Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dogs seized in 2008 raids are gone Animals euthanized or adopted out before cases of owners were settled



By Andrea Kelly
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 09.13.2009

In early 2008 Pima County authorities conducted a series of raids on alleged illegal dog breeding or fighting operations, seizing about 1,000 dogs and 36 birds.
In the ensuing 18 months, four of the nine people arrested have been acquitted or seen their charges dropped, two pleaded guilty to reduced charges and three are still awaiting trial.

But regardless of the outcome of their cases, their animals are gone — euthanized or adopted out to new owners long before the charges ever got to court.

In several of the cases, the dog's owners have filed multi-million-dollar claims for their unreturned animals, which the county has not responded to.

Pima Animal Care Center officials say they found new homes for as many of the animals as they could. But many, they say, were in such poor health or so vicious they couldn't be adopted — although a Star reporter who accompanied deputies on one raid said some of the dogs, which have since been destroyed, were wagging their tails and licking the hands of the handlers who were taking them away.
They said the owners could have saved their dogs by posting a bond and paying an unspecified daily board, but none did.

Series of tips
Sheriff's deputies said the February and March 2008 raids were the result of a series of tips, as well as monitoring of dogfighting Web sites, chat rooms and underground magazines. Among the cases:

• The county seized 110 dogs from Mahlon T. Patrick and Emily E. Dennis in February and charged the pair with two counts of dogfighting and 21 counts of cruelty to animals.

The case went to trial and a judge acquitted them of the charges. However, less than two weeks after the seizure — and eight months before their acquittals — most of the dogs were euthanized. The county said the animals were aggressive or injured and could not be adopted.

Patrick, who has a kennel license, filed a $1.1 million claim against the county for the value of the dogs. Dennis later filed a $2 million claim for the value of property, including the home, which was also seized.

• The Pima Animal Care Center was familiar with Robert C. Smith long before he was arrested, on the same day as Patrick and Dennis, during raids at multiple locations, on suspicion of dogfighting.

Over the previous 10 years they had cited Smith, who also has a kennel license, four times for having his dogs on illegal tie-outs. All four times the charges were dismissed by a judge who found his operation legal, or dropped by prosecutors before they went to court.

His 22 dogs were impounded, and a few months later they were euthanized.

Smith's former attorney, Roberta Jensen, said his dogfighting charges were dismissed in January before being refiled later. He is still awaiting trial. Charges against his co-defendant, Terry L. Williams, have been dismissed.

Jenson filed a $5 million claim against the county on Smith's behalf in June, but said she withdrew it last month because the County Attorney's Office wouldn't consider a plea agreement as long as the claim was still on the table.

"I did not want to jeopardize his criminal case and dogfighting charges," Jensen said.

• Juan R. Verdin and his wife Zenaida Y. Verdin were also arrested in February 2008 and indicted on two counts of dogfighting, 10 counts of cruelty to animals and 16 counts of failing to obtain dog licenses.

In October Zenaida Verdin pleaded guilty to one count of cruelty to animals and was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation. Juan Verdin pleaded guilty to one count of attempted dogfighting and received 18 months of probation. The couple also had to pay fines of less than $1,000.

The couple filed nearly $3 million in claims against the county for the value of the dogs and lost wages because of the publicized seizure.

• In March 2008 investigators seized 851 dogs and 36 birds from a Marana property. In July 2008 Billy R. Jones and Wanda L. Jones were indicted on 41 animal cruelty charges and one count of a fraudulent scheme or practice. The case is scheduled to go to trial in January. Their son, Robert A. Jones, was also charged, but his charges were dropped last month.

None of owners' claims paid
None of the claims have been paid, Finance and Risk Management Director Tom Burke said. Superior Court records show none of the owners have followed up the claims with lawsuits.

The Pima Animal Care Center takes care of seized animals until it knows what it can do with them, and does not adopt out or euthanize the animals until they legally become county property, said center spokeswoman Jayne Cundy.
"In those cases we have to be told, because we're just holding them. It's up to the Tucson Police Department or the Pima County Sheriff's Department, because they're evidence," she said.

If an owner wants their animals back, the person must appear in court at a bond hearing, Cundy said. By the time a hearing is held, caretakers at the center usually have a good idea about the animal's temperament and adoptability, she said.
"We go in front of a judge and explain why we don't think the animal should go back. The judge will make a determination. If the judge orders them back to owner then we have to comply with the law," she said.

The hearing is a chance for both sides to say what should happen with the dogs. But upon seizure of the dog, the owner is given a notice that he or she must pay for at least 15 days of the animals' care, according to Pima County Code.

"If the bond is not posted within ten days of the notice, the animal shall be deemed forfeited to the Pima Animal Control Center to be placed by adoption in a suitable home or humanely destroyed," the code says.

But the hearing process isn't as straight forward as it seems, lawyers say.
"If somebody could afford $200, they can have a hearing. It's the only type of case where you have to buy your way into court," said Mark Resnick, Patrick's lawyer in his criminal case.

In some cases, including Patrick's, the owner's assets are also seized, leaving them no way to pay any bond, much less $200 for each of his 110 dogs — or $22,000.

Lower legal standard
Resnick, who has defended a dozen animal cases in the past decade, calls these dogfighting cases "mini-death-penalty cases."
The burden of proof for the forfeiture of an animal is much lower than for convicting a person of a crime, he said. A person has to be proven guilty of a crime "beyond a reasonable doubt." But the government has to prove an animal is dangerous "based on a preponderance of evidence," a lower legal standard.

"In this case they killed 95 dogs because they claimed them to be dangerous when in fact my client was acquitted," he said.

The dogs were the sole source of income for Patrick and Dennis and were sold as part of a legal breeding business, Resnick said. "I've never had a meeting with Mahlon where he didn't come into my office and cry because he lost those dogs."

Cundy said the decision of whether and when to euthanize or adopt the animals in these types of cases lies with the legal system, based on when they think the evidence can be released.

"I don't know at what point the attorneys and county attorneys came up with the decision. We were just told at some point they were signed over," Cundy said. But "signing them over" implies the owners had a choice, Resnick said.

"They're taken. They sign them over in the same way that when the IRS comes and seizes your house you've signed it over," Resnick said.

Contact reporter Andrea Kelly at 807-7790 or akelly@azstarnet.com