterling Rachwal to two years probation and ordered him to have no contact with properties that have horses. He was also ordered to pay a victim $105 for a veterinary bill.

Rachwal is being released from jail on time served. Rachwal's charges are misdemeanors, meaning a prison sentence is not an option. Under Wisconsin law, an animal must die or be mutilated for it to be considered a felony offense.

Prosecutors said Rachwal was seen running from a Brown County barn last February, where a horse was found injured.

Investigators planted a GPS device on his truck, which showed him driving to an area near a horse farm in Manitowoc County. The owner gave police permission to install a camera, which investigators say captured Rachwal repeatedly abusing two horses.

Rachwal will also undergo a psychological evaluation. If he violates probation, Rachwal will face one year in jail.

Brown County Judge Timothy Hinkfuss agreed to consolidate the cases in both counties. In early December, the defense and prosecution reached a joint recommendation for Rachwal's punishment, which the judge followed.

"Mr. Rachwal, I don't really know what happened here; it's clearly very sick and very depraved," Judge Hinkfuss said. "It's a horrible offense. It took 19 pages of a criminal complaint to describe this case."

Kyle Kapinos of Manitowoc said that Rachwal was caught on camera molesting his horses. This caused bizarre and violent behavior in the horses and destroyed farm equipment, Kapinos testified. He called Rachwal a "sick person."

Kapinos said he was forced to sell one of his horses.

"I'm a father of four and and this accident could have left my wife as a widow and my kids without a father. We even had to get rid of that particular horse because he was unsafe to be around, because of my kids. That horse was a great horse, and while we had him he never did anything wrong until this past year. He didn't deserve what happened to him, nor did I," Kapinos said.

His father told Action 2 News he believes the horse was slaughtered.

Prosecutor Dana Johnson emphasized a need for protection for the public and rehabilitation.

Rachwal has been charged with crimes related to the sexual abuse of animals in at least four counties during the last three decades. He's spent time in jail and in psychiatric institutions.

Rachwal has re-offended after each release.

"For Mr. Rachwal, and I want him to hear this on the record. If he does things like this, like he did, judge, he's putting himself in danger because he's going into barns. He's going onto people's land. Going into people's buildings without consent," Johnson said. "He's putting himself into danger because if he gets caught in some of these barns, sometimes before he gets away, he could get shot and killed himself."

Rachwal initially pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, but the defense withdrew the plea.

"He is getting a maximum penalty. We are joining in that recommendation," said Rachwal's attorney, Shannon Viel.

Viel says Rachwal has been harassed in jail, and inmates from other jails write him threatening letters.

Many viewers have expressed anger over a perceived lack of punishment in this case.

State Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) is working to change the law.

"Law enforcement essentially when somebody relocates to the area, is saying, 'yeah, you're gonna want to put up trail cameras and lock up your barn,'" Rep. Jacque says about Rachwal. "And you talk to horse farmers that say they sleep in the barn with their shotgun knowing this guy is on the loose."

Jacque has introduced Assembly Bill 666 to make sexual contact with an animal a felony offense in Wisconsin.

Jacque says he is having trouble getting fellow lawmakers on board due to the subject matter.

"I've had nobody who has given me any sort of a policy argument at all as to why they wouldn't support making this change. But they don't want to associate themselves," Jacque says. "And it is something where over half the other states have essentially made this change."

He continues, "It shouldn't take an animal dying to be able to charge a higher penalty."