Where Are They, Jimmy?
by Bruce Anderson, August 1, 2007
Donald "JC" Cavanaugh went missing in 2005.
David Neily hasn't been seen since 2006.
Both men worked for James "Jimmy" Denoyer on Denoyer's 20-acre horse ranch near Westport in an area known more for pot growing than it is for horse farming.
Mendocino County investigators describe Denoyer as "a person of interest" in the disappearances.
Denoyer, 51, has been much in the news. Two years ago, 22 quarterhorses Denoyer kept on his hilly acres bordering Howard Creek, and 14 more horses he pastured on the Branscomb Road west of Laytonville were seized by Mendocino County's Animal Control. Except for two stallions Denoyer kept in a barn on his Westport place, all the horses were near death. The confiscation of the horses by Animal Control was the largest intervention by that agency in Mendocino County history.
The seizures occurred on December 27th of 2005 in a heavy winter rain. The emaciated horses were found huddled and unfed, their ribs showing, one dead, on the banks of rampaging Howard Creek on Denoyer's muddy, north facing, acres northeast of Westport.
The second herd, also near death, was rescued from the muck of their sodden Branscomb Road pasture.
Flood warnings were in effect everywhere on the Northcoast when Mendocino County Animal Control Officer Susan Bottom and her assistant, Mandi Liberty, accompanied by some 25 appalled volunteers, seized Denoyer's animals. The rescue squad managed to extract the herd of mares from the shin-deep muck of their corrals at Denoyer's Westport place where they also took the two stallions into protective custody. "The horse that died, a mare, looked like she got in, couldn't get out and just kind of went over," Bottom told the media. Animal Control then retrieved 16 more skeletal, half-dead horses from a similarly mired Branscomb Road pasture.
"The conditions are atrocious for the horse to have to be in," Bottom declared as she lead the rescue team to Denoyer's neglected animals. "They are all shy of weight and they have wounds and injuries."
One volunteer rescuer described the scene as "a mud pit decorated with starving horses." The two stallions had been living in the barn where Denoyer lived in an apartment above their stalls.
Veterinarian John Fling said he'd seen worse, but if the horses hadn't been confiscated when they were they could not have survived much longer. "This has been long overdue," Fling said.
Four healthy dogs, three of them belonging to Denoyer's missing uncle, Donald "JC" Cavanaugh, were also seized when Sheriff's Department deputies arrested Denoyer's caretaker, Robert Murray, 25. Without Murray on the premises there was no one to care for the dogs. Two of the three pets belonging to Cavanaugh were pedigreed American bulldogs.
Murray was released from custody without charges being filed against him. Denoyer's girlfriend, a young woman named Chris, arranged for the dogs to be returned to her and Denoyer.
"Jim never lifted a finger to care for the horses," says Ryan Neily, a former Denoyer employee whose father David Neily, also associated with Denoyer, disappeared more than a year ago. "While I was there, five horses died, the first one a baby. Jim never called the vet, and we had 22 horses at the time. I'd say to him, 'Please walk around and look at your horses.' He ignored me. He wouldn't put any money into vets or shelter for them ... The horses were supposed to be wormed every six months. He only wormed them once that I know of."
Neily describes Denoyer's ranch as totally unsuitable for horses.
"There's no sun down at the creek in the winter where they were corralled. If the dogs didn't keep getting out, which is how people got onto the condition of the horses — they kept bringing the dogs back and they'd see how the horses were living — all the horses would have died. In the winter the mud was so deep it would pull your boots off your feet. Jim would take a bunch of hay and throw it to the horses and then he'd leave for the weekend. That was his idea of taking care of them."
The gloomy December days his horses were confiscated in Mendocino County, Denoyer, he said, was caring for his elderly mother in the Bay Area. Denoyer blamed the condition of his horses on his three most recent caretakers, Murray, and Murray's brother, Daniel Murray, and a single mother who also lived on the ranch, Rosalie Caeseri. Ms. Caeseri, however, kept photographs of the ailing animals over the four months prior to their seizure, documenting their deteriorating conditions, which she turned over to Animal Control to alert the agency that Denoyer was at best indifferent to his animals' welfare.
Denoyer was indicted for thirty-six felony counts of cruelty to animals.
Last week in Ukiah, two years after the horses were impounded by Animal Control, Denoyer's jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked 10-2 for acquittal. Judge Ron Brown declared a mistrial.
The District Attorney must decide by August 10th if Denoyer will be tried again.
Denoyer's horses are safe; they've either been sold or adopted out, but JC Cavanaugh and David Neily are still missing.
