Prosecution collapses in Nevada cat shelter case
Las Vegas Review-Journal
LAS VEGAS – More than two years after authorities found hundreds of sick and starving cats at a Pahrump animal shelter, a criminal prosecution of the operation and those accused of running it appears to have fallen apart.
Pahrump Justice of the Peace Kent Jasperson dismissed all 18 counts of animal cruelty Feb. 11, citing errors by Nye County prosecutors.
District Attorney Bob Beckett is defending the handling of the case, and promising to appeal.
“The case is far from over,” he vowed, adding, “it just flat-out isn’t over.”
But because the statute of limitations has expired, it appears unlikely anyone will face charges in connection with the shelter, which a national animal rescue group described as one of the worst cases of “institutional animal hoarding” ever in the United States.
Defense attorney Thomas Gibson said the district attorney’s office botched the case so badly that the judge had no choice but to “throw the whole thing out, the baby and the bath water.”
A Las Vegas group called For the Love of Cats and Kittens, or FLOCK, opened the shelter in 2006 on a dirt lot surrounded by a 12-foot fence at the south end of Pahrump.
When Nye County animal control officers took control of the place in July 2007, they reported finding more than 700 feral cats and strays roaming the grounds. Many were in desperate need of food and medical treatment. A few had untreated wounds infested with maggots.
More than 60 cats died or had to be euthanized. A rescue operation by Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society saved many more.
As Best Friends officials and other cat lovers called for criminal charges, prosecutors waited until June 2008, a few days before the one-year statute of limitations ran out, to file misdemeanor animal cruelty against FLOCK as a corporate entity.
No one was listed by name in the charges, but the criminal complaint left the door open for up to 200 people to be prosecuted, from volunteers to FLOCK’s board of directors.
On Feb. 10, less than 24 hours before the case was scheduled for trial, prosecutors filed an amended complaint listing 10 defendants by name for the first time.
Gibson said none of the accused was summoned to appear in court or notified that they had been charged with crimes that could put them in jail for up to one year on each count.
The judge said that despite his own feelings about the conditions at the sanctuary, he had no choice but to throw out the case. The statute of limitations ran out a year and eight months before the defendants in the case were finally named, he said.
Since Jasperson dismissed the charges, he said he has received angry e-mail messages from cat lovers across the country.
“Our society is built on the foundation that all persons are innocent until proven guilty,” the judge wrote in response to one message he received. “Defendants have to be noticed that they are being charged with a crime, that they have a right to an arraignment hearing, and the right to obtain (counsel) to represent them. None of this was done.”
Gibson, who worked for Beckett as a prosecutor from 2001 to 2005, said he was upset that prosecutors showed up for court the morning of the trial with 14 witnesses ready to proceed.
He accused Beckett of wasting county resources.
“That’s his spin, and he’s entitled to that,” said Beckett, who was not in the courtroom on Feb. 11. “But that’s not the way I see it at all.”
Beckett said the judge should have allowed written arguments for and against dismissal before tossing the case out.
As for why the defendants were not named until the afternoon before the trial, Beckett offered varying explanations.
Initially, the four-term district attorney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it took investigators that long to sort out who was really to blame.
Later, Beckett said FLOCK officials “absolutely knew who they were and what they were charged with” long before they were named in the amended complaint. His office only decided to reference them by name in an effort to be “fair,” he said.
Ultimately, Beckett said, their reasons for naming the defendants when and how they did will be fully explained when they appeal the case to the district court in Pahrump.
“We will thoroughly address this in writing, because obviously there was some confusion,” he said.
FLOCK President Maggie Ward said she didn’t find out she had been named in the complaint until after the case was dismissed.
Ward took over as the group’s president shortly after the rescue at the sanctuary. She blames FLOCK’s troubles on the actions of a few people who are no longer affiliated with the group.
Ward said board members tried to keep tabs on what was happening at the shelter in Pahrump, but the person running it at the time locked them out of the facility.
“I remember the day we all walked into the sanctuary and saw what had been done. We all left in tears,” she said.
FLOCK still operates in Las Vegas, where members feed and trap feral animals, support spay and neuter programs, solicit donations and hold adoption events at a pet store.
Ward said they will never operate a sanctuary again.
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal