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LOCKPORT – A Hartland woman whose dogs and horse were taken after she was charged with animal cruelty in 2009 must go through a trial on whether they should be returned, Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas has ruled.

Farkas overturned a March 23 decision by Lockport City Judge William J. Watson, who said the animals should be returned to Barbara Hale Gonzalez, whose cruelty charges were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal in March 2010.

Since then, Gonzalez has sought the return of two dogs and a horse taken from her by the SPCA of Niagara after the June 9, 2009, search of her barn by state police.

A third dog died after being adopted by Gonzalez’s veterinarian, Dr. Jeanne Best of Royalton Equine Veterinary Services.

Best also ended up with a horse, which she later gave to Chestnut Rose Adventures, a not-for-profit riding organization in Akron.

Robert A. Winslow, a friend of Best’s, ended up with a border collie, and Stacey A. Bailey, an employee of Best’s, adopted a German shepherd.

Watson rejected the SPCA’s argument that the animal neglect alleged to have been committed by Gonzalez was equivalent to her abandoning the animals.

In early 2009, Best saw the horse standing in his pen in a pile of feces that was about 2 feet thick, and helped Gonzalez clean it up.

But in June, seeing the same conditions recurring, Best called troopers, who obtained a search warrant. The dogs also were allegedly in poor condition.

The adjournment in contemplation of dismissal of the criminal charges, which was recommended by District Attorney Michael J. Violante, included a notation that Gonzalez was not being required to give up her right to have the animals returned to her.

The SPCA did not go along with the plea agreement, and Farkas said that means the SPCA can request a hearing on permanent custody of the horse and the two dogs.

Also, Farkas ruled, no one ever filed any kind of forfeiture proceeding in court, and thus the SPCA’s custody of Gonzalez’s animals wasn’t permanent.

The county judge noted that state Agriculture and Markets Law does not include a procedure on the process to be followed after a seizure of allegedly abused animals, so the SPCA and the adoptive owners of the animals should have been allowed by Watson to try to make their case for keeping them.

Gonzalez’s attorney, George V.C. Muscato, said the Farkas ruling returns the case “to square one.”

“We would have had to go to trial anyway, because the decision from Judge Watson didn’t determine an amount of damages,” Muscato said.

Gonzalez had sought monetary damages from those who took and fostered the seized animals.

Attorneys for Best and the SPCA did not return calls seeking comment last week.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com