BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- The owner and caretaker of the Santa's Land theme park pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to animal-cruelty charges, though new court documents detail the extent of alleged malnutrition and mistreatment of deer, birds and other wildlife at the Putney facility. Eighteen animals, including 16 deer, were found dead at the popular holiday-themed destination in Putney.
Lillian Billewicz, 56, and Brian Deistler, 25, both of Westminster, each were arraigned on one misdemeanor count and were released on conditions ordered by Judge David Suntag in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
For Billewicz, who took ownership of Santa's Land nearly a year ago but now is alleged to have presided over the deaths of multiple animals there, the conditions of release include following a written animal-care plan provided by a veterinarian.
She also "must allow unannounced visits to check on the care of the animals by law enforcement," documents say.
Deistler, a caretaker at the park, also entered not guilty pleas in two other, unrelated cases: He is charged with grand larceny in connection with alleged thefts of antiques and other items March 2 in Putney, and he faces charges of felony heroin possession and violating conditions of release in connection with an April 4 arrest in Bellows Falls.
The animal-cruelty probe began on Feb. 12, when Windham County Sheriff's Deputy Trevor Dickerman responded to an animal complaint at Santa's Land. He met with Deistler and Billewicz, who "explained that she had recently taken over the business and that she was following the feeding instructions from the previous owners for the animals on the property.
But both Billewicz and Deistler acknowledged that there were dead animals at Santa's Land, Dickerman wrote in an affidavit.
Billewicz "took me out to the barn, where the deceased reindeer were being stored as the ground was too frozen to bury them at the present time," Dickerman wrote. "Upon entering the barn, I observed eight yearling reindeer in a pile, along with two others that were being covered by a tarp."
Dickerman added that Billewicz also "showed me their hay supply that had just arrived the previous day, along with their grain room, which seemed a little lacking in quantity."
At the time, Billewicz said she had sought veterinary care and that "the vet wasn't really sure what was causing the reindeer to die, but that it could be the result of some virus," court documents say.
"She also went on to say that, whenever one of the reindeer looked weak, Deistler and herself would take them inside one of the heated buildings to try and rehabilitate them, but it didn't work," Dickerman wrote.
A few weeks later, on Feb. 28, Dickerman went to Santa's Land in an attempt to find Deistler, according to a court affidavit filed by Cpl. Melissa Martin of the sheriff's department.
Dickerman advised Martin that "it did not appear anyone had been on the grounds to feed the animals since the last snow storm, which occurred a few days prior to his visit, as there were no footprints in the snow," the affidavit says.
Martin went to Santa's Land, noting that Billewicz had told the sheriff's department that deputies "could walk the grounds at any time." She called Billewicz, who claimed her groundskeeper had been feeding the animals twice a day.
But Martin found evidence to the contrary.
"The seven goats I saw inside the barn had protruding ribs; there was a dead pheasant in one of the stalls, frozen solid; of the three donkeys, one particularly sounded as if it was in respiratory distress; the peacock had a bowl of frozen-sold water; the other animals did not have any water, and the bowls that were there appeared dry," Martin wrote.
She added that, while there was some hay, "the stalls were lacking in bedding for the animals."
"I also observed another dead deer in addition to the 10 deceased deer Deputy Dickerman observed" during the previous investigation, Martin wrote.
Martin obtained a search warrant for the property on March 1. She executed the warrant with sheriff's deputies; Putney Animal Control Officer Henry Farnum; Putney Fire Chief/Health Officer Thomas Goddard; and Dr. Tammy McNamara of the Vermont/New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic.
"During the search, we observed that there had been approximately four deceased deer added to the pile since the original complaint that Deputy Dickerman had received," Martin wrote in the affidavit. "One of the deer had obvious trauma to its neck, showing signs of having been shot or having had a blunt object go through the neck area. There was a large buck with a full rack also added to the pile that still had fresh blood coming from his nose."
The investigators went to the deer park, where they counted 18 in the herd. "They were quite slim and unhealthy in their overall appearance," Martin wrote. "It was noted that the deer had just been fed a small amount of hay, and fresh footprints were seen coming from where Deistler's vehicle was parked on Mountain View Drive."
There also was an electric heater that appeared to have just been placed in a shelter area, court documents say.
During the same visit, investigators dug up a potbelly pig that had been "buried in the snow outside the Igloo," Martin wrote.
"Billewicz later advised that there was another deceased deer buried under where the potbelly pig, Harly, was found," Martin wrote. "She advised that the vet ... told her that everything was fine with the animals."
The veterinarian, according to Billewicz, also had "said it was a 'harsh winter,' and that they were doing everything they could to keep the animals alive."
"A care plan was put into place and explained to Billewicz by Dr. McNamara to ensure adequate feeding of the smaller/older goats/mini horses, as there were some who were underweight," Martin added. On March 4, three days after the search warrant was executed, officials met with Billewicz and Deistler. During that visit, "Billewicz stated that the animals were well cared for, but that it had been a harsh winter," Martin wrote. "She stated that she had vet bills to prove she cared for the animals."
Billewicz claimed, according to court documents, that Dr. Stephen Major of Green Mountain Bovine Clinic in West Chesterfield, N.H., had advised her to "just keep doing what you're doing."
But Martin later received a letter from Major saying he had met with Deistler at Santa's Land on Jan. 9, when there had been a dozen deer deaths. The deer had "no body fat at all," court documents say.
"He stated that the other recently deceased animals were also in poor body condition," Martin wrote. "The animals, according to Dr. Major, died from hypothermia secondary to inadequate food intake."
Major's recommendation, according to court documents, was blunt: "Due to the lack of resources, care and knowledge on the part of Lillian Billewicz, my professional opinion is that Santa's Land exhibit animals be removed from her care for their safety and health."
Also on March 4, in regard to the dead deer that had puncture wounds, Deistler told investigators that "a coyote had gotten a hold of it," court documents say. "He could not explain this further or (say) where the coyote went afterwards," Martin wrote.
In recent weeks, there have been reports that local residents who are concerned about the welfare of the remaining animals at Santa's Land have been delivering food and water to the park.
But the Windham County Sheriff's office last week reported that, in assessing the animals at Santa's Land, "there are no new deaths to investigate based on any of the information we've received."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.