Horse & Hound’s Spindles Farm investigation diary

  • Thursday 13 May

    James Gray skipped court yesterday, and in our subsequent news meeting, we decide it’s about time we try to find out what he was actually doing at Spindles Farm — an oft-asked question over the past two and a half years.

    When the story broke in January 2008, H&H was inundated with calls from locals — and those further afield — who claimed to know the exact story. But while allegations and speculation abounded, there were and never have been any hard facts.

    We all hoped more would come out in the court cases — how on earth can someone really starve around 140 horses, 31 of those to death? Nobody knew. And it didn’t emerge in court, either.

    We decided to run the story in our 27 May issue, which gave us 10 days to do as much digging as possible to find out more about the man himself, and whether there’s any truth behind any of those rumours.

    Charlotte White (H&H deputy news editor) and I divvy up the work on this — it’s a big job with not much time, and though there’s a lot to do, we’re really excited about uncovering some little-known facts. All we’ve reported so far is details of the case.

    Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 May

    Monday and Tuesday are caught up with dealing with the rest of H&H’s news pages — planning, commissioning, writing and dealing with myriad queries. I do, however, download the 136-page judgement issued from Aylesbury Crown Court for some light bedtime reading.

    I also write up a conversation I had with a renowned horse dealer the previous week. I’d seen this chap (who, like most in this blog, will remain nameless) at a horse sale about four years ago and was quite nervous about talking to him — he “ran the show”, has a lot of clout and is quite an intimidating individual. I obtained his number via a good contact, dialled and, amazingly, got straight through to him.

    I’d actually called him about another matter, and think I’ve persuaded him to meet me to talk about it, but he did tell me one or two things about Jamie Gray. Everyone knows everyone in the horse dealing business, but there isn’t a horse owner (good or bad) in the country who doesn’t know about Jamie Gray and Spindles Farm.

    I arrange meetings with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare inspectors, who were first in at Spindles Farm on 4 January, and with Buckinghamshire Trading Standards. The latter tell me the Gray family issued death threats to everyone involved, and warns me to “be careful” — a message I reiterate to Charlotte.

    Wednesday 19 May

    I spent this morning talking to Peter Green, an expert witness in the case, vet and RSPCA consultant. He tells me some horror stories — like the horse, referred to in the case just as ‘C20’, who was dragged by its tail and head into a trailer by Jamie Gray and his son, driven home to Spindles Farm and left to die. It makes me feel quite sick. Peter tells me that he is very relieved the case is over — everyone is.

    I question Peter about the various rumours that have been circulating — drug smuggling, money laundering, using the horses as donors for blood. He said a lot didn’t stack up — Jamie was importing a number of horses, which was unusual for a man who had a number of essentially meat animals — and the fact that he let them starve wasn’t business sense. But he, like everyone I questioned, told me no evidence was ever found that James Gray was doing anything other than horse dealing.

    Peter gets quite forceful with me when I suggest bloodletting — he says he’s never come across it in the UK in 25 years of dealing in horse welfare. But then again, would he, as a legitimate and respected vet? We believe it happens on the Continent because it is allegedly the source of the swamp fever outbreak in Ireland in 2006.

    Thursday 20 May

    I’ve got a “secret” meeting in Amersham today with some people who give me a lot of background on James Gray and horse dealers like him. I realise how little I know about this “underworld” of our society. There are hundreds and hundreds of dealers like James Gray who make money on horses however they can — cash deals at markets and fairs up and down the country. Horses are a commodity to them like a sack of potatoes or a caravan — passports can be forged and money is made wherever, however.

    I talk through lots of the theories — again, there is no evidence to support any of them. It hasn’t ever even been proven that the smell of horses can mask the smell of drugs or cigarettes if they’ve been hidden under the floorboards of a horsebox.
    Later, I meet David Boyd and Nick White, World Horse Welfare field officers. Nick was first in with the RSPCA at Spindles Farm, and we’ve arranged to drive past so I can see for myself.

    Bizarrely, as we stop in a layby at Keeper’s Lane to get into one car, we see RSPCA vans. It turns out to be Martin Rivett, a local inspector, and Rob Skinner, the area chief inspector who was first on the scene on 4 Jan 2008.

