Veteran’s dogs pardoned from death row
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KBPalm_lsj.