Taking a bite out of animal crime

     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."

     While officers may view animal crimes as foreign territory, Janssen draws many parallels between investigating violent crimes against humans and animal cruelty cases. Much like at a homicide scene, officers first step would be to determine who lived in the home where the carcass turned up; information that could lead them to the perpetrator. Officers then would case the neighborhood to unearth what others witnessed and heard. "People know what an animal cry or a scream sounds like," Janssen says. "If they can remember when and where they heard it, it helps determine when and where the crime occurred."

     Sometimes Schindler finds authorities fail to recognize what is or isn't considered a serious cruelty. Officers may cursorily examine an animal and determine it is fine, when it actually sustained a severe beating. The same occurs in animal fighting cases where investigating officers see little evidence of fighting or scarring and assume the report was made in error. However, Schindler says canines present are often breeding or bait animals, not fighting dogs. He recommends instead searching for physical equipment such as large tires, thick ropes, heavy chains, treadmills, spring poles, high-protein foods, illegal medications; all of which may be used in animal fighting operations. Underground magazines, such as Sporting Dog Journal or Pit Bull Reporter, can indicate an interest in dog fighting. A large number of pit bulls chained outside or in pens also points to trouble. "Someone who has a high number of pit bulls is generally not breeding them for legitimate activities," he says.

     In animal neglect calls, officers can summon animal control, which may provide information to help owners properly care for their pets. It is important to scan every scene for the following signs of neglect, says Maddox.

  • Does the animal have food, water and shelter?
  • Does the animal appear healthy? Is its weight appropriate? Does its coat look healthy? What conditions is it living in? "There may be 75 cats in a home and they all may appear healthy," he says. "But living with 75 cats is not a healthy situation."

     Observing animal behavior also helps spot signs of trouble. Here, a little knowledge of animal behavior can go a long way. Recently a cat had been strangled and imposed crucifix style. Merck used her familiarity with feline behavior to piece the crime together One, she knew cats are very hard to catch, which lead her to inquire how the suspect captured and strangled the feline. Her research found the perpetrator clobbered the cat over the head to gain access. Merck followed a similar process in the puppy trial, where she was able to prove both teens participated in the killing. "It's harder to restrain a puppy or kitten than it is to restrain an adult cat or dog," she explains. "This became significant because a live demonstration on a similar-aged puppy proved both suspects were needed to hog-tie the animal."

Fetch the evidence

     Fully prosecuting animal crimes requires evidence — lots of it. And this evidence may seem to be in short supply because the victims cannot speak for themselves. However, Janssen points out today's jurors expect CSI-type evidence, especially in animal cases where they come in thinking: "This can't be serious because it's an animal."

     Properly collecting and documenting evidence requires law enforcement expertise, says Chief Victor "Buddy" Amato, a sworn police officer who has headed the Monmouth County (New Jersey) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) for five years. He adds officers cannot investigate animal crimes haphazardly. "Thinking 'it's just an animal' can't be part of your state of mind or you will lose the case because you failed to collect the proper evidence," he explains. "You have to photograph, you have to document, you have to talk to witnesses, and you have to take the body and make sure a necropsy is done."

     In the puppy torture case, Merck gathered urine, feces, blood, necropsied the body, and photographed the crime scene. These are all examples of evidence that may be assembled in animal abuse cases.

     Neglect ranks as the No. 1 crime Merck encounters. To prove negligence, she looks for bodily fluid and feces. A lack of feces is significant because it shows that either the animal hasn't been fed or the suspect has cleaned up the mess. She also hunts for insect evidence, such as maggots on food or a diseased body. Ammonia meters help measure odors within the home; data necessary for prosecutors to illustrate how damaging the ammonia levels were.

     Because abusers commonly defend themselves by claiming the animal doesn't belong to them, Merck also obtains DNA to confirm this connection. Collected blood and confiscated weapons with blood on them may be used to retrieve this evidence.

     Images documenting the scene also paint a picture of the animal's suffering that cannot be underestimated, adds Schindler. "People always want to rush in, grab the animal and run out," he says. "But the most important thing you can do is photograph everything."

     Photography helped secure a conviction for a man accused of beating his dog with bricks. When Schindler responded, the owner protested he didn't own a dog, despite barking inside the home and eyewitness accounts. An emergency search warrant gained access to the residence, where officials discovered five emaciated dogs and an underage kitten. Two of the canines were tied on leashes so short they couldn't even lie down. First responders photographed these conditions — before removing the animals. "The images, on top of witness statements, blood on the dog and blood spatter in the home, really sealed the deal," Schindler says. "Had we just walked away when the suspect said he didn't have a dog, we never would have found those animals."

No man is an island

     The murky waters of animal cruelty cases muddy further when one realizes that many officers lack investigative training in this area, reports Lt. Mary Respess, a 24-year law enforcement veteran who runs the Animal Control Unit of the Gwinnett County (Georgia) Police Department. For instance, officers may respond to a domestic violence scene and not recognize dog fighting equipment inside the home or realize that the way the animals are being kept is a crime. The ability to notice these things can provide an opportunity to open up bigger cases, she says, "But officers need to know what to look for in the animals."

     It becomes imperative that law enforcers not only learn about relevant evidence in animal cruelty cases but also solicit the assistance of a forensic vet to help interpret animal behavior on-scene, says Merck. While proving a crime occurred, determining the timeline for that event, and trying to link the animal to the suspect and the suspect to the scene, a forensic vet, like Merck, attempts to unwind the incident from beginning to end, examining what happened to the animal every step of the way to establish how it might have reacted. This process leads these professionals to critical evidence that often makes or breaks a case.

