LOCKPORT – Barbara Hale Gonzalez of Hartland had her dogs and a horse taken from her when she was charged with animal cruelty in 2009.
The criminal case against her ended without a conviction, and she now wants the animals back. But the people who have been caring for them refuse, which is why Gonzalez is asking a judge to step in on her behalf.
Gonzalez’s attorney, George V.C. Muscato, says the SPCA of Niagara acted illegally in taking the animals in the first place. The original complaint was filed with state police by Gonzalez’s longtime veterinarian, who took one of the dogs home herself.
Muscato says that whether the animals are returned to Gonzalez, she will pursue a lawsuit for damages against the veterinarian, Jeanne Best of Royalton Equine Veterinary Services.
But Paul Hammond, Best’s attorney, said that according to state law, “Animals that are improperly cared for are deemed abandoned.”
The animals were taken by means of a search warrant issued by Newfane Town Justice Bruce M. Barnes on June 9, 2009, after Best contacted state police about conditions she had seen while treating Spike the horse at Gonzalez’s Ellicott Road farm.
Best and her employee, Stacey A. Bailey, provided affidavits that enabled Trooper John M. Spero to seize Spike, a gelded Morgan horse, along with two German shepherds, Bronko and Max, and a Border collie, Baylee. Spero executed the warrant the same day it was signed.
“This horse was standing in two feet of manure, in a stall as big as your desk,” attorney Morgan L. Jones Jr., representing the Akron therapeutic riding organization that ended up with Spike, told Lockport City Judge William J. Watson.
Jones said Best and some volunteers cleaned out the horse’s stall once, but when the improvements they made at Gonzalez’s farm didn’t stick, they called the police.
“The animals were appropriately seized,” said Jennifer Castaldo, attorney for Robert Winslow, a friend of Best who helped with the animals’ removal and ended up with Baylee, a Border collie.
Bronko, one of the German shepherds, has since died of cancer in Best’s care, Hammond said. Max, the other German shepherd, is in Bailey’s possession.
Muscato said he is not challenging the legality of the search warrant, but of the adoptions.
Best tried to get Gonzalez to surrender the animals several times, according to the lawsuit, filed in July 2010. It cites a document Best drew up for Gonzalez’s signature, surrendering Spike and a quarter horse named Dealer. Both horses were to be fostered by new owners who would take possession after six months.
Gonzalez didn’t sign the document, but Best did, on the day of the state police raid.
In November 2010, State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III turned the lawsuit over to Watson, who heard arguments Feb. 7. Watson said he will make a decision March 13 on whether Gonzalez gets her animals back.
The seizure of the animals occurred the same month that Gonzalez was dismissed from her job as a Niagara County corrections officer, a post she had held for 15 years. Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes said Gonzalez’s dismissal was not connected to the animal cruelty charges.
Hammond, Best’s attorney, said in court that Gonzalez was caring for her father, who had dementia, and she had health problems of her own. “She knew she couldn’t care for these animals,” Hammond said.
Muscato denied that the health situation for Gonzalez or her father, who has since died, played a role in the animal situation, but that isn’t how it’s remembered by Assistant Public Defender Matthew P. Pynn, who represented Gonzalez in Hartland Town Court.
“She was so depressed and sick at that time that she couldn’t get out of bed,” Pynn recalled, although he didn’t remember Gonzalez’s specific problem. He said Gonzalez’s health issues triggered the poor care for the animals that were seized.
“She didn’t bite off more than she could chew when she was healthy, but she did bite off more than she could chew when she was sick,” Pynn said.
Pynn sought to negotiate a plea bargain for Gonzalez on the misdemeanor animal cruelty charge.
The result, on March 8, 2010, was a plea slip for Hartland Town Court in which Violante offered an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.
“No record. Interest of justice,” Violante wrote in the explanatory notes. He also wrote, “The DA does not require the defendant to give up her right to have the animals returned to her as a condition of this disposition.”
Muscato argued before Watson that only the State Police or the SPCA have the legal right to take a defendant’s animals, but neither ever filled out the paperwork to do so.
He said the three dogs and the horse were never in SPCA custody “except for overnight.”
There is a five-day redemption rule for animals turned over to the SPCA, but Muscato said Gonzalez never abandoned them, so that doesn’t apply. And at any rate, he asserted, the animals were evidence in a criminal case at the time, so Gonzalez couldn’t have gotten them back.
Wrong, said Castaldo, the attorney from the Hiscock and Barclay law firm, representing Winslow, who ended up with Baylee the border collie.
“This actually is a very simple matter,” Castaldo told Watson. “At sunset on the fifth day, the animals became the property of the SPCA.”
But the day after Hartland Town Justice Brian Fitts signed off on the adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, an Albion veterinarian, Mary R. Neilans, wrote a letter to Best on Gonzalez’ behalf, announcing that Gonzalez was ready to take the animals back at any time and needed to know where they were.
William J. Hardy, the SPCA’s lawyer, said the delay in requesting the return of the animals “is evidence to me of constructive abandonment.”
“The only reason [the new owners] still have possession of these animals is because of this litigation,” Muscato said.
He said Gonzalez never agreed to give up the animals and the SPCA had no right to offer them for adoption. “It’s like selling a car you don’t own,” Muscato said.
“We bought a ‘car’ we thought we had title to,” said Robert Crawford, attorney for Stacey Bailey, who ended up with one of the German shepherds. “We’re an innocent party here.”
He said the care Best and his client gave the seized shepherd “brought that dog back to life.”
Hardy said the SPCA never received notice of the plea deal or Gonzalez’ desire to have the animals back.
He said the SPCA had an officer at the scene when Spero executed the search warrant, and the SPCA would have been within its authority to euthanize the dogs and the horse.
“They were found to be in deplorable condition, based on contemporary evidence,” Hardy said.
The animals’ fur was matted, they were underweight and they were sleeping atop piles of hardened feces, Castaldo said.
Castaldo said Baylee’s fur was so matted with her own excrement that “it took several hours to clean her up.”
Jones is the attorney for Chestnut Rose Adventures, an Akron not-for-profit organization that uses horses to try to help troubled children by showing them how caring for animals can produce interpersonal skills helpful in everyday life for overaggressive or fearful young people.
Spike, the now 21-year-old horse taken from the Gonzalez farm, is a therapy horse at Chestnut Rose, Jones said.
“My client has had possession of this horse since September 2009, since it was brought back to reasonable health by Dr. Best,” Jones said.
He argued to the judge that canceling the adoptions on technicalities “would discourage adoptions and lead to a lot of needless euthanasia.”