Did bitterness toward his estranged brother lead an experienced Manitoba farmer to intentionally starve his cattle? Or was he simply in over his head and unable to afford to feed them?
This is the central issue a judge will weigh in on Thursday as she decides on a fit sanction for Thomas Jeffrey McLean in connection with what justice officials contend is one of the more horrific animal-abuse cases they've seen in Manitoba.
Prosecutors want McLean, 49, to pay more than $100,000 in fines after he pleaded guilty Tuesday to numerous Animal Care Act infractions stemming from the discovery of 67 dead cattle and 52 near death due to starvation on the family homestead in the RM of Louise on May 10, 2011.
In exchange for his guilty pleas, the Crown took a request for jail time off the table.
The Crown told provincial court Judge Mary Kate Harvie it believes McLean intentionally starved the cattle in an effort to devalue their worth and therefore the overall worth of his mother's estate, the subject of a heated court battle between McLean and his brother -- and one McLean came out of on the losing end.
"This was an attempt, through his negligence, to make sure that whomever, however the estate was divided, ends up getting nothing from it," prosecutor Shaun Sass said.
Looking at the whole picture of the civil court proceedings and the timing of when the animals started to starve, "you have someone who is taking out whatever frustrations he may have on his brother and whoever else is involved with the estate on the animals," Sass said.
Provincial animal-care investigators were called to McLean's farm to check on the welfare of the cattle after his brother made a complaint, court heard. The 67 animals died in a manner consistent with "prolonged starvation," Harvie was told.
In one instance, investigators found a calf dead of exposure because it couldn't walk to its mother because of its weakened state at birth, and another that "died of neglect" because it couldn't move due to the amount of mud in its stall.
In a garage, investigators found numerous cattle carcasses, something that chafed against the usual farm practice of composting dead animals. McLean contends he put them in there not to devalue the estate, but because he wanted to avoid the embarrassing scrutiny of neighbours in leaving dead animals out in public view.
The surviving cattle were taken and sold at auction. Virtually all were emaciated when they were seized, Sass said. There was no record of McLean applying to government programs for farmers who found themselves unable to properly care for their animals, Harvie was told.
A "herd book" seized by investigators detailing McLean's cattle-farming activities showed he had been "perfectly capable" in the past of breeding and maintaining a healthy herd, Sass said.
Months before the investigation got underway, McLean's brother won a bid to become sole executor of the family estate, a task he had previously shared with McLean after the death of their mother in 2008. It was a complex battle because of a considerable "co-mingling" of McLean's and his mother's assets, court heard.
After a trial, a Court of Queen's Bench judge found McLean owned a substantial part of the herd, defence lawyer Gavin Wood said.
It's because of this it makes no sense McLean would intentionally act to devalue it, Wood said. "It makes no sense for a person like Mr. McLean to set out to damage that herd."
Instead, what happened was McLean lost control of a large chunk of land and didn't have "nearly enough" natural feed for the cattle, Wood said.
Due to the estate battle, McLean was prohibited from selling the cattle and raising money to buy feed that way, said Wood. As the fight over the estate heated up in winter 2011, McLean became "overwhelmed" by his many obligations, said Wood.