The day the horses were rescued, JC Cavanaugh's dogs were also taken into protective custody. The dogs were there, but there was no sign of Cavanaugh. There was no sign of David Neily either, but two vehicles belonging to Neily were in plain view on the property.
The children of the missing men are certain Denoyer knows where they are.
Donald "JC" Cavanaugh was in his late sixties. JC knew horses. He'd been around them all his life and, as Denoyer himself testified, "knew all there was to know about them."
Originally from a farm family in Ottawa, Illinois, 80 miles west of Chicago, JC moved to Elgin, Illinois, where he owned his own horse farm for many years. But as he moved closer to retirement, JC ran into financial trouble. Then, having lost his property, he began to break down physically. The old man continued to work with other people's horses when he could, but he was struggling to stay healthy enough to do it.
Denoyer would testify that in 2004 he called his horse-savvy uncle to invite him out to his Westport place to help him with what Denoyer hoped would become a lucrative horse breeding business.
JC, a full generation older than his nephew, had never been to California, never had visited Jimmy's Westport ranch on the wild coast of Mendocino County. But JC dreamed of getting back into horse ranching, and here was an opportunity to do it. Although he'd just had bypass heart surgery, and was still weak from the ordeal of it, JC was excited to be working with horses again.
Denoyer, accompanied by Ryan Neily, who worked with Denoyer at the time on what Neily describes as, Denoyer's "pot farm," drove to Illinois where they picked up JC and 14 horses JC had hand-picked as likely stock for what the old man thought was his nephew's hotshot California horse ranch.
According to Ryan Neily, Uncle and Nephew took an instant dislike to each other.
"JC didn't even want to ride in the same truck as Jim," Neily recalls. And when they all finally arrived at Denoyer's ranch near Westport, "JC laughed at Jim's operation."
And cried inside. Too many ill-tended horses on a small piece of hillside property wasn't how JC had imagined his nephew's vaunted horse business.
It got worse for the old man.
Denoyer stuck his uncle in an old abandoned Suburban on the property and told him that was the deal, the "cabin" Denoyer had said came with the job of looking after the horses.
"Jim offered JC a fifth wheel," Neily remembers, "but never got around to getting the thing for the old man, who was going to buy it himself. So when it got cold, JC moved himself into Jim's place in the barn, and Jim moved out because he couldn't stand his uncle."
JC had only been in Westport a week when a horse died. JC told Denoyer that he should sell the horses, but Denoyer, who also works as a building contractor, wanted to hang on to them. JC saw that the horses were already infected and in poor shape, and there were so many of them that things would only get worse. JC argued with Denoyer about the condition of the animals. JC knew they weren't eating regularly and they hadn't been wormed.
Neily describes Denoyer's horse business as already in a deteriorated state when Denoyer's uncle arrived with even more horses. "There were lots of miscarriages, these little pink dead horses all over the place," Neily says. "The babies that did survive had big heads and bloat because they weren't being wormed. JC got real upset. One horse that died was called Miracle because it was all white with blue eyes. Born on the ranch, died and left on the ground for a week until some guys piled a bunch of wood on it and burned it. Other dead horses were just dumped out of the way."
Denoyer was as upset at his uncle as his uncle was with him. The old man didn't have a way of getting into town on his own. He was completely dependent on his nephew, and his nephew's bartending girl friend, Chris. Denoyer soon stopped bringing his uncle food, firewood, propane — everything an old man recovering from heart surgery on a remote property far from doctors and supplies would need.
Ryan Neily, who was also living on Denoyer's place at the time, helped the old man out.
"JC got a Social Security check between $500 and $700 every month, but Jim and his girl friend, Chris, controlled his money. They took him to town at first because he had no other way to get there. But they didn't like doing it. I remember one night when JC and Chris got back from Fort Bragg they were really going at each other. Both of them were threatening to kill each other. I did what I could for JC, but I wasn't always there."
Neily insists that the ongoing problem with Denoyer's horse venture was Denoyer's refusal to give his caretakers money for feed. Or buy feed himself. Neily says Denoyer also shorted the animals on veterinarian care.
Jim Cavanaugh Jr. describes his dad as "a horse lover through and through, and a wonderful man and definitely a people person who trusted everyone.
