By Sarah Schultz, TheIndependent.com
Animal rights supporters say the guilty verdict against a woman who dumped three dying dogs and 20 dead dogs in a cornfield near Grand Island sends a message about the seriousness of animal abuse.
“We were thrilled,” said Carol Wheeler, director and founder of Hearts United for Animals in Auburn.
Wheeler and seven others with the no-kill dog shelter in the southeast Nebraska town attended the two-day trial of Denise K. Withee. They demonstrated outside the courthouse before sitting in on some of the testimony.
Withee, 46, of Hastings, formerly of Mapleton, Iowa, was found guilty Friday morning of three counts of felony cruel neglect of animals.
Wheeler said Withee’s explanation of what happened was “bizarre” and “not at all believable.”
Withee, the only witness for the defense, said she was taking 36 dogs from Mapleton, Iowa, to North Platte on July 31, 2008, to give them to a woman from Denver. The woman never showed up, so Withee headed home. She testified she was suffering from back and pancreas problems that caused her to become sick near Grand Island. She pulled over, turned her vehicle off, got out, vomited and passed out. She said she was out for over an hour and when she awoke, some of the dogs were dead. She said she attempted to resuscitate the animals and started to take them to a veterinarian but changed her mind when she realized she didn’t have any money. Instead, she turned onto a gravel road in search of water to try to revive the dogs.
She testified she left 23 of the dogs she believed to be dead in the cornfield and even considered killing herself. Instead, she went to a Grand Island hotel with 13 living dogs.
The dead and dying dogs were discovered by a man working in the field. Five people testified three of the dogs were alive when they were found but died later.
A veterinarian testified Thursday that he did autopsies on four of the dead dogs and determined they likely died of heat exhaustion.
“Whatever was behind it, she shouldn’t be allowed to have control over another living creature,” Wheeler said.
She said the Hearts United for Animals group came to Grand Island to bring public attention to the trial and the issue of animal abuse.
Laurie Dethloff, Central Nebraska Humane Society executive director, also attended the trial. Like Wheeler, Dethloff was “thrilled and relieved” to hear of the convictions.
“They could see this was a clear case of neglect and abuse and they didn’t listen to the smoke and mirrors,” she said of the jury. “This is good news.”
Dethloff said the trial brings to light Nebraska’s limited laws on animal abuse. She would like to see a change in statutes to allow for more stringent charges in such cases, especially when they involve the dumping of dead animals.
“There are no repercussions for the others,” she said of the 20 dead dogs that were found.
Of the 13 living dogs taken from Withee at a local hotel, three died and one pregnant dog lost her puppies. The remaining 10 dogs were all adopted, one by a person on the East Coast, she said.
“They are in good, happy, safe homes,” Dethloff said.
She added that listening to Withee testify about not wanting to take the dogs to an animal shelter because they’d be killed was upsetting.
“It was very frustrating to listen to her excuse that once they come to a shelter, they’d be euthanized,” she said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Dethloff said that animals are euthanized if they are sick or dangerous. There isn’t a timeline for adoption and healthy animals won’t be put down if they are considered adoptable.
The jury received the case at 5 p.m. Thursday and deliberated until 7:10. They resumed deliberation at 9 a.m. Friday and the decision was announced at 10:20. A presentence investigation was ordered and Withee’s sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 24. She faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each count.
Roland Bowling, also known as Ronald Lancaster, testified he planned to get medical help for Withee, who he said was suicidal, after the dogs were found in the field. He said he told authorities Withee was in Kansas when she was actually in Grand Island.
He pleaded no contest to two counts of misdemeanor false reporting, one of which was reduced from being an accessory to a felony. He’s scheduled to be sentenced July 24.
A message left Friday at the office of Withee’s attorney, Art Langvardt, wasn’t immediately returned. Deputy Hall County Attorney Aaron Kunz wasn’t available for comment following the verdict announcement.
In addition to the Hall County case, Withee faced animal abuse charges in Mapleton, Iowa.
Monona County, Iowa, Sheriff’s Sgt. Roger Krohn said Withee agreed to pay the county $8,000 for the care of 15 dogs found on a farm and six dogs found in her home. He said he didn’t know the status of the misdemeanor charges against her. A message left at the Monona County attorney’s office wasn’t immediately returned Friday.
Krohn said that, in addition to the animals found in Iowa, there was evidence at Withee’s home that linked her to as many as 40 dogs.
Four of the seized dogs had to be put down immediately because of their poor health. Five more were taken to a vet who attempted to save them but failed. The remaining dogs recovered.
“These should have been felonies in Iowa,” Krohn said. “It’s sad to think that an agriculture state like Iowa doesn’t have felonies for animal abuse. You can torture your dog once and it’s a misdemeanor. If you’re convicted and you torture your dog again, then its a felony. It’s just sickening.”