Police: Woman in costume who spooked horses turns self in, facing 2 charges

Police say someone in a dinosaur suit spooked carriage horses causing the driver to fall on the street in downtown Charleston Thursday afternoon. (Photo Source: Desmond Sebjornson)
Police say someone in a dinosaur suit spooked carriage horses causing the driver to fall on the street in downtown Charleston Thursday afternoon. (Photo Source: Desmond Sebjornson)
Palmetto Carriage Works President Tommy Doyle, center, with injured driver Van Sturgeon at Friday's news conference. (Source: Live 5)
Palmetto Carriage Works President Tommy Doyle, center, with injured driver Van Sturgeon at Friday's news conference. (Source: Live 5)

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A woman wearing a dinosaur costume who spooked horses in downtown Charleston late Thursday has turned herself in to authorities, Charleston Police confirmed.

Nicole Wells, 26, surrendered to police at 9:30 a.m. Friday and is charged with disorderly conduct and wearing a mask or disguise, according to Charleston Police spokesman Charles Francis. Wells was cited and released, he said.

The first word of an arrest came Friday afternoon during a news conference called by Palmetto Carriage Works.

Police say it is not yet clear whether the act was intentional.

A request for comment from Wells was not immediately returned.

Carriage driver Van Sturgeon said he learned the woman turned herself in and will face two charges, but said he did not know what those charges were. He said the detective who was investigating the case left him a voicemail revealing that information but said he had not been able to get the detective back on the phone.

According to Charleston Police incident report, police responded at 5:24 p.m. and interviewed several carriage passengers and witnesses who said an "unknown party" wearing a brown Tyrannosaurus Rex costume stepped off the sidewalk near the fire hydrant at Church and Linguard Streets and began making "growling noises," which frightened the horses.

"They just perceived a threat they had never seen before, and they reacted in that moment, but they calmed down just as quickly as they reacted," Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon said he yelled at the person in the costume to "get out of here" three times, but the person did not move and continued to face the horses.

That caused the horses to back up and jackknife the carriage, the report states.

"Perhaps she did not realize what a threat that appeared to be to my animals, but they responded remarkably well," Sturgeon said. "Any animal, you included, are entitled to your flight response, the key is how quickly do you come back under control. If I throw a snake on you and you jump, you're entitled to that, but if you can come back and get in control really quickly, that's the key to emotional control and both of the animals demonstrated that."

Sturgeon said he was speaking at the time the woman turned toward the horses and did not hear any growling sound, but said he wouldn't have been able to hear that from where he was.

"If she turned away, I'm fairly convinced that things would have been different," he said.

While attempting to control the horses, the carriage driver fell out of the carriage and his leg was caught in the front left wheel, then run over by the vehicle, the report states. Police say the carriage then struck a parked vehicle.

Sturgeon said others quickly rushed into assist him in getting the horses under control.

"The most important to thing to me: not a scratch on the animals, and not a scratch on any of my guests," Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon said he suffered a severe bruise and a broken bone in his left foot in the incident.

Palmetto Carriage Works President Tommy Doyle said the carriage industry treats its animals like family and said he is concerned about what he described as a dramatic increase in attempts to disrupt or assault carriage animals in the last few weeks.

"There have been countless cases of verbal attacks on carriage drivers, we've had people make attempts to physically touch the horses while we're on tour, other employees have been physically assaulted, we've gone to court for protective orders, we've had people literally lie down in front of carriages," he said. "And now this latest incident we have an individual in a dinosaur costume harassing the horses, causing a reaction and injuring one of my employees."

In all of the instances, Doyle said his employees have acted in the best interests of the animals and their guests. The activists, he said, have not.

Doyle blames more brazen attacks on irresponsible rhetoric

"We've seen the attacks getting more and more brazen, and we fear that the result will be the death of one of our family, a guest or an animal," he said. "These attacks follow the increasingly irresponsible rhetoric from organizations that have one goal, and that goal is to end carriage tours in Charleston. Facts don't matter, reason doesn't matter, rhetoric we're hearing today is directly causing the increase in these human attacks on our horses and our people."

Doyle said the community has to come together and say, 'Enough is enough' before a more serious incident occurs.

Doyle said what concerns him more than anything is the attitude of what he called a "culture of disrespect" that has developed against the carriage industry.

A witness emailed police a photo of the suspect Thursday and said her husband told the suspect to leave, the report states. The suspect responded "incoherently," but told police the voice sounded female.

Police say another witness reported seeing the suspect fleeing to the Cumberland Street garage, removing the costume and getting into a car. Police were working to determine if surveillance footage from inside the garage would show the person.

One of the horses, Yogi, suffered minor abrasions, according to Doyle. The horse was said to be resting afterward with his brother Boo Boo, the other stallion that was pulling the carriage. The horses were able to return to their stables unassisted, the incident report states.

Doyle called the incident an outrageous assault in a statement overnight and claimed "radical" animal rights activists were creating a dangerous environment for people in addition to the company's horses.

"The City of Charleston needs to condemn these tactics and warn groups that encourage this behavior that their rhetoric is fueling this danger," Doyle said.

While embattled in a fight for change in the local carriage tour industry, the Charleston Animal Society says it's offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the incident.

"If [the reports are] true, we view this as animal cruelty and it is not only unacceptable, but also against the law," Charleston Animal Society CEO Joe Elmore said.

"If it was intentional, I'll double it," Doyle said of CAS's reward. "That's my only response."

Members with the Charleston Animal Society say what happened put multiple people and animals lives in danger.

While the organization has asked for an independent study on the working conditions of carriage horses, they strongly say they were not part of this incident.

"Any allegations that we have somehow, one of our employees, or supporters solicited this kind of behavior… we would condone this as irresponsible," Charleston Animal Society Anti-Cruelty and Outreach Director Aldwin Roman said.

Palmetto Carriage Works did not point fingers at the Charleston Animal Society at Friday's news conference.

The carriage company posted a picture of the two horses on their Instagram account this week.

Read the company's web page on animal care here.

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