Atlanta homicide investigator, Det. James Longshore, testified he gagged at the horrible stench permeating the air after two teens burned a puppy to death in a gas range.
"It took me two weeks to feel like I had it out of my clothes and off my skin — it was that nauseating," he recalled at the trial.
Laura Janssen, the prosecuting attorney for the case against the two brothers, describes their actions as horrific. First the young men, ages 17 and 18, dipped the 5-month-old puppy in paint and tried to light it on fire. When that failed, they hog-tied the animal, taped its mouth shut and put it in the oven to cook.
"This is the ultimate animal torture felony," says the senior assistant district attorney for the Fulton County (Georgia) District Attorney's Office. "They were prosecuted as adults." And, in February 2007, the court sentenced both to 10 years in prison for the animal's slaughter.
The conviction may be credited to the combined efforts of Atlanta police officials, forensic veterinarian Dr. Melinda Merck, and Janssen, who specializes in prosecuting animal cruelty cases.
"It was a great mixture," Janssen says of the trial's witness testimony. An expert veterinarian witness detailed the animal's suffering and an experienced police officer, responsible for investigating the most heinous offenses against society, relived his disgust over the suspects' deviance.
But none of this might have come about had authorities failed to summon Janssen. Law enforcement's procedure for decades has been to contact the sanitation department when officers find a carcass and to send for animal control when they encounter live animals. Atlanta police officials telephoned Janssen to collect the animal after first trying the sanitation department. Their actions provided her an opportunity to call Dr. Merck, who was able to explain how to remove the body from the oven and store it properly for necropsy (an animal autopsy). "Without a body, we wouldn't have had a case," Janssen says.
Unfortunately, disposing of a carcass represents the No. 1 mistake officers make in animal cruelty cases. A fact, Chris Schindler, deputy manager of Animal Fighting Law Enforcement for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), doesn't find surprising. He points out many officers openly admit to paying little mind to animal cruelty cases. Gary Maddox, director of the University of Missouri's Law Enforcement Training Institute, states he's heard the same since adding the National Cruelty Investigations School in 1998.
"Traditionally, officers have viewed animal abuse as 'not my problem,' " he says. "But I've seen a turn in that mentality. Many law enforcers now believe animal abuse is their responsibility because animal abuse is a crime."
This trend must continue, adds Janssen, who stresses the law enforcement skill-set helps bring these perpetrators to justice. "Veterinarians can examine the animals," says Maddox, "But law enforcement must conduct the interviews, interrogate the suspects and gather evidence."Pay attention!
In 2000, when Georgia passed a law making animal cruelty a felonious offense, the district attorney appointed Janssen to direct these cases. She's on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure first responders sufficiently collect and preserve evidence, which can be daunting in cases involving dog fighting, animal hoarding or puppy mills, where hundreds of animals may be affected and every animal is considered evidence. This requires law enforcers to treat the situation as both an animal rescue and a crime scene, she says.
"In one animal hoarding case we had 160 cats," she recalls. "We charged for every cat — one animal equaled one count on the indictment. It was important to photograph, document and identify each one. We ended up with about 500 photographs, but that's what it took to prosecute the case."