"He thought he was doing the right thing by going out there to help Jimmy Denoyer with his horse farming, sales, whatever. But now the whole thing seems story-book shady to me. When my dad got pneumonia, Jim made him work anyway. The last time we saw dad was March of '05, but my sister and I talked to him every couple of weeks when he was out there. Jimmy would let him call us, but Jimmy almost always stood right by the phone while we were talking. Dad seemed awfully scared, but he liked being out there, the beauty of the place. He said there was no place like it, but then he'd say, 'Someday I'll sit down with you and tell you about the stuff that goes on here. It's unbelievable.' I had a feeling something was wrong, and it had something to do with illegal drugs. My dad was a straight guy. Never had anything to do with drugs even when he was young. He was totally against drugs. He'd just had a quadruple bypass a month before he went to California so he was pretty weak.
"All the horse people in Illinois knew my dad," Jim Jr. says. "His reputation as a horseman was the best. If my dad saw a horse he thought wasn't being cared for, I know he would speak right up. My dad would have confronted Jimmy over any neglect of horses. He just wouldn't stand for it."
Jim Jr.'s sister, Kim, adds, "The only reason my dad went out there was to help care for the animals. My dad loved animals, but he didn't have any place to do what he wanted to do, which was to work with horses. So he saw Jimmy Denoyer as an opportunity and jumped at the chance.
"My dad was a real friendly guy. If somebody said 'I'm going to kill you,' he wouldn't take him seriously. He was just a real nice guy. Whenever I see an older man in a cowboy hat... I just can't believe my father is gone. And I can't believe he could be treated like that, put in an old car to live. I think my dad was scared and didn't know what to do. I tried to get him to come back here but... the cops need someone to come forward with information. If Jimmy wasn't taking care of those horses that really would have upset my dad. Dad still has some saddles out there. Don't you think he would want us to have our dad's things?"
Another Cavanaugh, Clint Cavanaugh, also a nephew of JC's, came out to California from Illinois to work with Denoyer, but Denoyer wouldn't pay him and Clint, after a brief stay at Westport, returned to Illinois poorer than he arrived. Two other Cavanaughs, young men in their twenties, also worked briefly for Denoyer. They, too, departed on unfriendly terms.
Relations between Cavanaugh and Denoyer finally reached the breaking point when Denoyer accused his uncle of stealing $2,000 that Denoyer claimed to have had hidden in a vehicle. Ryan Neily says the old man was constantly badgered and bullied by Denoyer into finally believing he'd taken the money. "But JC wouldn't do anything like that," Neily maintains. "He was honest, a good guy. It was all bogus. Jim just wanted him out of there because JC was on him all the time about the horses."
Just before Christmas of 2005, JC's children, echoed by Ryan and Lisa Neily, claim that JC, just before Christmas of 2005, a gun wielded by Denoyer literally at his head, was forced by Denoyer into Denoyer's truck and driven to San Francisco International Airport where the old man was dropped off with no money, and no way of flying home to Illinois.
JC Cavanaugh had arrived in July. A couple of months later, JC was roughed up at Denoyer's place by a group of young thugs known to frequent the Caspar Inn where Denoyer's girl friend, Chris, is said to occasionally be employed, in a murky episode that seemed aimed at driving JC off the property. And then JC was taken at gunpoint by Denoyer to SF International where he was stranded for three days until a dog breeder friend from Laytonville drove to San Francisco to pick him up.
Before his Laytonville host drove him to Plowshares, a multi-purpose facility for the indigent in Ukiah where JC was last seen, JC stayed with his friend in the North County for some weeks. People at Plowshares reportedly heard JC talking about going to Westport to get his dogs and his things.
The old man hasn't been seen since, and then another old man connected to Denoyer went missing.
David Neily's two vehicles were found at Denoyer's, a Mustang and a 1977 Thunderbird. The Mustang didn't run, and David Neily was nowhere to be found.
"When I went back to Jim's to look for my dad," Ryan Neily remembers, "I found my dad's dog locked up in a truck. I was up there poking around near the trailer where I'd lived and I met Ron Baumeister. He told me my dad had 'left months ago in his Mustang.' Baumeister knows what happened. He must know something to lie like that because both my dad's vehicles were at Jim's. The Mustang hadn't moved. I called the sheriff, and the next day the cops were there in force complete with cadaver dogs. They searched the whole place but found nothing. I know the cops wanted Ron to come in for a polygraph, but Ron didn't and he hasn't been seen since either that I know of."
David Neily was last seen at the end of March 2006. He was 66 when he dropped out of sight. Neily had lived in Albion and Watsonville and, as his family says, "every place in between." Denoyer had told Neily, a man of many skills ranging from carpentry to auto mechanics, and Neily's son Ryan, they could build a shop on his Westport place. Ryan Neily says that "my dad and Jim argued about the shop one day and my dad hasn't been seen since."
