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A sorry tale, a happy ending

Posted on Sep 30, 2009 - 9:41 AM
Times Argus
Article published Sep 30, 2009

A sorry tale, a happy ending

MONTPELIER - More than 20 dogs at the center of a massive animal cruelty case that dragged on for years and stretched across three states have arrived back in Vermont.

Now they're looking for a home.

At present, they are being cared for by the Vermont Humane Society. The animals were driven across the country this summer by William Hanson, an accused serial animal abuser, as he fled authorities in the Green Mountain State.

Hanson and his wife, 42-year-old Tammy Hanson, are accused of running what is considered one of the largest animal care scams in history. The couple allegedly made money by taking in dogs displaced by Hurricane Katrina, but police say they left hundreds of the animals to die at their Arkansas compound.

"These dogs have been through a lot," said Joanne Bourbeau, the state director of the Vermont Humane Society. "If dogs could talk, they would probably have quite a story to tell."

The dogs in the care of the Humane Society lived with the Hansons at a farmhouse in Sutton, a rural part of Caledonia County, according to police, and were found there in July when tipsters led authorities to the couple's new location.

Caledonia County Sheriff Michael Bergeron said about 30 dogs were living in the farmhouse and most seemed obedient to the couple and in good health. But they soon found an unventilated backroom in the home where five more dogs were kept, living in their own waste and without proper food or water, he said.

At that point, Tammy Hanson was already in police custody and waiting extradition on animal cruelty warrants from Arkansas and Missouri, Bergeron said. Her husband was cited to appear in Vermont court on misdemeanor animal cruelty charges, a date he would not keep.

"He was gone ... and he took all the dogs with him," Bergeron said, adding that he believed William Hanson may have had help loading all the dogs into a motor home.

The Hansons were long-known to authorities in the south for their history of allegedly mistreating dogs. Nearly four years before they were found in Vermont, the couple ran a pet sanctuary in Gamaliel, Ark., called Every Dog Needs a Home.

When the Baxter County Sheriff's Department searched the couple's compound in late 2005, they allegedly found hundreds of dogs living there in "deplorable, unsanitary and cruel conditions," according to a press statement by that department.

Photographs taken during the police raid show a "pet sanctuary" that more resembles an old industrial site. Trash and waste litters the dirt yard and piles of food rot on wood pallets as the animals are kept in rows of small metal cages. One picture shows a white dog lying dead in its crate.

"They probably had about 500 dogs there, many of them taken in from Hurricane Katrina," said Bergeron. "People would pay them money to care for their dogs, but they would not give the animals proper care."

William and Tammy Hanson were convicted on a number of criminal charges of animal cruelty and tampering with evidence, but they allegedly fled before their sentencing. Police would not hear from them again until more than three years later when a tipster told police in Vermont about an odd couple in Sutton.

According to the Baxter County Sheriff's Department, the Hansons lived at the Sutton farmhouse for three years under the fake names of Christine and Henry Miller. Police said Tammy Hanson often told people she was an attorney and used that influence to convince locals to allow them to shelter their animals.

"The victim reported that Tammy Hanson had contacted her, purporting to be an attorney-at-law, and had coerced the victim into turning over to Hanson a golden retriever named Sandy," reads a press release from the Baxter County Sheriff earlier this month. "The victim was coping with other issues in her life at the time, and Tammy Hanson used that situation as an opportunity to fraudulently obtain control over Sandy."

Sandy was one of the dogs recovered from their Sutton home when Vermont authorities raided it this summer.

Bergeron said their local tipster told police that "Christine Miller" may really be Tammy Hanson, who was then on the Baxter County Sheriff Department's Most Wanted List. Bergeron said the couple laid low while staying in Vermont and paid for items using cash to remain under the radar.

"Tammy Hanson seemed very good at getting people to believe that was someone she wasn't," he said. "She told people she was an attorney or a doctor and they would believe her."

The Caledonia Sheriff's Department arrested Tammy Hanson on July 18 for an outstanding felony warrant from Lawrence County in Missouri, for failing to appear in court on a charge of stealing animals. She also had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant from Baxter County in Arkansas for skipping her sentencing on the animal cruelty charges.

For months, Tammy Hanson fought extradition to Arkansas, filing for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in a Vermont court. On Sept. 16, Caledonia District Court judge Benjamin Joseph rejected her petitions because they were improperly prepared. The judge also discharged her public defender because Hanson allegedly filed false financial information and was ineligible for state assistance to mount a defense.

Last week, Tammy Hanson was flown by Baxter County Sheriff Department officers from Burlington to Arkansas. She was scheduled to appear in the county's district court Tuesday on 20 counts of animal cruelty, but the result of that arraignment was unclear Tuesday afternoon.

Bergeron said the case has left him scratching his head for a motive.

"I've heard about the psychological condition where people hoard animals and I think that plays a part here," he said. "But they were also clearly doing this for financial gain."

Just days before Tammy Hanson was extradited to Arkansas, her husband was found and arrested in Johnson County in Missouri. Based on tips there and from Vermont, authorities found him in a rural part of the town of Holden, according to police statements.

With him at the time of arrest were 22 dogs that he had taken with him from Vermont.

The breeds of the rescued dogs are collies, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, miniature pinschers, a heeler and a three-legged rottweiler. Bourbeau said some of the dogs are still in rough shape, including one that may need to have surgery to have an eye removed.

"Almost all of them have some problems," she said. "Some of them have wounds that make it look like they may have been fighting with each other."

Right now the dogs are at the Lucy MacKenzie Humane Society in West Windsor, but they will soon be split up and sent to The Humane Society of Chittenden County, the North Country Animal League, the Rutland County Humane Society, the Central Vermont Humane Society and the Windham County Humane Society.

Heidi Edmunds, the director of the Lucy MacKenzie Humane Society, said adopting an animal is relatively easy. Prospective owners need to first visit with the animal to see if there is a connection and then fill out a form detailing some personal information.

She said the shelter does check to ensure that possible new animal owners don't have a criminal history of abuse or neglect.

"They can usually take the animal home in two days," she said.

The Lucy MacKenzie Humane Society can be reached at 802-484-5829.

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