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St. Petersburg man arrested in 2019 horse killing in Palmetto

In December 2019, three horses were killed within two weeks, rocking the Central Florida equestrian community. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office says Eladio Garcia Gasca killed one of those horses.

Nearly a year after a spate of brutal horse killings shook the Central Florida equestrian community, the region’s horse owners have reason to feel some relief. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office says a St. Petersburg man has been arrested in one of those cases.

Eladio Garcia Gasca, 50, faces charges of grand theft and animal cruelty. Deputies said Gasca was responsible for the gruesome discovery a Palmetto horse owner made on Dec. 2, 2019: Someone had forced through a locked gate, stolen a horse, taken it into a nearby field, killed it and butchered it. Deputies wrote at the time that the killer or killers had “harvested most of the meat.”

A trail camera on the property captured a man on video as he shined a flashlight through the slats of the horse’s stall the night of the killing. His face was visible, and deputies said they expected tips to roll in. But for two months, they had no leads.

Related: Who’s killing horses in Central Florida? A mystery terrifies owners.

The arrest was made Thursday. The Sheriff’s Office announced Friday that deputies used the video “and other investigative means” to place Garcia Gasca at the scene. A sheriff’s spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment in more detail on those investigative tactics.

The Palmetto case was one of three Central Florida horse killings that attracted media attention over the span of about two weeks last fall.

A few days before the Palmetto killing, a horse’s body was found, skinned, near Ocala. Ten days after, a horse was stolen in Bushnell, its mangled corpse found near the farm where it had been boarded. It wasn’t clear at the time whether the cases were connected, and a Manatee sheriff’s spokeswoman said Friday that deputies don’t know if Garcia Gasca was connected to the other killings.

Kristine Wake, a Central Florida mortgage broker and horse owner, started a Facebook group, Keeping Florida Horses Safe, for horse owners to share concerns and suspicious activity; it drew more than 6,000 members, and Wake later founded a non-profit of the same name. She has since stepped down from both, saying the workload was too much, but she said the news of an arrest in the Palmetto case had her wearing “a smile from ear to ear.”

“We’re all ecstatic,” she added, speaking of the equestrian community. “We’re all very happy. Tears of joy, I know, have ran down my face and several of our members' faces.”

The arrest offered “a sigh of relief,” she said — to many horse owners, the animals are like family members, and the killings left many in the region anxious and hyper-vigilant. But the arrest of one accused horse butcher didn’t guarantee that there weren’t others out there.

In the past year, Wake said, the Central Florida horse community has become more aware of illegal horse slaughtering, a crime that’s historically plagued South Florida but hasn’t often caused problems farther north.

“It’s a gruesome situation," she said, "but it definitely united the horse community in the state of Florida.”

The nonprofit’s current president, Robin Burke, said she knows some in the community are frustrated it took 10 months to make an arrest, but she praised law enforcement efforts on the case.

“This doesn’t always happen overnight," she said. “They have to gather the pertinent evidence so they can have a solid case.”

Prior to last year’s killings, Central Florida’s only high-profile horse butchery case came in Palmetto in 2015, when someone slaughtered Phaedras de Blondel, a show jumper who had just been bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Phaedras' owners, the Stephens family, are mainstays of the American horse world and friends and neighbors of the owners of the horse Garcia Gasca is accused of killing.

No arrest was ever made in that case, but Steve Stephens said the arrest of Garcia Gasca gave him hope that it may yet be solved.

“We still can’t let our guard down,” he said.

Buying and selling horse meat is effectively illegal in the U.S., but last year’s killings weren’t the end of such incidents. In July, Burke noted, a horse was found slaughtered in Collier County. In April, a Miami rancher — who four years ago was caught selling horse meat to an undercover detective — was charged with animal cruelty after 23 malnourished horses were found on his ranch in Okeechobee County.

The owners of the horse killed in Palmetto declined to comment for this story. Garcia Gasca was being held Friday in the Pinellas County jail in lieu of $22,500 bail. The criminal case will be handled in Manatee County.

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