Veterans Dogs Pardoned from Death Row

Veterans Dogs Pardoned from Death Row

 

New trial ordered in Ionia County dog case

Veterans Dogs On Death Row Pardoned

, Lansing State Journal Published 9:34 p.m. ET March 22, 2017 | Updated 9:40 p.m. ET March 22, 2017

Link to Article on Lansing State Journal

IONIA – The owners of three dogs on death row in Ionia County have been granted a new trial. The animals were found inside a pen with dead goats last summer and were later ordered to be destroyed.

A new trial means the dog owners, including an Iraq War veteran who relied on his two dogs to calm and comfort him, will get a chance to present evidence they say exonerates the dogs. That evidence includes an animal control investigation that found the dogs could not have killed the goats,

Ionia District Court Judge Raymond Voet on Wednesday denied the owners’ request to immediately release the two dogs still being held by the county but ordered a new trial, attorneys in the case said.

“We get to present the real evidence of the case,” said Celeste Dunn, one of the attorneys who stepped in to help the families after the dogs had been ordered killed.
Two of the dogs – Mario and Luigi – are owned by Allen Hustin, of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq and received the Purple Heart for injuries received in the conflict. The dogs were recommended to him by a veterans group to help him deal with trauma, attorneys said. The third dog – Major – is owned by Hustin’s mother-in-law.
Major turned up missing from the shelter last fall and has not been located, attorneys said. Mario and Luigi remain in county custody.

Voet ordered the dogs be destroyed after a hearing last July, nearly three weeks after they escaped from a yard and were later found inside the pen with the dead goats. A dead cat also was found on the premises.

Family members later learned that the county’s animal shelter manager determined the dogs didn’t kill the goats, their attorneys said. The manager said none of the dogs had any blood on its fur or collar, indicating they could not have killed the goats. She said the goats had been dead long before the dogs got into the pen.

“It was never my opinion or the opinion of the Animal Control officer that these dogs should be destroyed,” Robin Anderson, the manager, said in an affidavit.

A witness reported seeing the three dogs running in another location a short time before the dogs were discovered inside the goat pen, attorneys for the dog owners said. The attorneys contend the goats’ injuries were more consistent with a coyote attack.
A circuit court judge in January affirmed Voet’s decision to have the dogs destroyed. A motion for reconsideration is still pending in circuit court.

The new hearing before Voet is set for April 17, attorneys said.

Contact Ken Palmer at (517) 377-1032 or kpalmer@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @KBPalm_lsj.

 

Iraq War vet fighting to save his dogs from death row

Veterans Dogs On Death Row Pardoned

, Lansing State Journal Published 9:03 p.m. ET March 20, 2017 | Updated 8:54 p.m. ET March 22, 2017

Link to Article Lansing State Journal

IONIA – Major, Mario and Luigi are on canine death row.

The three dogs were found inside a pen with three dead goats last July in Ionia County, and a judge ordered that they be killed.

But their owners, including an Iraq War veteran who relies on the animals to calm and comfort him, say they have evidence that exonerates the dogs in the goats’ deaths. And they are trying to convince judges to spare the animals’ lives.

“This is just one of those things where you scratch your head and say, ‘How is this really happening in our state,'” said Lansing attorney Mary Chartier, who filed a brief in support of the families on behalf of the State Bar of Michigan’s Animal Law Section. “They just don’t want to admit that a mistake was made. It’s troubling that this prosecutor refused to do that.”

Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle Butler said he is simply enforcing the law and that the dog owners had their day in court

“Cases like these are unfortunate all around,” Butler said in a prepared statement. “Nobody wins in a case like this.”

The case appears to be pitting Ionia County Animal Control against Butler’s office, which prosecuted the case based on a complaint filed by the agency.

Ionia County District Judge Raymond Voet ordered the dogs be destroyed after a hearing in late July, nearly three weeks after the dogs escaped from a backyard and were later found inside the pen with the dead goats. A dead cat also was found on the premises.

Family members later learned that an investigation by the county’s animal shelter manager showed the dogs didn’t kill the goats, their attorneys said. The manager determined the dogs found their way inside the goat pen long after the goats had died. None of the dogs had any blood on its fur or collar, indicating they could not have killed the goats, she said.

The shelter manager, Robin Anderson, also said the dogs were friendly and had shown no signs of aggression toward humans or other animals.

“It was never my opinion or the opinion of the Animal Control officer that these dogs should be destroyed,” Anderson said in an affidavit dated both Aug. 2 and Oct. 13. “If I felt in any way that these animals were a danger to the public I would have no problem euthanizing them because public safety, above all else, comes first. However, I do not feel that way in this case.”

Attorneys for the dog owners said the goats’ injuries were more consistent with a coyote attack.

The owner of the goats and cat initially told animal control staff that he didn’t want to press charges but later indicated he wanted the dogs destroyed, according to the affidavit. The dog owners were cited for allowing their animals to run at large and for causing damage, it says.

Ionia County Circuit Judge Ronald Schafer affirmed Voet’s ruling during a Jan. 20 appeal hearing. Schafer confined his review to the facts presented at trial and didn’t find any errors in the proceeding, attorneys for the dog owners said.

Two of the dogs – pit bull-mixes named Mario and Luigi – are owned by Allen Hustin, of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq and received the Purple Heart for injuries received in the conflict, attorneys for the families said. The dogs were recommended to him by a veterans group to help him cope with trauma, they said. He and his wife, an active service member stationed overseas, were visiting family in Ionia when the dogs got loose last summer.

