SUMMITVILLE, Ind. — "It was almost easier to look at the dead bodies than the living."
Maleah Stringer said she is still horrified every time she recalls visiting the Ault farm in Boone Township where 171 dead and rotting animals were discovered on April 9. Several barns entombed horses, sheep, goats, cows, rabbits and other animals that rested where they had fallen dead. Some birds had been thrown into a bucket and were festering. Feces was everywhere.
But living among the dead were 165 other animals. Barely living, in some cases. Many were described as "walking skeletons" by investigators. The living animals were literally sleeping and eating on top of carcasses, and there was no clean water in the barns.
"It was a nightmare," said Stringer, the executive director of the Animal Protection League. "I remember when I walked in, it was hard to see the living animals. They were tracking us with their eyes as we walked around."
Discovery of the farm
Authorities found the carcasses on the farm belonging to Daniel and Carrie Ault, on County Road 1700 North near 350 West near Summitville. Daniel Ault told police he'd become "overwhelmed" with trying to care for the animals, helping with the Strawtown Auction and running a meat-packing business he owned in Grant County.
Ault told detectives he believed the animals had been dying since November 2012. Investigators believe the frigid winter masked the odor of decay, but as the weather warmed in the spring, the stench of death could be detected far from the property.
"It was disgusting. I've never seen anything like it," said Madison County Sheriff's Department Major Brian Bell, who was the lead investigator at the scene.
A probable cause affidavit of the investigation described some animals that couldn't be identified because they had been decomposing for so long. Investigators and cleanup crews were required to wear Hazmat suits just to enter the barns. A veterinarian described only a few of the remaining living animals as having a healthy weight. Most were labeled in varying degrees of emaciation.
The operation proved costly for the county. Between veterinary tests, equipment, worker overtime, security and other costs, the total cost of the clean-up was estimated at over $30,000 by County Administrator Dan Dykes, though he predicted that number would go up. Ultimately, crews dug a gigantic crater near the farm and buried the corpses.
"We’ve had to go into hoarding situations before, but just the scope of all the animals, so many barns and dead bodies. It was horrific," Stringer said. "The magnitude of it was overwhelming."
What happened to the surviving animals?
But even after the disposal, the remaining animals needed to be nursed back to health and find proper homes. The daunting task fell to Stringer and her organization. But after experiencing something so traumatic, Stringer said her faith in humanity was restored by the outpouring of support they received from the community. APL's email inbox and Facebook page were flooded with offers of money, supplies and support.
"When this first hit, there was no way financially we could do what needed to be done. We got such a huge response and were able to do this because of the public. We could do what was needed," Stringer said.
One person who jumped at the opportunity to help was Jennifer Johnson of Anderson. She helped transport several horses away from the property in the days after the farm was discovered. She adopted one of the miniature horses for herself and named it Trinity. Johnson said when she met the horses, they looked completely neglected, but more than that, they looked lifeless.
Trinity didn't look overly skinny, but that was most because she was very hairy and her winter coat hadn't been groomed. When Johnson got closer to the horse, she could see its ribs. There was no life in Trinity's eyes.
Now, Trinity has more than five acres to run free on Johnson's property in north Anderson. The mare has also given birth to a two-month old foal. Trinity and 162 other surviving animals have found homes elsewhere. Stringer said she could barely keep up with the adoption requests in the beginning. Now, she's down to her final two surviving horses who have yet to be adopted. But she already has three pending requests for those two horses.
"It excited me that I was able to help her," Johnson said. "It gave me hope for her. She went from that situation to be able to run free, come and go as she pleases. It gave me hope."
The Aults' children
The Aults face a litany of charges connected to the conditions found at the farm. All told, the two are co-defendants on 96 charges of improper disposal of a dead animal, a Class D felony, 15 counts of cruelty to an animal, a Class A misdemeanor, and two counts of neglect of a dependent child, a Class D felony. The Aults also face a potential enhancement charge, if convicted, for being habitual offenders. The couple was cited in the past for ordinance violations related to farms in Hamilton County.
Lost in much of the media attention given to the animals was an apparently dangerous and unhealthy situation for the couple's two children, a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. The four Aults had apparently been living in a house on the property.
"A lot of people forget about that, but they had two kids living there as well, and the living conditions were horrible," Bell said.
According to the affidavit, a child services officer visited the home on April 9 and found unwashed dishes in the kitchen and only one bed for the entire family in the house. The officer also described finding animal feces surrounding all of the children's toys. A television had been left on and there were dead birds in the house's entryway.
The two children were temporarily taken from their parents by child services. In an interview with a family case manager, the daughter confirmed the family had been living on the property.
A health department supervisor also searched a smaller "apartment" on the property. He found 5-gallon buckets full of feces and a pile of waste in the stand-up shower. There was no running water and no sewage system in the unit.
Bell said he remembers seeing toilets overflowing with filth.
"I've been a police officer for years and I've never seen anything like that," Bell said. "It was simply unhealthy. Unclean for both humans and animals."
The Aults couldn't be contacted for comment on this story, but Carrie Ault said in April the conditions of the farm were "exaggerated" and "blown way out of proportion." Daniel Ault said the deaths were not preventable and he didn't have the necessary machinery to dispose of the carcasses.
Bryan Williams, the Aults' attorney, said the children have been returned to the couple and the family has moved to another location. Williams has maintained that the Aults are simply farmers and are not bad people.
"Right now, they're just trying to get back to life and a sense of normalcy," Williams said.
Despite the national attention the incident has received, the case was diverted to lower felony courts because the most serious charge against the Aults is a Class D felony. Judge Thomas Clem of Madison Circuit Court 5 recused himself from the case in June due to a conflict. The case will now be decided in Judge Angela Sims' Court 1.
Court 1 has dispositional hearings instead of going straight to a trial setting, and the Aults' hearing is set for Oct. 11. The hearing will likely clarify where Williams and prosecutors stand on the case and will probably determine whether it goes to trial.
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