Trial expected to be handed to jury today

Lethcoe-Harman testifies collies received care

Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. -- Accused collie abuser Athena Lethcoe-Harman testified Tuesday that, contrary to suggestions she starved her truckload of collies, she fed them nearly 200 pounds of dog food a day as she and her husband drove them south from Alaska last October.

But under cross-examining, Lethcoe-Harman admitted she lied several times about the number of animals she had crowded into the back of the tractor trailer she and her husband, Jon Harman, were driving to their new home in Arizona.

And despite claims by Lethcoe-Harman that the couple was anxious to get back into the United States the night of Oct. 31, a surprise witness for the prosecution testified that the Harmans lingered for three hours at a restaurant in Nanton, Alberta, about 100 miles north of the border, without so much as opening the back door of the trailer to give their animals fresh air.

"Those animals were crying for help," Kelly McKay, an employee of a Subway restaurant in Nanton, where the Harmans parked their rig, testified. "The barking was just unbelievable."

Defense attorney Scott Albers, rattled by McKay's appearance, suggested she was trying to cash in on publicity about the collie case. But McKay said the Toole County Sheriff's Office contacted her, not the other way around.

When the Harmans finally left Nanton around 2:30 p.m. it took them eight hours to reach the border. Lethcoe-Harman said she suffered a bout of low blood sugar and said the couple got lost in Lethbridge, but otherwise offered no explanation for the delay.

The events of Oct. 31 are important to both sides in this case. The Harmans began that day in Red Deer, Alberta, north of Calgary, where Lethcoe-Harman said she worked from 3:30 to 7:30 a.m. exercising her dogs, giving them water and cleaning out their cages.

The Harmans had left their home in Nikiski the evening of Oct. 23. According to a log kept by Lethcoe-Harman, they stopped frequently for hours at a stretch to let the dogs out.

The couple would use portable partitions to erect a 2,000-square-foot exercise area. They would first let out the male dogs, then, after fencing them off, let out the females. Harman, 49, who was driving the truck, would catch up on his sleep in the cab of the truck while Lethcoe-Harman kept the water buckets filled, cleaned out cages and scooped poop.

According to Lethcoe-Harman, fully 47 percent of the couple's travel time was spent letting the dogs out for fresh air. The only witness to confirm that was Jan Krekt, a friend of the Harmans from Holland who had started the trip with them only to abandon it when a modified ambulance-horse trailer combo he was driving behind the tractor trailer caught fire near Palmer. Dog food, syringes, IV fluids, dewormer and antibiotics, rabies certificates and other essentials burned up in the blaze.

Continuing the trip without backup help and a reservoir of supplies entailed some risk, Lethcoe-Harman acknowledged. But early to mid autumn offered the best weather for a move from one climactic extreme to another, she testified. If she and her husband didn't push forward then, she said, they would be forced to remain in Alaska another year.

Alaska's dark winters were depressing and were aggravating her diabetes, Lethcoe-Harman said. She was having a hard time placing dogs from her Valiant Collies kennel in Alaska, and shipping them to the Lower 48 or overseas was much more expensive than it would be from Arizona. Given recent flooding on the Kenai Peninsula, she wasn't entirely sure they could have made it back there, she added.

Although she kept a careful log of the itinerary on the trip and had receipts for gas and other purchases, Lethcoe-Harman was unable to provide any receipts for dog food except for some purchases at a Costco in Anchorage at the start of the trip. She said she paid for the food with cash and blamed her lack of bookkeeping skills for her failure to have kept receipts, which would be necessary for her to write off the food as a business expense.

A six-person jury heard final testimony in the trial of the Harmans. They've pleaded not guilty to 181 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.

Closing arguments begin at 9 a.m. today in the Toole County Courthouse, after which the jury of four men and two women will go behind closed doors to decide the couple's fate.

Albers chose not to put Harman on the stand. He focused instead on 40-year-old Lethcoe-Harman, who described how, ever since she got her first collie as a teen-ager, she's been smitten with the gentle breed.

Diagnosed as a brittle-boned diabetic at 16, Lethcoe-Harman said she has relied on collies to warn her when her blood sugar is falling. She had cataract surgery before going to college, she said. After that, if she wasn't wearing contact lenses she was almost blind.

"One of my collies began to lead me to class," she recalled.

Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune in Great Falls, Mont.

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