The third dog – Major – is owned by Hustin’s mother-in-law, Susan Owen. Attorneys said the dogs escaped from the yard through a hole in a fence caused by a lawnmower.

Mario and Luigi are in county custody. Major also was being held at the shelter but is now missing. The Ionia County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the dog’s disappearance from county custody, Butler said.

Until recently, the dog owners had represented themselves in court. Clarkston attorney Celeste Dunn and Grosse Pointe Farms attorney David Draper have stepped in on their behalf. Dunn is donating her time. Draper is receiving some limited compensation from animal welfare groups.

The attorneys have filed various motions in district and circuit court in an effort to spare the dogs’ lives. They said important information was withheld from the judge during the trial.

A hearing is set for Wednesday morning.

Butler said his office didn’t withhold any information in its possession at the time of the hearing.

He said the owners of the dogs submitted evidence, questioned witnesses, testified on their own behalf and called a witness who does shepherd rescue work.

Butler also noted that his office is one of the few in the state that has a canine staff member to help crime victims, primarily children, feel more comfortable during court proceedings.

“However, despite the strong, positive emotions that our office has towards dogs, our office is also charged with the duty to enforce the law,” he said in the statement. “In this case, the law was enforced, the accused had their due process and the judge ruled in accordance with the law.”

Contact Ken Palmer at (517) 377-1032 or kpalmer@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @KBPalm_lsj.

Veteran’s dogs pardoned from death row

Veterans Dogs On Death Row Pardoned

Link to Lansing State Journal Article – Ken Palmer – April 18, 2017

Speckin Forensics’ Dr. Julie Howenstine DNA Expert

IONIA – After nearly nine months on death row, two dogs owned by an Iraq War veteran are going home.

Reversing his ruling from last summer, Ionia County District Judge Raymond Voet on Monday said there isn’t enough evidence to prove that Mario and Luigi – the mixed pit bull dogs Allen Hustin relies on to calm and comfort him – and a third dog actually killed three goats inside a pen where they were found after escaping from their own backyard enclosure in July 2016

He ordered that the dogs be released from the county animal shelter on Tuesday morning.

“Allen, I’m bringing ’em home,” an emotional Susan Owen Vamvakias said moments after the ruling. Hustin is her son-in-law. “They’re getting in the van, and they’re getting … out of this county. They’ll be in North Carolina by next Tuesday night. I’ll bring them back if the court orders me to.”

The ruling came after a hard-fought trial that began at 1 p.m. and didn’t conclude until about 11:30 p.m.

The case dates to July 8, 2016, when Mario and Luigi, along with another dog owned by Vamvakias, were found inside a pen with the dead goats on East Peck Lake Road. A dead cat also was found on the premises.

Voet ordered the dogs be destroyed after conducting a show-cause hearing in late July. The third dog, a pure-bred shepherd named Major, disappeared from the shelter last fall and hasn’t been located.

The judge granted a new trial in late March after attorneys for the owners said they had evidence that might exonerate the dogs, including an investigation by the county animal shelter manager that determined the dogs did not kill the goats.

The unusual case has pitted the Ionia County Prosecutor’s Office, which sought to have the dogs destroyed, against the county’s animal control agency, which contended the dogs are innocent.

Attorneys Celeste Dunn and David Draper, who stepped in to help the dog owners, called three veterinary experts who examined the evidence and testified the dogs did not kill the goats. The experts noted that no blood or blood staining was found on any of the dogs.

Julie Howenstine, a veterinarian who retired from the Michigan State Police serology unit in 2010, said the lack of blood is direct evidence they did not kill the goats.

“I would have expected some type of blood staining to be on the dogs,” she said. “The reports indicated (shelter staff) did not see blood on the dogs.”

Another defense witness testified she saw the dogs running in another area less than an hour before they were found in the goat pen, making it unlikely they could have killed the goats. And several witnesses described the dogs as friendly and non-aggressive toward humans, other dogs and other animals.

Assistant Ionia County Prosecutor Adam Dreher called his own expert witness.

Adam Bump, a furbearer specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said he believes it more likely that dogs killed the goats, rather than coyotes, as attorneys for the family suggested. He termed it “extremely unlikely” that coyotes would go into a pen during the day and kill animals without feeding on them.

There’s no way to know for sure because investigators didn’t closely examine the goats’ wounds, he said.

Voet said his “strong suspicion that, perhaps, these dogs killed the goats” was countered by “too many unanswered questions.”

“Where’s the blood?,” he said.

Voet said the dog owners won’t be assessed for the cost of housing the dogs at the shelter.

It was unclear if the prosecutor’s office plans to appeal the ruling.

Hustin, of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq and received the Purple Heart for injuries received in the conflict. The dogs were recommended to him by a veterans group to help him deal with trauma, attorneys said. He and wife were visiting Michigan at the time the dogs got loose.

Hustin was out of state and did not attend Monday’s hearing.

Vamvakias said shrapnel is still embedded in his body. The dogs comfort him “and help him to be more normal,” she testified. Without the dogs, he’s had trouble sleeping and suffered bouts of mild depression, she said.

Contact Ken Palmer at (517) 377-1032 or kpalmer@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @KBPalm_lsj.