    They have been back into Spindles Farm about a lame goat — they can’t quite believe it. The inspectors all greet each other like long-lost friends. I talk to Rob about the criticism the RSPCA came under — particularly for being “scared of travellers”.

    He looks down at me (I think he’s about 6ft 3in), smiling gently and with confidence. “Abi, we’ve just been in to Spindles Farm a week after they went to court. We are not intimidated and Spindles Farm is not and never was a ‘no-go area’,” he said.

    We drive past Spindles Farm, and Nick White stops to show me the metal gates through which the dead horses were all dragged. I can tell this case had a profound effect on him, too. He believes the muck heap at Spindles Farm will probably contain even more horrors.

    The most startling thing to me is that between the Gray’s family home and the farmyard where the horses were found, is a smart livery yard. How the family and James Grey got away with this, as the judge said, beggars belief.

    I then head on to Aylesbury to speak to Trading Standards — to ask them why they didn’t prosecute James Gray for passports infringements. He had 51 passports for 140 horses. I’m told it was a decision was taken with the RSPCA to prosecute on welfare grounds and that cases can be thrown out if the authorities were seen to be “over zealous”. And anyway, if he had been sentenced for passport offences it would have run concurrently, not on top.

    I’d hoped to call in to The Horse Trust, who have 11 horses, ponies and donkey from Spindles Farm, but I’ve run out of time and energy.

    Friday 21 May

    Charlotte and I have a de-brief with our editor, news team, designers and picture desk. It’s all fascinating stuff and we spend the day writing furiously and making even more phone calls.

    I speak to a laboratory that runs a farm producing horse blood to find out if they’d heard of blood being sold on the blackmarket in the UK. They haven’t, but they tell me horse blood is sold into human medicine — I’d assumed it was taken to make plasma and products for horses only.

    I also decide to visit a horsemarket outside Buckingham on Sunday with Trading Standards, who are going along for a recce and to check passports.

    Sunday 23 May

    Back up the M40 from London at 8.30am. I meet Trading Standards in a café at a nearby Tesco to talk through the plan.

    We arrive at the market and wander around — I feel so conspicuous, and stick out like a sore thumb. I’m not a horse trader and I don’t look like one. As I wander around the pens of mainly coloured, gypsy cob-type horses, I am eyed suspiciously. One dealer looks particularly unamused by my presence and stands in front of a pen of colts I’m trying to appraise.

    There are a lot of colts here — they’re worthless as the owners can’t afford to castrate them. There are two donkeys, one of which looks quite elderly, and one horse looking very stressed and uncomfortable and Trading Standards ask to see its passport. It turns out not to be the correct passport for horse, so the owner agrees to withdraw the horse from the sale and the passport is confiscated.

    Kirsty Hampton is also at the market. Kirsty is an RSPCA inspector and the equine “expert” for this area — she too, together with Rob Skinner, was first in at Spindles Farm on 4 January.

    Kirsty tells me she’s at the market (in uniform) on her day off because she feels it’s so important the RSPCA have a presence there. Though there are no real welfare concerns that we can see, I feel very reassured by this. I talk through more of the case with her — she, too, is baffled by what Gray was really doing. It’s good to have met these RSPCA inspectors — the RSPCA gets a lot of stick but I have an enormous amount of respect for the inspectors out there on the streets. It’s been an education.

    Monday 24 May

    A 12-hour day in the office putting the investigation together. Charlotte isn’t in today, but phones in from Ireland with her “editorial comment” to go with the story.

    I speak to the UK Borders Agency, who aren’t much help at all — neither they, nor the Crown Prosecution Service, can tell me whether any horseboxes have ever been found and drivers prosecuted for smuggling drugs or contraband.

    Similarly, Thames Valley Police can’t tell me whether they investigated James Gray for any other wrongdoing, nor what they are doing to try to find him. Whether his actions of skipping court will make things worse for him is a matter for the court to decide, says the police press officer.

    Our picture desk, art department and other newsteam member, Amy, all do stirling work on the pages. It looks very different from the usual H&H report and I really hope people find it interesting – and that they let us know their thoughts. I want to do more of this kind of work, and whether we do or not depends on your feedback.

    • Did you enjoy our four-page special investigation? Send your thoughts to hhletters@ipcmedia.com

    Read Charlotte White’s blog of her work to bring this exclusive news feature to press.

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