Brown County horse molestation case provides puzzle for legal, psychiatric communities

Paul Srubas
Wisconsin State Farmer

GREEN BAY — Society apparently has not figured out what to do with people like Sterling Rachwal.

Rachwal, 54, has been in and out of the court system throughout central Wisconsin over the last 35 years for allegations that he molests horses.

Just about everything that can happen to a guy in court has happened to Rachwal: He’s been convicted, he’s been found not guilty by reason of mental disease, he’s been in prison, he’s been forced to stay in mental hospitals, he’s had charges dismissed against him, he’s pleaded no contest, he had convictions overturned on appeal.

Rachwal has become such a well-known figure in cases involving such an unspeakable offense that horse owners all over the state were informally naming him as a suspect as soon as a Brown County horse owner reported on Facebook that her horse had been molested and was bleeding from the anus last February.

Brown County investigators had little to go on, other than that someone in a baseball cap and plaid coat was seen fleeing from the town of Eaton barn when it happened, but in just days, investigators already were interviewing Rachwal in his Bodart Street apartment.

Related:Man charged with molesting horse

Investigators built a case against him by comparing his alibis against video camera evidence showing he wasn’t where he claimed to be at the times when he claimed to be there, according to court records. Eventually they got legal permission to install a GPS tracking device on Rachwal’s Ford Explorer by which they tracked him to horse barns at and around the Manitowoc-Brown county border, according to a criminal complaint.

Investigators then set up trail cameras in barns there, and they captured video of Rachwal molesting horses, the complaint says.

Rachwal’s case, filed in May, was scheduled twice for jury trials. Last month, Rachwal’s defense lawyer withdrew his motion for an insanity plea, and he is scheduled Friday for a plea and sentencing hearing.

The charges are one misdemeanor count of mistreatment of an animal, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Also to be resolved are two charges filed in Manitowoc County at about the same time, for a misdemeanor count of mistreatment of an animal and another count of disorderly conduct.

A complex issue

The jail time he faces can be measured in months, not years, and it’s still an open question whether he’ll serve any time at all, if past occurrences are any indication. And whether medical science or counseling could help, either inside an institutional setting or otherwise, also remains an open question.

“This is an individual who has been in and out of the criminal justice system on charges of animal sexual abuse as far back as the 1980s,” Melissa Tedrow, Wisconsin state director of state affairs for The Humane Society of the United States wrote in an email. “His recidivism strongly highlights weaknesses and loopholes in Wisconsin’s current bestiality law.”

Bestiality isn’t even a crime in all 50 states, according to Leighann Lassiter, former director of the organization's national director of animal cruelty policy.

“Right now, there are five states and (the District of Columbia) where sex abuse of animals is not prohibited,” Lassiter said.

And in states where it is prohibited, about half — including Wisconsin  — charge it as a misdemeanor, not a felony, she said.

Animal mistreatment resulting in injury or death can result in felony charges under a different statute, but that provides an interesting loophole. Sex abuse doesn’t always result in provable injury, and injury doesn’t come exclusively as a result of sexual acts. Therefore, if an animal is sexually molested with something other than a human sex organ, under Wisconsin law, it isn’t a sex crime at all and is only an abuse crime if the animal is hurt or killed, according to Lassiter.

Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, has introduced a bill to try to close up that loophole.

“If it’s a hand or implement or something else (other than the suspect’s own sex organ), that’s part of the challenge that prosecutors have, and I believe that that defense has been used at least once successfully by Mr. Rachwal in the past,” Jacque said.

So far, Jacque is fighting an uphill battle. While he has yet to find another legislator who opposes the idea, he is not finding much active support.

“It’s a revolting subject,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a topic people want to be associated with.”

The 'ick factor'

Lassiter calls it “the ick factor.” As much as people would like something done to stop animal molestation, even just talking about it is revolting.

That even has affected what medical science has been able to learn about the topic, according to Dr. Brian Holoyda, a forensic psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine.

As a scholar with an academic interest in paraphilic disorders — deviant sexual behaviors and tendencies — Holoyda has written important papers on the topic of bestiality. But he admits medical science knows little about it and has shown little interest in zeroing in on it.

Animal rights activists and groups, even people like Lassiter, claim that sexual deviants who perform or fantasize about performing sex with animals are dangerous to humans.

The Humane Society of the United States puts out literature stating that animal sexual abuse “is the number one indicator of a person who will sexually abuse a child” and that the FBI tracks bestiality in the same category as it tracks rape and murder because of the tie-in, according to the Humane Society.

Lassiter says she’s heard of one study that showed nearly 40 percent of people who sexually abused children admitted to abusing animals. Another study claimed 100 percent of sexual murderers admitted to sexual molestation, she said.

Holoyda isn’t so sure.

“We have limited scientific data, very little, in part because, one, there aren’t a lot of scientists trying to study it, and, two, people are not very forthcoming,” he said.

He was aware of a 30-year-old study that may support Lassiter’s view.

“One study that was done, the punchline was that, among individuals who presented to the clinic with deviant sexual interests — pedophilia, bestiality, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, individuals who met the criteria for paraphilia — individuals with bestiality had the greatest number of co-morbid interests, that is, they engaged in more than one type of sexual deviancy,” he said.

 “The study suggests individuals who engage in bestiality tend to have a broader range of sexual interests, which could extend into pedophilia,” he said. “But the study is 30 years old. There has not been a lot of research since then. We really don’t know what risk they post to human beings…I’d be hesitant to draw conclusions.”

Medical science has some general treatments for paraphilic disorders, such as medicines that reduce libido, and presumably they would all prove useful in treating bestiality, Holoyda said.

The problem is, such people aren’t likely to come seeking treatment, and the legal system is mostly failing to provide the mechanism for forcing such treatment, Holoyda said.

“What I’ve heard from prosecutors and judges is the courts tend not to take it as seriously as they do, for example, sexual assault charges,” Holoyda said. “In some cases, the judges don’t want to hear the case, don’t want the evidence in court because it’s too gruesome or disgusting or whatever, and so prosecutors don’t prosecute because it won’t go anywhere.”

Holoyda declined to say whether bestiality should be a felony offense, but he said it’s important for legislators, if considering an upgrade to such charges, to make sure they know why they’re doing it.

“Whatever laws are enacted, it’s important for them to consider what the purpose is, whether it’s to protect animals and animal rights or to deal with sexual offenders,” he said.

But the Humane Society and everyone else should also be concerned about the mentality of “the people who commit those crimes and the risk of them harming children and people,” Lassiter said.

“These are sentient beings,” Lassiter said. “They feel pain, they experience emotions. Granted, it might be the level of a three-year-old, but animals are unable to give consent, unable to say no, unable to tell anyone their story … and it is a forced sexual assault.”

“Having laws on the books when they do commit crimes against animals is a way for law enforcement to identify them as a potential dangerous predator in the community, watch them and hopefully intervene.”

Jacque said any upgrades to Wisconsin’s statutes on the topic likely won’t take place this session, but he expressed hope progress could be made in 2019.