March 22 2017 02:31 PM

Canine trio face death sentence In disputed case in Ionia County

Allen Hustin and his dogs Mario and Luigi.
Courtesy photo
Allen Hustin earned a Purple Heart in Iraq. Mario and Luigi are dogs he got at the recommendation of the Wounded Warrior Project to help him overcome the impact of war and his injuries.

Now Mario, Luigi and a third dog, Major, are facing a death sentence — an unjust one, attorneys say.

They’re in court in Ionia County today trying to save the dogs’ lives.

Major’s owner, Susan Vamvakias, calls Mario and Luigi “loving and giving. The kids sleep on ‘em and lay on ‘em and play with ‘em.” As for her dog, Major, he’s “just a clumsy German shepherd you trip over because he’s under foot.”

The three dogs have been in the Ionia County Animal Shelter since July 8, when they broke out of the yard of Vamvakias’ yard. She was watching Hustin’s dogs while Hustin and his wife, an active duty soldier on leave, spent time at a local motel. They hadn’t seen each other in a year.

Major, a 3-year-old German shepherd, and Mario and Luigi, both 2-year-old pitbulls, ran through the countryside. They were found trapped in a goat pen with the bodies of three dead goats hours later.

Ionia County prosecutors contend the dogs are dangerous and sought an order to have them euthanized back on July 27. Ionia County District Judge Raymond Voet signed such an order after a one-day trial. That order was upheld in Ionia Circuit Court in January.

Vamvakias, through her attorneys, Celeste Dunn and David Draper, is trying to get Voet to overturn his ruling and return the dogs. In court filings, the attorneys argue that an Ionia County assistant prosecuting attorney, Adam Dreher, misled the court, withheld information and pursued a case Animal Control officials did not agree with.

The attorneys accuse Dreher of misconduct. Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle Butler denied it in a phone interview Monday.

“The law was enforced, the accused had their due process, and the judge ruled in accordance with the law,” Butler said by email. The statement acknowledges the high emotional stakes of the case.

The case against the canine threesome seemed open and shut.

The goats had had their throats bitten open. An Ionia County Sheriff report says the goats were “bloated, rigor had set in and flies were swarming the bodies." In the front yard, a mauled and dead cat was found.

The prosecution needed to prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the dogs had in fact killed the goats. That means the prosecutor need only prove that it was more likely than not that the dogs were responsible for the torn-out throats of the goats. It’s a much lower standard of proof than the reasonable doubt standard in a criminal case.

The attorneys don’t know how the goats died if the dogs didn’t do it, but they speculated it was coyotes. A friend of the court filing by the animal law section of the state Bar Association points out the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued a coyote warning for Ionia and Kent counties in April 2016.

Dunn and Draper allege Dreher, in his position as prosecutor, overstepped his bounds when he brought the action to destroy the dogs.

“The Prosecutor withheld evidence that exonerated the dogs at issue at the time of the trial,” the attorneys wrote in a motion for relief from judgment. At issue is an affidavit from Robin Anderson, Ionia County’s Animal Control/Animal Shelter manager, dated Aug. 2 and apparently signed in October. It was not revealed until well after the trial, and only after Vamvakias filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to her case.

“It was never my opinion or the opinion of the Animal Control Officer that these dogs should be destroyed,” Anderson wrote. She also noted that the dogs had no blood on their bodies, and that a vet consulted by her determined the goats had likely been dead “8 to 10 hours” before the photos had been taken. A witness places the dogs outside the pen an hour and half before they were found with the dead goats. The prosecution contends the dogs got into the pen and were unable to get out. The dogs have also shown no aggression towards people or other animals during their time at the shelter.

Dreher brought his case on behalf of the Animal Control. Dunn and Draper also argue that the prosecutor relied on the testimony of an officer of Animal Control that did not have knowledge of the case. Specifically, they say, Erica Gleason’s sole knowledge was based on taking care of the dogs in the shelter. She had nothing to do with the investigation. The law requires witnesses to have personal knowledge of a case.

“The dogs’ lives hang in the balance,” wrote Dunn and Draper in their motion, ”when the entire case was based upon misleading information that was not supported in fact or in law.”