When 32 dead horses and 111 other equines were removed from Spindles Farm in in January 2008 the horseworld was appalled. We wanted to know how could this happen, why did it happen and what was going on?
But despite 30 weeks of court time — covering the original trial and the Gray family’s appeal — so many questions remained unanswered about the situation at Spindles Farm two years on.
So when the court appeal ended on 12 May with James Gray’s sentence increased from 24 to 26 weeks jail we decided to try to find some answers.
Abigail Butcher (head of news) and I split the feature into two parts — she would look at the issues of what James Gray was doing at Spindles Farm and the theories of possible criminal activity within horse dealing.
I would look at Gray and his family themselves. Learn what I could from his neighbours in Hyde Heath, investigate the lurid claims surrounding his finances and try to find out how a traveller family came to be living in a £2m property in leafy Bucks.
Thursday 13 May
My first day on the case. I downloaded the synopsis of the original case from www.judiciary.gov.uk/docs and sat down for a long read.
There was lots of new information from the trial that I was not aware of having only been able to spend one day in court.
Gray’s casual attitude to his horses’ distress was appalling. “You’re always going to have a few [horses] die when you’ve this many,” he nonchalantly told RSPCA chief officer Robert Skinner, blaming their deaths on worms.
These horses were not thought of as individual, sentient creatures, they were not even treated like sheep or cattle, more like a dirt cheap commodity, to be dealt with in bulk.
“The smell of rotting horseflesh was overpowering… the animals had obviously been dead for days,” said vet Katie Robinson. Another pony was emaciated and propped against the water trough, its penis massively swollen, blistered and sore, with blood dripping from it and staining its hind legs.
And yet Gray was unrepentent and obstructive, letting ponies out to impede the rescue, oblivious to his dogs gnawing on the carcasses.
I go home saddened.
Friday 14 May
Have been looking into the background of the case, digging out the deeds of Spindles Farm with the Land Registry and downloading the stuff relating to his business Grays Horses from Companies House.
We knew the RSPCA has a charging order on the sale of Spindles Farm to try to recoup the £400,000 costs imposed by district judge Vickers at Aylesbury last June. But why does Beaufort Embryo Transfer Centre at Barnwood, Gloucester have one too? Intriguing!
And who would have thought that James Gray claims to be a member of the Welsh Pony and New Forest Pony societies.
Dug out letters and details of calls from people living in the local area who contacted us after news of the Spindles Farm horses broke.
And I am trying to arrange a viewing of Spindles Farm with the agents PJSA.
Monday 17 May
Not much time to dig around in the Grays’ history today but have drawn up a (very long) list of people I’d like to speak to — including his farrier.
Tuesday 18 May
Today I heard Gray owes £500,000 to HMRC and has a number of other outstanding bills, including a £7,000 electricity bill.
Wednesday 19 May
Have arranged to talk to Hyde Heath villagers tomorrow about their experiences of Gray and Spindles Farm.
The agents for Spindles Farm have told me that Mrs Gray wants all prospective buyers to visit the property at the same time so she can be out of the way. No chance we can view in time for the article.
Thursday 20 May
A two-hour drive up to Amersham in the sunshine and a visit to the lovely village of Hyde Heath. It’s hard to believe that such a pretty place was the setting for such cruelty.
Villagers are all willing to talk and appalled at what was going on behind the gates at the farm but no-one wants to be named — the fear of reprisals is very real for them.
I saw Julie Gray — Jamie’s wife — outside their £1m house, which is currently on the market, but don’t think she wanted to chat!
Neighbours say the family has moved into breeding goats now they are banned from keeping horses.
I am pleased to see the RSPCA van cruising by the farm late morning. Hear later they were called out to inspect a lame goat. Looks like the community is keeping an eye on Spindles Farm.
I return to London with a full notebook and a very busy day ahead of me tomorrow.
Friday 21 May
Now the hard slog begins — writing the piece for H&H.
There is so much information I’d like to include, like hearing James Gray’s father, also James, is such a hard nut his party piece is placing his hand on a table and whacking it with a club hammer. He doesn’t even wince apparently!
Feel a little bit disappointed that I’m not going to be in the office on Monday when the story is finally knitted together and the pages designed — I’m off on a family holiday to Ireland at 3am — but I know we’ve done a good job.
I also have some good tip offs for future investigations — so watch this space!
Read Abigail Butcher’s blog of her work to bring this exclusive news feature to press.