A Danielsville man awaiting trial on dog-fighting charges has been reunited with one of his pets after the Madison County Animal Control Board voted to return the dog to him until the trial.
In a 3-2 vote, Madison County's newly appointed five-person animal control board voted to return one of Johnny Stewart Johnson's dogs to him.
Johnson was arrested in July and charged with eight counts of felony dog fighting after Madison County authorities raided Shake Down Kennels northwest of Danielsville and seized seven dogs.
He was the first person in Georgia charged with felony dog fighting under a state law that became effective July 1.
Madison County Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Webb asked commissioners to set up the board to allow local officials to determine who gets to keep dogs seized in fighting and cruelty cases.
Commissioners established the panel in September, and board members heard their first case Nov. 12.
"The purpose of this hearing was to determine whether the dog should be returned to its owner, not to determine whether the owner had been engaged in dog fighting," said Phil Munro, who was appointed to the board by District 5 Commissioner Bruce Scogin. "Because of that, we were only given information about where the dog should be kept, not evidence to determine whether a crime had been committed."
Munro voted against returning Johnson's dog to him, not because of the dog-fighting allegations, but because other board members quashed his motion that the dog be neutered.
Madison County sheriff's deputies arrested 28-year-old Johnson, owner of Shake Down Kennels at 2233 Georgia Highway 98, on July 3, after a two-month investigation.
They seized seven dogs in the raid, many with injuries typical of dog fighting, sheriff's Capt. Michael Benner said at the time of the arrest.
At the animal control board hearing, Johnson tried to reclaim only one of the dogs, according to documents. He told board members he wanted the dog because he was a pet, not to fight him or to breed him, Munro said.
John Goodwin, who manages animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, was at Shake Down Kennels during the July raid and disagreed with the animal control board's decision.
"What if this guy had seven cats, and he had only set six of them on fire?" Goodwin said. "Would they just have given him back the seventh cat? We're just very disappointed that they put a dog back into the hands of a man who is accused of doing horrible things to animals before the case has even been adjudicated."
The Humane Society gave Madison County more than $4,000 to care for the dogs until Johnson went to trial, Goodwin said.
Webb hasn't presented evidence to a Madison County grand jury to indict Johnson on dog-fighting charges, according to the Northern Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office. However, in the minutes of the animal control board meeting in November, Webb stated the case probably would go to trial by May.
Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Tuesday, December 30, 2008