Catherine Johnston remembers the call that sunk her heart. It was Sept. 23 and came from a friend who was helping direct traffic on U.S. 550, south of Ouray.
There had been an accident, he said. Horses were involved, badly injured or dead in a collision with a pickup truck that also hurt the driver. The site? Close to where the Johnstons pastured their horses for Gold Mountain Trail Rides.
“Our hearts just sunk. We didn’t know whose horses,” Johnston said. The Johnstons keep their horses securely fenced.
She quickly found out. Two of four horses killed — three when the pick-up encountered them and could not stop, and a fourth, by a responding ambulance — were Gold Mountain favorites, Django and Prince Charming.
Her son and head wrangler drove to the scene; he saw a horse in a ditch and called Johnston to warn her not to look, knowing she would be upset. This horse, she later learned, was Django. Prince Charming was still alive in a ditch further from Django — but he was badly injured and suffering.
Johnston said when officers came to put him down, the horse tried to stand on broken legs.
Johnston and her family suspect a deliberate act freed their horses; they had left their gates secured the night before, yet found them standing open wide that morning. If someone tampered with the gates, they want to know who and are putting up a $10,000 reward for the conviction of those responsible.
“When we realized we had lost our horses for sure, it hurt just as bad as when my grandpa died. My grandpa was my best friend. I’m just wanting to plead right now to the public, if you’ve seen something, please come forward,” Johnston said.
The family wants to hear from anyone who was driving in the area the night of Sept. 22 or the morning of Sept. 23 in the Portland area between Ridgway and Ouray, just north of County Road 23 and near the Basecamp RV site.
The initial crash site was at about milepost 99 on U.S. 550, in that location between Ridgway and Ouray. The ambulance collision occurred at about milepost 100.
Johnston is hopeful to hear from people who were driving or otherwise in the area Sept. 22 or 23, who might have seen anything, or who have dash camera footage, or tips. Those with information can contact her at email@example.com.
“I need any information that anybody saw. If they want to remain anonymous, I get that. I just want justice,” Johnston said.
“Every piece counts, just like a puzzle. Please, even if you think it’s minor, contact me.”
Ouray County Undersheriff Tammy Stroup is aware of the allegation that someone opened the gates. She said she intended to meet with the Johnstons to gather more information.
“Definitely, we’re going to look into it,” Stroup said.
Jeremiah Tilton of Full Tilt Saloon is contributing additional money to the reward fund.
“We definitely wanted to help. The Gold Mountain stables, they’re local stables. That was a tragic thing,” Tilton said.
“Someone (reportedly) actively went out and unlocked the gates. I get vandalism and stuff, but it’s a whole different thing when you’re putting livestock at risk.
“It’s a tragic situation.”
Johnston tears up when talking about Django and Prince Charming, both favorites at the stable.
Django was a fan of riders, not just a favorite of them.
“He had a desire to be like a pocket pet. He wanted to be loved on all the time. He was good for kids and he was good for adults,” she said.
Prince Charming was majestic. “When he would run through the pasture, he looked like royalty, the way he would run,” Johnston said.
She again implored the public to help her learn what happened.
“Horses and mules are our life. They’re our passion. It breaks our hearts. I am just wanting to plead right now to the public, if you’ve seen something, please come forward,” Johnston said.
“ … I lost my babies to someone. It needs to be stopped. It can’t happen again. Our hearts are completely shattered. I’m not going to give up until justice comes.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.