Prosecutors have charged six people with animal cruelty in connection with a January raid that shut down the city's oldest — and one of the last remaining — arabber horse stables.
Court records show the charges were filed Friday against stable owner William Murray Jr., who faces 47 counts related to animal cruelty, and five men who kept horses there as part of a Baltimore tradition dating to the 19th century.
City animal control and health officials seized 14 horses from the stable in January after finding what they described as poor living conditions and excessive cobwebs. The stables, located in an alley off the 110 block of S. Carlton St. in the Hollins Market neighborhood, were designated as a city landmark in 1999.
Detailed allegations of the criminal charges were not immediately available because the defendants have not been served with summons. But city Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen said Monday that officials had concerns about "significant neglect," including a lack of veterinary care and access to clean water at the stables.
Arabbers, who use horse-drawn carts to sell fruit and vegetables around the city, have faced scrutiny about operating conditions before. But supporters could not recall officials filing criminal charges.
James Rouse, an attorney representing Murray, said the charges were "part of the city's endeavor to try to close down these stables."
"They've been harassed constantly by animal control. We think this is no more than vindictiveness and an effort to gain some leverage to prevent them from getting these horses back," Rouse said.
Wen called such claims "completely untrue" and said Arabbers are part of a "venerable tradition."
"Arabbers, just like everybody else, have to comply with health codes," Wen said. "This is only something that we did because of the concern that we have for the animals' health and well-being."
Wen said the state's attorney's office made the decision to file criminal charges, but her office had discussed the situation with prosecutors.
Prosecutors declined to discuss the case.
"The State's Attorney's Office respects the long standing history, tradition and contributions the arabbers have made in the Baltimore community however it is my responsibility to uphold the law," State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement.
After the January raid, the horses were taken to Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine. The horse owners have been trying to get them back through civil court, attorneys said.
Caroline Robertson, development director for the rescue, said she could not discuss the condition of the horses when they arrived, citing the pending criminal charges. But she said the horses were doing well.
"We are here to provide the care and daily needs that the horses require while they're in this limbo situation," Robertson said. "They've been thriving in this environment."
Arabber stables are licensed and regulated as commercial establishments, and the health department conducts inspections at least annually and sometimes more frequently in response to tips or complaints. The January inspection was not based on a complaint, Wen said.
City officials condemned an arabber stable in the 1900 block of Retreat St. in 2007 after inspectors said they found structural problems, rodent infestations and trash blocking the exits. In that instance, officials said, the 50 horses were in good health, and they were not seized.
The city spent $20,000 to house the horses at Pimlico Race Course, and officials proposed building a new facility. In the end, the project fizzled out.
Health officials confiscated 19 horses from a stable on South Fulton Avenue in 2009 after finding conditions of "severe disrepair." After a stay at Days End, those horses were returned the next spring. The city and Humane Society split the cost of their care.
Preservationists and artists have been helping to improve conditions for the arabbers to help keep the tradition alive, particularly at a stable in the 1100 block of N. Fremont Ave.
Following January's raid at the Carlton Street stable, Wen said, the license for the stable was revoked. Murray may reapply after a year.
That leaves two arabber stables in the city, on Fremont and Bruce streets, with a total of 18 horses, according to the health department.
Murray, 48, said he was shocked to learn of the charges.
"Fourty-seven counts? Boy…" Murray said. He declined to comment further.
Daniel Van Allen, a Hollins Market resident who has been involved with the Arabber Preservation Society since 1994, called the criminal charges "totally misguided."
"The stalls weren't that dirty — they just needed to be cleaned," Van Allen said. "If you go to any stable, you can take photos of manure. … There's urine and feces, and then it gets cleaned up."
Attorney Jerry Tarud has been representing horse owner Leon Hardy since the raid in an attempt to regain custody of his horses. Hardy was charged with 10 counts, including animal cruelty, records show.
"Animal control, they're out of control," Tarud said.
The others who have been charged with animal cruelty are Deon Dorsey, Donte Miller, Ernest Ford and Malik Muhammed. Efforts to reach the men were unsuccessful.
Wen said "education and collaboration" with arabbers has helped improve conditions.
"If there are conditions detrimental to the health and welfare of the animals, we have to remove them," she said. "We remain committed to working with the arabbers and upholding their traditions."