ATLANTA - Channel 2 Action News has learned Wells Fargo is suspending its iconic stagecoach program.
Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland began an investigation six months ago into allegations that some of the banking corporation's stagecoach horses were subject to abuse, drugged, ill-trained and, at times, put bystanders at risk.
The decision to suspend the program came only weeks after the stagecoach's most visible event: The Rose Parade.
Strickland twice interviewed a bank-insider-turned-whistleblower.
“I've gotten on planes, cars and I’ve talked to everybody involved -- and the story is amazing,” Shirlee Stevens said.
Stevens is a lifelong equine enthusiast who worked for Wells Fargo for 17 years. The former Wells Fargo vice president spent the last 12 months demanding reforms to the company's stagecoaches, which have appeared nationwide since 1958 and are a fixture of the bank's advertising.
Strickland obtained video of a horse out of control at an Arizona rodeo. The horse continued to buck and act with aggression.
The coach accelerated, busting through a gate and crashing into several vehicles.
Rodeo president Denny Walter was riding shotgun. His lawyer said Walter was ejected and trampled. A lawsuit calls the injuries serious, permanent and life-altering.
The stagecoach director told the bank staff that the injury was a “gash on his head.”
“They're stomping up and down. They're wiggling. They're biting each other,” Stevens said.
Stevens showed Strickland several examples of stagecoach horses acting out.
In one instance at a parade in Orlando, a horse was skittish to the point that it bit a handler.
Stevens suspects some Wells Fargo appearance horses get hauled too long a distance in too short a time, without proper rest or movement.
“For the sake of display and advertising and marketing, we are dragging them thousands of miles,” Stevens said.
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A company video shows drivers spread nationwide, including Georgia ... or so it was.
Veteran horseman David Helmuth of Greene County starred in a bank video about the stagecoach program. In 2018, he was ousted without notice. Helmuth settled with Wells Fargo in exchange for a nondisclosure agreement. He agreed not to go public.
His replacements are from Texas. One driver posted online that her schedule involved 12,000 miles in 28 days.
The Texas team was in Atlanta for the Children's Healthcare parade in December. The same team made the Rose Parade a month later.
More than 40 million people watched on TV, few likely noticed what happened a few feet from the crowd.
“A 1,200-pound horse was going crazy, swinging around, and video shows a man hustling to try to stop him,” said Stevens as she viewed video of a stagecoach companion horse.
Stevens said she reported what she learned from those on scene, reports that the horses were being drugged in a failed attempt to control them.
“The program was suspended within a week or so,” she said.
Wells Fargo said in a statement that a veterinarian checked the horses the next day and found the animals were in “good condition.” The bank would not answer whether the horses were drug tested.
Wells Fargo declined an interview with Channel 2 Action News and said the stagecoach suspension is designed to "re-assess our efforts and take a thoughtful approach."
“Unless we make serious deep changes that makes this program professional, those horses and people are at risk,” Stevens said.
An email Strickland obtained confirms the bank launched an investigation of the Rose Parade incident.
Wells Fargo said it plans to resume scheduling stagecoach team appearances in April.
The company said it regularly monitors its drivers and will not tolerate abuse. The bank said the suspension has nothing to do with the Arizona crash.
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