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.