LONGMONT — Brian has a black coat with white highlights and a bounce in his step that hints at a boisterous demeanor.
The new owner of the year-old border collie mix wants him to work as a therapy dog, but only after he completes considerable training and becomes more trustful of people.
Brian was injured in September, when a 12-year-old boy told Longmont police that Perry McNeece threw the dog into a wall, breaking a rear leg, after the puppy had an accident on the carpet. McNeece’s girlfriend, Tina Wolfe, later refuted the police account, telling the Daily Times-Call that McNeece pushed the dog off his hand after the dog bit him.
Despite the differing versions of events, the incident was the first in which local prosecutors invoked a state law, dubbed “Westy’s Law,” that allows them to charge suspects with a felony instead of a misdemeanor in animal-cruelty cases.
Westy’s Law took effect in July 2003, two years after a cat from Westminster was set on fire and tossed from a car. The cat, named Westy by those who cared for it, survived and found a new home.
With the new law, Colorado joined 37 other states that have felony animal-cruelty laws.
Under Westy’s Law, a first offense of aggravated animal cruelty is a Class 6 felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a fine up to $100,000. A second offense is a Class 5 felony punishable by up to three years in prison and $100,000.
In two years, Westy’s Law has been used just a few times. Animal cruelty cases frequently lack suspects, and it is sometimes a tough sell for a district attorney to push for the felony when there is a suspect.
McNeece originally was charged with felony animal cruelty, but Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy said prosecutors didn’t think the case was solid enough to press for the felony.
McNeece pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor charge of cruelty to animals and was scheduled to be sentenced Friday. He failed to appear in court and Boulder District Judge Carol Glowinsky issued a warrant for his arrest. Failing to appear in court could jeopardize the plea agreement.
McNeece could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Since the law’s inception, at least one major victory has been logged for animal-rights proponents.
In April, 20-year-old Ryan Turtura pleaded guilty in Jefferson County to stealing five puppies from the Colorado Humane Society and setting fire to three of them. Two of the puppies died.
Turtura was convicted of three counts of aggravated animal cruelty under Westy’s Law and sentenced to 101/2 years in prison. According to the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office, his sentence included a count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for giving methamphetamine to two teenage girls.
Denver deputy district attorney Diane Balkin, who is particularly interested in animal cruelty cases, called the Turtura case a “huge success,” particularly because people who harm animals often end up harming people. She said that about 80 percent of animal abuse cases also have charges related to domestic violence or child abuse.
According to a 1997 Utah State University study, 85 percent of staff at domestic violence shelters reported that women victims also described instances of pet abuse, and 83 percent witnessed instances of pet abuse and domestic violence in the same home.
And the Humane Society of the United States’ 2003 Report of Animal Cruelty Cases noted that “Animal cruelty can be considered a warning sign of other potential familial violence.”
“It is a matter of anger and control and rage,” Balkin said. “They often don’t stop to count the number of legs on the victim.”
Colorado lawmakers said that connection between animal abuse and abuse of people was a major factor in passing Westy’s Law.
Longmont Animal Control Officer Jackie Schubert said she doesn’t employ the state animal cruelty statute frequently, particularly if a suspect also is arrested on suspicion of other crimes.
“Normally, we don’t charge with the state (law) because Boulder (County) will plea-bargain that off,” she said, noting that she believes animal cruelty charges are regarded as “lesser charges.”
“I do not put cruelty cases through the county and I do it here because they get a greater punishment (in municipal court),” she said.
District Attorney Lacy said attorneys in her office believe strongly in prosecuting animal cruelty cases, but they also must consider the strength of a case.
Brian now has a new name and home. His owner, whose name the Daily Times-Call agreed to withhold, said she intends to train him as a therapy dog for an animal-assisted psychotherapy program for adolescents.
“He’s got a great big, huge heart,” the woman said. “He just loves everybody, and he’s got an abuse history people can relate to.”
Reporter Victoria A.F. Camron contributed to this story.
Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273, or by e-mail at email@example.com.