Mistrial in collie case prompts barrage of faxes, e-mails

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. Animal lovers and ordinary citizens expressed anguish and outrage Thursday after a hung jury spared a Nikiski couple from being convicted of cruelty to animals.

By late afternoon, more than 500 e-mails and more than 100 calls and faxes from around the United States had flooded the office of Toole County Attorney Merle Raph. Animal chat rooms on the Internet were abuzz that the case many assumed would end with a guilty verdict fizzled into a mistrial instead.

A six-person jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict Wednesday in the case of Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman. The couple had pleaded not guilty to 181 counts of animal cruelty for transporting 171 dogs, mostly collies, and 10 cats 2,240 miles in a filthy tractor trailer with what appeared to be inadequate water and little food.

"I'm astounded" by the outcome, said Great Falls resident Cindy James, who has driven to Shelby twice a week to help out at "Camp Collie," a 4-H barn at the Marias Fairgrounds that has been home to most of the Harmans' animals for three months.

It's obvious given the condition of the animals that the Harmans did not feed their dogs along the way, James said. By the time the semi arrived at the Sweet Grass border the night of Oct. 31, the collies were emaciated, dehydrated, wet and cold from lying in their own urine and feces inside the frosty trailer.

"This woman lies," James said of Lethcoe-Harman. "She admitted she lied to U.S. Customs officials. She lied to a policeman in Canada and now she say, 'Oh, yes, I fed them on the way,' but she doesn't have one food receipt.

"How can a jury think that that doesn't constitute cruelty when she can't prove that she took care of those dogs?"

Lethcoe-Harman admitted on the witness stand that she deliberately misled officials several times about the number of animals in the truck.

Raph met Thursday with Teton County Attorney Joe Coble and Toole County sheriff's officials to discuss the possibility of requesting a second Justice Court trial, he said.

The first trial lasted seven days -- an unusually long time considering that the 181 counts against the Harmans were misdemeanors. First-time animal cruelty charges in Montana are always treated as misdemeanors regardless of the severity of the crime.

Officials discussed what could be done better a second time around and the resources that would be necessary to mount a successful prosecution, Raph said.

"There were some strong feelings expressed in our meeting, but also some concerns" regarding the cost and time required in putting on another trial, he said. He said the group will meet again before deciding whether to stay after the Harmans.

The missives sent to his office were almost unanimous in urging him to "go back at it and try it again," Raph said.

"We have to do what's right for this case and the state of Montana and the people of Toole County," he said. "As well as consider the animals."

Even if the Harmans go free, it's uncertain how soon they could pack up their collies and leave town.

All told, the couple have 172 collies -- including seven puppies born the night after their arrest -- two shelties, two Stabyhoun spaniels, a fox terrier and 10 cats. One dog died on the trip.

Lethcoe-Harman is willing to adopt out 70 of the collies, her lawyer, Scott Albers, said after the mistrial was announced. He said Lethcoe-Harman wants to keep the remaining 100 or so dogs to continue her research into a condition called collie eye anomaly.

Shelby veterinarian Hardee Clark, the vet who recommended Toole County charge the Harmans with animal cruelty, said a quarantine placed on the dogs would also need to be lifted before the animals could be taken. The quarantine was placed on Camp Collie because rabies certificates weren't initially available for all the animals. The animals have since been vaccinated, but now the dogs suffer from hookworms and giardia, both of which are highly contagious.

Lifting the quarantine probably is "not a big deal," Clark said. But because the collies fit into the small-animal category, they would need to be examined individually first, he said.

The Harmans also would need an interstate health certificate before hitting the road, which a veterinarian could provide, Clark said.

Asked if he would be willing to provide such documentation, he said: "I wouldn't be happy with 100 in the truck, but I would probably go along with and agree with whatever's been done.

"We basically saved their lives to start with," he said of the collies. Now that so much attention has been focused on the Harmans, "these people are not going to treat animals like that ever again. They're going to be watched pretty closely by the Humane Society and the Collie Club of America."

Not everyone thinks the Harmans deserved to be convicted. Tony Watson, a 52-year-old Shelby resident, said the collies weren't treated any more badly than shipments of pigs or cattle that are hauled down the highway every day.

"They pee on each other, poop on each other," he said of livestock. "They're packed in there.

"People can say what they want. It's just the way it is," Watson said. "You gotta do what you can to survive."

But Marie Hellinger said she can't fathom why the jury refused to convict the Harmans.

"When I woke up this morning I was thinking the five that went the other way they should come and take our place" at Camp Collie, she said.

Every weekday morning for nearly three months Hellinger, 68, has driven the 24 miles into town from her family's wheat farm to help muck the pens at Camp Collie, wash bowls, fill up the dogs' water buckets and do anything else that needs doing. She has averaged 30 hours a week at Camp Collie, but no more, she said Thursday.

Ever since her husband, Bob, who sat through the trial, called her on his way home from the courthouse to tell her the news, Hellinger has been "real down in the mouth," she said. "This morning I woke up at 4:20 a.m. and decided it's going to be my last day."

Retired schoolteacher Barbara Mercer, 50, is also devastated by the outcome. Lethcoe-Harman " could not take care of 100 dogs just like she couldn't take care of 170," Mercer said.

But as long as the collies remain in Shelby, she'll be there to help, she said.

Lethcoe-Harman remains confined by a court order limiting her visits to Camp Collie to an hour a day, and only if she's escorted by a deputy. But if and when the court order gets lifted and Lethcoe-Harman shows up some morning to help, Mercer already knows what she'll do.

"I would hand her a rake and a wheelbarrow and a shovel," she said.

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