2009-04-01 / Front Page


2 plead guilty to animal cruelty; fined
By TIM GULLA Ledger Staff Writer tim@gaffneyledger.com

In a somewhat unusual flow of cash, Cherokee County taxpayers will not only cover the fines of two former animal control officers who pleaded guilty to ill treatment of animals but indirectly help Humane Society officials reunite a homeless man with his dog.

Former Cherokee County Combined Animal Shelter workers Donnie Ray Crowe and Michael Pearson were charged with ill treatment of animals last December following a State Law Enforcement Division investigation of Humane Society complaints the animal shelter workers had inflicted unnecessary pain when euthanizing animals with a technique that had been banned since 2000.

Both men pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge during a Monday morning appearance in the Cherokee County Magistrate Court. Acting Chief Magistrate Steve Wood fined each man $237, which must be paid within 15 days. The men face 30 days in jail if the fines aren't paid, the judge ruled.

Cherokee County Council agreed last August to defend the county employees and Interim Cherokee County Administrator Ben Clary confirmed Tuesday he expected the fines would be covered as well. Clary did not know how much the legal defense will cost yet, since Attorney Keith Kelly — who represented Crowe and Pearson — has not yet billed the county. In addition to his legal services to date, Clary believed Kelly also was going to petition the court to have the charge expunged from Crowe's and Pearson's records.

Only half of the fines Wood imposed will end up in the court's coffers. Assistant Attorney General C. Dale Scott, who prosecuted the case, noted Monday morning the Humane Society was entitled to half of the fines since the animal welfare group rendered substantial assistance in bringing the case to light.

Humane Society members Judy Wyles and Libby Swad both said Monday they expected to use the Humane Society's share to cover the necessary shots and possibly the spaying or neutering needed to secure the release of a homeless man's dog that recently was taken into the county shelter. Wyles couldn't immediately recall the man's name, but knew how strong a bond he had with the "well kept cattle dog" sitting in the shelter.

Pearson, who resigned last year, had previously pleaded guilty to an ill treatment charge for shooting a dog and Attorney Scott had asked Wood to consider Monday's plea a second offense for Pearson, which would increase the penalty. Attorney Kelly, however, argued Pearson's penalty shouldn't be more severe than Crowe's because the charges at issue Monday arose from the same circumstances. "It is a violation and they're entering guilty pleas," he said. "But it's a violation in the scope of their employment (with the county)," he added.

Wood decided to keep the penalties for both men the same.

A third man charged in connection with the SLED investigation at the shelter, City of Gaffney Code Enforcement Officer Dewayne Fowler, will be in court April 14. The ill treatment charge against him is slated for a jury trial.

SLED alleged that all three men "did knowingly and intentionally ill-treat and inflict inneccessary (sic) pain or suffering upon animals at the Cherokee County Animal Shelter by employing the 'heart stick' method of euthanasia without first providing sedation."

The SLED investigation alleged the "heart stick" method was being used at the shelter from Jan. 1, 2006 to about June 1, 2008. When the matter was brought to Cherokee County Council's attention last year, the county agreed in May 2008 to have euthanasia performed by a veterinarian.

Pearson had resigned from county employment by the time the SLED charge was filed. Crowe was transferred to the county's recycling department.

Clary acknowledged Tuesday that Crowe could end up back at the shelter, but with limited responsibilities.

When Crowe worked at the animal shelter, Clary said he not only handled animal complaints on the road but also handled operations at the shelter. Those duties are now split and Clary said Crowe's return to the shelter solely as an animal control officer is under consideration.

"We're going to leave him in recycling for the time being," Clary said. But he said more manpower is needed for animal control and Crowe knows the job. "I'm not saying at this point that's what we're going to do," Clary cautioned.

"It's a tragic case," Attorney Kelly said after Monday's hearing. "It's a technical violation but it was a violation. They (Crowe and Pearson) are very sorry for what they did."

Kelly added that procedures changed for the better as a result of the case. "Everybody's happy about that," he said.

Swad, from the Humane Society, wasn't necessarily pleased with the amount of the fines, noting that hundreds if not thousands of animals were killed at the county shelter with the "heart stick" method. Fines also are lower under the state laws that were charged, compared to county laws for the same offense.

She and Wyles were pleased that many changes have resulted at the shelter.

Last month, Wyles noted that 44 percent of the animals coming through the shelter were saved through adoptions and rescue programs.

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