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Santa's Land Owner, Employee Plead Not Guilty To Animal Cruelty

The owner of Santa’s land in Putney and the park’s caretaker appeared in Brattleboro District Court Tuesday. Lillian Billewicz  and Brian Deistler pled not guilty to charges of animal cruelty. Earlier this winter 16 fallow deer, a pot-bellied pig and a pheasant were found dead at the once-popular theme park.  Court documents say other animals were found in stalls with frozen water and insufficient hay.

Billewicz bought Santa’s Land last spring. She told investigators she and Deistler had followed the previous owners’ instructions for the animals’ care. She said a veterinarian they had called in blamed the deaths in part on the exceptionally  harsh winter. But veterinarian Stephen Major,  who examined the deer, said they died from "hypothermia secondary to inadequate feed intake."  He recommended that the surviving animals should be removed from Billewicz’s care.

Judge David Suntag allowed the animals to remain under the owner’s care for now -- under supervision by a veterinarian and local authorities. 

"The other condition I’m going to order," he said, "is that Ms Billewicz complies with a written care plan and that she permit authorities to enter the premises of Santa’s land to insure compliance with that care plan."

In addition to the animal cruelty charge, Deistler pled innocent to two charges of heroin possession and a charge of Grand Larceny. The state alleges he stole, and tried to sell, antiques that were stored in a building behind the park and belonged to previous Santa's Land owners.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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