Thirty-five counts of animal cruelty against an East Bethel rancher have been dismissed after an Anoka County judge ruled that searches of Lowell Friday's property were conducted illegally.

The sudden conclusion of one of the most highly publicized cases of alleged animal abuse in Minnesota, in which 17 malnourished horses were seized last year, came as a shock Friday to authorities and animal-rights advocates alike.

"You're kidding," said Gina Benson of the advocacy group Standing Together for the Horses, who was at Friday's ranch last year when the first group of horses was seized by authorities.

"I don't know what to say," said Keith Streff, the investigator for the Animal Humane Society involved in the search.

Judge Sean Gibbs ruled that all evidence obtained in searches taken Aug. 29, Aug. 31 and Nov. 6, 2011, be suppressed. The judge then threw out the charges against Friday, 73, due to lack of probable cause.

Court documents paint a disturbing picture of horses that were grossly emaciated -- with ribs, pelvis, shoulders and spines nearly bursting through their skin. The horses were infested with lice and parasites. Their overgrown hooves were chipped and cracked. The horses were found by authorities in pens, deep in manure, with sharp, antiquated fencing. Their water was caked with algae, according to court documents.

One horse, Crystal, a paint filly, was so weak that her hindquarters collapsed when authorities tried to load her into a trailer. With a heart murmur from malnutrition, Crystal was nearly euthanized before veterinarians administered a steroid to give her enough strength to load into the trailer.

Friday's attorney, Robert Richman, disputed the characterization of his client's herd. Richman said only a minority of the herd was thin and that there was sufficient feed and water on the property. The horses were being treated for parasites and none showed signs of physical abuse, he said.

Streff testified earlier this year that he did not mention to Friday that he had the authority to search the herd on Aug. 29, 2011. He later testified that he "may have discussed it," according to court documents. Friday testified that he didn't object to the search because he thought Streff was within his legal power.

But Streff wasn't. The land permit between Friday and the city of East Bethel calls for valid notice before a search may be conducted. The judge also found that in other searches involving Anoka County deputies, applications for search warrants and supporting affidavits were not attached to the search warrant.

Friday could not be reached for comment.

Animal rights 'target'

"It's over," Richman said. "I think there were animal rights protesters who made a decision to target Lowell Friday unfairly and pressured authorities to take action. The actions they took are inappropriate. Not only was there no crime, but the judge ruled that the seizure was done in an illegal way."

The seized horses will not be returned to Friday, his attorney said. In January, even before Friday was formally charged with animal cruelty, Anoka County Judge Jenny Walker Jasper ruled that one of the seized horses, Special Effects, would not be returned. Friday told the court he was seeking that one horse because, at the time, that was all he could afford.

Many of the horses, including Special Effects, have been since placed in new homes. After they were seized, one had to be euthanized. Others were nursed back to health by University of Minnesota veterinarians, then turned over to the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation, a nonprofit near Princeton, Minn., where they were given months of further rehabilitation. Crystal, for instance, gained 200 pounds within months, said Drew Fitzpatrick, who runs the foundation. Crystal was adopted by a family in St. Francis.

"It's disturbing that the case against him has been dropped, but at least he can't have the horses back," said Fitzpatrick. "Those poor horses were so emaciated. It's so sad."

The ruling in the Friday case comes two months after the felony convictions of Jonathan Gardner and Kayla Lee Gardner of Grantsburg, Wis., for mistreatment of animals in Pine County, Minnesota's first felony convictions for the mistreatment of horses.

And it comes a week after 55 malnourished horses, donkeys and ponies were seized by authorities in Fillmore County, in southern Minnesota, and another 16 were seized in Wright County, near Buffalo.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419