Bennington Dog Abuse Hearing Could Set Precedent
Posted on Nov 21, 2006 - 2:07 PM
Bennington dog abuse hearing could set precedent
November 16, 2006
By Patrick McArdle Rutland Herald
BENNINGTON — About 20 animal lovers sat in a courtroom Wednesday to listen to a hearing that some say may change how animal abuse cases are settled in Vermont.
At issue is whether the state can seize all of Larry Mason's 32 German shepherd dogs at once, or whether Mason can argue on a case-by-case basis to keep some of the animals.
Mason was traveling through Vermont in a school bus when he was stopped at a Bennington diner on July 18. The bus was filled with more than 30 dogs, which Bennington Police and animal control officers said were in "deplorable" condition.
They confiscated the animals and charged Mason with two counts of animal cruelty, a misdemeanor. If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison.
On Wednesday, Mason was in court for a forfeiture hearing that will determine if he gets the animals back.
The state presented witnesses who testified the animals were malnourished and kept in terrible living conditions. They urged a judge to award the dogs to the state.
But Mason's public defender, Frederick Bragdon, said not all of the dogs were ill and Mason should be allowed to retain ownership of some, if not all, of them.
Officer Jodi Harvey, animal control officer with the Burlington Police Department, was one of the animal advocates who sat in the courtroom Wednesday. She made the trip to Bennington because she said the hearing may establish case law affecting future animal forfeiture hearings.
Harvey, who has held her office since 1992, said Mason's case may involve more dogs than any previous prosecution in Vermont.
The seats behind Bennington County Deputy Prosecutor Anthony Costello were filled with people who said they wanted to adopt one of the German shepherds. Also sitting behind the prosecution was Nancy Boardman, the executive director of Second Chance Animal Shelter in Shaftsbury.
The seats behind Mason and his lawyer were empty.
The tension in the courtroom was palpable – so much so that Bragdon complained to Judge David Howard.
"Judge, this is the third time," Bragdon said. "I hear guffaws, I hear chuckles and now I'm getting smirks. I'm up here trying to do my job as a professional. I demand respect from your gallery and I think you should too."
Howard said he hadn't heard any laughter but cautioned people in the gallery to be respectful or face removal from the courtroom.
Testifying against Mason Wednesday, Bennington Police officers David Faden and Frederick Gilbar, and Animal Control officers Jennifer Billert and Christine Crawford, offered similar descriptions of the dogs they found on the school bus. The inside of the bus was hot, they said, food and water were scarce and dog dishes were covered in feces.
Billert said many of the dogs were dripping with urine. Urine poured from the bus as it was being towed away, she said.
Gilbar said the smell was terrible.
"I've been to a lot of things in my time as a police officer," he said. "Not to be offensive but there have been dead bodies that didn't smell as bad. I've been to pig farms that didn't smell as bad as the back of that bus."
The cages in the bus were too small for the dogs that occupied them, Crawford said. All four witnesses said they saw dogs eating their own feces.
Veterinarians Anna Worth, who practices at the West Mountain Animal Shelter in Shaftsbury, and Raymond Koch, who has a practice in Manchester, said they examined the dogs after they were confiscated.
Both said many of the dogs were very thin and their fur was covered with feces.
Testimony is expected to resume today. Bragdon told the judge he expected to call only one witness.
After the hearing, Bragdon said Mason would take the stand today only if the judge agrees to grant him immunity so that anything Mason says in the forfeiture will be excluded from his criminal trial.
Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town had spent more than $20,000 through October in caring for the dogs. Some of its costs will be defrayed by $6,000 in donations from the Humane Society. The Bennington County Kennel Club and local veterinarians have also contributed to medical, feeding and boarding expenses.
One member of the audience, Bonnie Rettig, said she had driven three hours from Bridgewater to attend the hearing. Rettig, who owns more than 20 Rottweillers, said she had seen dogs neglected by Mason when the two of them were neighbors in New Hampshire.
"I want to see justice done," she said.
Contact Patrick McArdle at Patrick.firstname.lastname@example.org