     However, Amato recommends agencies draw from all available resources not just veterinarians. If the call involves a marine animal, he says to summon the Marine Animal Rescue Society. If it's a zoo animal, perhaps a zoologist can help. The problem is, he says, many officers try to be experts in all things. "You can't do that. You've got to approach these cases with the idea that you need everyone you can to help with the investigation," he says.

     In the case against Anthony Appolonia, a Monmouth County man who confessed to torturing and killing at least 14 cats, Amato, the arresting officer, says he teamed with the prosecutor's office to amass evidence. Prosecutors located and interviewed every individual who gave Appolonia an animal. "That takes time," he says. "The average officer doesn't have that kind of time because he's got other crimes to deal with."

     The HSUS marks another important place to turn when presented with animal crime. The organization assists law enforcement as needed, especially in animal fighting cases, an area Schindler says officers often lack experience. HSUS officials help officers compile cases and identify and gather evidence for search warrants.

     The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also can be called upon. (See www.aspca.org.) The organization cross-trained its disaster response teams to offer smaller jurisdictions assistance in large animal cruelty cases. "The goal of the ASPCA is to have more veterinarians trained to do what I do in different regions, so that we can be more available to the jurisdictions that need us," Merck explains.

The human connection

     Although in many states, animals are viewed as property, Respess urges officers to keep in mind they are living breathing creatures. "Remember, if suspects have little regard for animals, they likely have limited concern for people," she says.

     It's a known fact — one supported by FBI statistics — that nearly all serial killers abused animals before they progressed to murdering human beings, says Amato. "The Columbine kids — animal abusers; David Berkowitz — animal abuser; Jeffrey Dahmer — animal abuser," he says. "I could go on and on. These people all abused and tortured animals before they went on to bigger and better things." He purports that if police had stopped these killers at a young age, their crimes may not have escalated to such grisly deeds.

     While murder tops the list of potential outcomes, there also remains a strong connection between animal cruelty and other crimes. In 90 percent of the cases Merck assists with, law enforcement affects arrests for illegal possession of drugs or guns, or outstanding rape, kidnapping or armed robbery charges. And, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence statistics cite that 71 percent of individuals entering domestic violence shelters report their batterer injured, maimed, threatened or killed family pets. Maddox says the National Cruelty Investigations School views animal abuse as an important crime in criminal justice because of this correlation. The program examines the association in great detail and directs participants to search for signs of animal abuse when indications of domestic abuse exist, and vice versa.

     Drug crimes and animal cruelty also seem to go hand in hand, adds Schindler. While working as a senior officer and field supervisor for the Washington, D.C., Humane Society, Schindler paired with the police department's drug enforcement task force. He recalls many situations where his organization provided police with suspect information and helped obtain arrest warrants. "When I go on raids, we often come across large amounts of drugs and money," he says. "That might be an open door for police. It can be easier to get a warrant for the dogs than to get a warrant on drugs."

     With these connections in mind, animal cruelty cannot and should not be ignored. As Amato says, "A crime is a crime, whether directed at a child or an animal, and must be viewed as such."

Training to protect the animals

     The following lists just some of the animal cruelty investigations training available:

     • The Humane Society of the United States offers animal cruelty and animal fighting training to law enforcement officers. The programs, taught nationwide, are done on site with a hosting agency. Information on the courses can be found at: http://www.humanesocietyu.org/workshops_and_classes/iaf_main_page.html

     The National Cruelty Investigations School, presented by the Law Enforcement Training Institute and Code 3, offers four course levels designed to give law enforcement increased training in animal cruelty topics. The first three courses each span 40 hours over five days, and cover topics ranging from animal law, search and seizure, written and photographic documentation, family violence, ritual animal abuse, animal hoarding and more. Students passing Levels I-III receive certification as a Certified Humane Investigator. Level IV is an evolving curriculum designed to keep participants abreast of changing techniques and technologies in animal cruelty investigations. For more information call(800) 825-6505.

ASPCA unleashes animal CSI unit

     The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has unleashed a roving crime scene unit, fully equipped with state-of-the-art forensic tools and medical equipment to help collar animal abusers.

     The mobile crime scene investigation lab is a resource to tap into when hoping to bust puppy mills and dog fighting rings through forensic science. The vehicle is manned by the nation's top forensic veterinarian, Dr. Melinda Merck, who says the unit "advances the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty by bringing veterinary forensics to areas where it might not otherwise be available."

     The customized E-450 van was funded by an anonymous donor who wanted to support the work Merck had done in the Michael Vick case, a football star who was sentenced to two years in prison in December for his role in a secret dog fighting ring. The vehicle includes a fully equipped surgical suite, medical supplies, a digital microscope, exhumation apparatus, an entomology kit, blood-testing equipment, and evidence collection supplies, and has made Merck's job a lot easier.

     She explains that before she had the vehicle she performed most evidence processing outside. "We had a puppy mill case where we had close to 100 dogs," she says. "I examined them in the middle of summer under a makeshift table outside, with no appropriate lighting. It was horrible."

     The vehicle also eases the transport of forensic equipment and medical supplies. Merck once crammed her own vehicle full of forensic gear then would find she lacked the means to transport a carcass to her office for necropsy. "Now I have a vehicle that's air conditioned or heated, with surgical lights, where I can do everything I need to at the scene," she says.

     Merck is available to travel to dog fighting, illegal breeding or large hoarding cases. Agencies may contact her via e-mail at catdvm@bellsouth.net or call her at (678) 773-8014.