WINDHAM, Maine — The owner of 20 horses seized by the state in July 2021 will serve four years in prison and repay $587,219 after pleading guilty to wire fraud as part of an embezzlement scheme.
Federal prosecutors said that from August 2016 to March 2021, Jessica Pechtel, 35, and her former husband, Andrew Pechtel, embezzled the money from the Somersworth company where she worked as an office manager and marketing administrator. They said she and her husband used bank accounts and company credit cards to pay personal bills and buy items including a boat, an RV, and other vehicles.
As part of a plea agreement, Jessica Pechtel pleaded guilty in March to one count of wire fraud, and prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Although her attorney argued for five years of probation and no jail time, she was sentenced Thursday morning in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire to four years in prison.
Andrew Pechtel is scheduled for trial in October, according to court records.
But the CEO of the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, which cared for the 20 neglected horses owned by the Pechtels, said Wednesday that she remains concerned they may someday try to own more animals.
"In the New Hampshire case, she stole $550,000 she did not use to feed the animals," Meris Bickford said."Whatever she may or may not have had in terms of financial resources, they certainly were not being devoted to the care of the animals."
In July 2021, 20 horses were seized from the Springvale farm where the Pechtels lived and taken to MSSPA in Windham. MSSPA Barn Manager Jeff Greenleaf said at the time that the horses were emaciated, weak, and fragile. One, at 700 pounds, should have weighed about 200 pounds more, Greenleaf said.
According to MSSPA CEO Meris Bickford, five of the 20 horses were euthanized within weeks due to "extreme neglect."
Orders issued July 21, 2021, by a York County District Court judge found that the Pechtels "did cruelly abandon or cruelly treat animals in [their] possession and/or said animals are maimed, disabled, diseased, dehydrated, malnourished or injured."
As part of agreements not to pursue criminal animal cruelty charges or restitution, the Pechtels agreed to surrender the horses but were allowed to keep two elderly pit bulls and cats.
They each agreed to a lifetime ban on possessing other animals, although either may petition the court to end the ban five years after it was signed.
On Wednesday, Bickford sent a letter to Chief Judge Landya B. McCafferty, who sentenced Jessica Pechtel Thursday morning. Bickford included dramatic before and after photos of some of the horses. She wrote that the letter was sent on behalf of the horses.
"Jessica Pechtel received no consequence for the egregious crime she committed against the animals," Bickford wrote, in part.
"Some had simply starved to the point of collapse and could not recover; others had untreated medical conditions that contributed to a recommendation of humane euthanization by the treating veterinarian."
Bickford said the last of the surviving horses left the shelter last month. Overall, she said, the nonprofit MSSPA spent more than $100,000 caring for the horses.
She said that a lifetime ban on owning animals would be difficult to enforce without criminal charges.
"Is there some opportunity for a repeat of the crime? Certainly," she told NEWS CENTER Maine. "I think, my experience after many years of working in this field [is] that even when the court issues an order banning future animal ownership in an animal cruelty case there's not a functioning system in place that provides follow-up. There might be an order in place, but no one is assigned to make sure that order is being followed."
Bickford said she is working to establish a registry for people who have abused animals.