"I went to Westport a couple of times to get my dad's property, but when we went back to get my dad's truck, Jim had moved the truck back onto his property. Jim called the cops to get me out of there. The cops came and went. I warned my dad not to go back there alone. "My dad was on meds for a manic-depressive condition. He told the family he was going to Santa Cruz when actually he went to Jim's for probably a month or two. If I knew he'd gone back there I would have been up there to get him. Three months after the police had become involved I went to Jim's and found my dad's dog locked up in a truck. Weird thing about it was when I was there this guy Ron Baumeister, an old friend of Jim's, whose sister, by the way, works at Thanksgiving Coffee in Fort Bragg, was staying there. My dad's vehicles were farther up on the property by Jim's barn. This guy Ron told me my dad had driven off in his Mustang, but I went back to the property later where I walked up to the top of the place and found both my dad's vehicles. The cops went out next day and confiscated the vehicles.
Lisa Neily has met Baumeister. "He gives me the creeps," she says.
The police were told conflicting stories by Baumeister and Jim that David Neily had merely "walked off" or that Neily "drove off in his Mustang." Ryan Neily maintains that, "My dad wouldn't have left his dog there. No way. He loved that dog."
Denoyer lived in Comptche before he moved to Westport. He has an ex-wife in Fort Bragg with whom he shares custody of his young daughter. Denoyer also owns 288 acres of undeveloped land in Lake County and may have an interest in property in Willits. He's worked security at Reggae on the River on horseback.
Among the customers of Denoyer's contracting business is John Gray author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Gray, who owns property near Westport, testified for Denoyer's defense at Denoyer's recent trial for felony animal abuse. Gray "studied" with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1997, the author acquired a Ph.D at Columbia Pacific University, a non-accredited institution. Gray's books and other publications typically refer to him as 'Doctor John Gray' or 'John Gray, Ph.D'. According to Gray's website, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia Pacific University, a correspondence school that was forcibly closed by the California Department of Consumer Affairs in 2001 after a judgment that found that the school "awarded excessive credit... to many students" and "failed to meet various requirements for issuing Ph.D. degrees."
Last week in Ukiah, Denoyer, with the heavy-hitting Gray testifying to his good character, managed to convince ten members of a Ukiah jury that his 36 horses found starving in two North County pastures weren't starving because of anything he did. They starved, Denoyer testified, while he was in the Bay Area caring for his mother. The horses starved, he said, because the people who were supposed to feed them while the loyal son was fulfilling his family obligations, didn't feed them.
Denoyer has two sisters who live in the Bay Area. His mother, who is described as "quite well-to-do" by people who know Denoyer, doesn't seem to depend on her son for in-home care.
His serial caretakers say that Denoyer regularly drove past his starving herds and "occasionally" tossed them some hay. But Denoyer and his lawyers said the shocking, pre-seizure condition of the animals was entirely the fault of these "marginal persons," as they were described in court testimony. Denoyer said he depended entirely on his marginals to care for his animals while he worked as a contractor and visited his mother in the Bay Area. Denoyer conceded only that he had exercised poor judgment in his choice of ranch hands.
Assistant DA Katherine Houston inexplicably seconded Denoyer's characterization of Denoyer's hiring practices — the alleged "marginals" who testified that Denoyer was supposed to supply them with feed and grain but didn't. Being marginal, at least in the sense of available cash, they certainly didn't have the resources to feed and care for 36 horses. The owner is supposed to do that.
During the two years it took for the Denoyer case to finally get before a jury, 29 of his horses were sold at auction, several of them to a Mark Scripter of Newbury, Ventura County, who is Denoyer's brother-in-law. Scripter is suing Mendocino County, several named volunteers who helped rescue the starving animals, fifty or so other unnamed persons, and the estate of the late Mendocino county DA Norm Vroman, claiming that all these people defamed him by alleging he concealed his relationship to Denoyer when he bought the horses at auction. The late District Attorney Norm Vroman believed that Denoyer and Scripter had colluded to regain a certain number of the animals for Denoyer.
"If you met the guy you'd never in a million years suspect him of doing bad things," Ryan Neily says, "but you should see him when he goes off, and he goes off a lot. He's real scary, totally out of control. Jim had plenty of money to do right for the horses, but he just couldn't be bothered. I think JC came back to Westport to get his dogs and his saddles and Jim went off on him. I think my dad came back to get his stuff and Jim did the same thing he did to JC."
A neighbor says in his years in the Westport neighborhood he'd never heard a gun shot, "but one morning at about 3am I heard gun shots back in the canyon. Two shots, then three more."
A police investigator, speaking off the record, has assured the Neily family, "Jim will make a mistake and we'll hook him up to your dad and JC both."