New judge found for Nikiski couple's trial

Posted: Wednesday, February 05, 2003

SHELBY, MONT. -- A justice of the peace in a nearby county has agreed to preside over a new trial of accused collie abusers Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman and will set a trial date and place as quickly as possible, he said Tuesday.

"For everyone's benefit, as well as the dogs', it needs to be a done deal," Teton County Justice of the Peace Pete Howard said.

Meanwhile, an investigator for the American Kennel Club wrapped up a two-day inspection of "Camp Collie" here Tuesday, the results of which could be used as grounds for fining Lethcoe-Harman $2,000 and suspending her for 10 years from the AKC. Such a move would effectively end her career as a collie breeder and dog-show participant.

Lethcoe-Harman and her husband, a Nikiski couple, were arrested after U.S. Customs officials discovered 171 dogs, mostly collies, and 10 cats crowded into the Harmans' tractor trailer as they crossed the Canadian border into Montana's Toole County on Nov. 1. They've pleaded not guilty to 181 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.

The animals have been in Toole County's custody for three months now, most of them residing at the Marias Fairgrounds, also known as Camp Collie.

Toole County Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland recused herself from a retrial after the Harmans' seven-day trial ended in a mistrial in Shelby last week. The jury of six deadlocked. Five voted to acquit the couple; only one wanted to convict them.

Whether the new trial would take place in the Teton County seat of Choteau is uncertain, Howard said. He said he needs to research the issue further before moving ahead.

It's highly unlikely a second trial would take place in Shelby, however, Freeland said.

Because of the avalanche of attention the case received, "I think the jury pool's been tainted bad enough that we would never get another jury," she said.

The AKC governs most dogs shows in the United States and its stamp is a must for serious breeders.

AKC investigator Kim Eberley flew to Montana from Illinois intending to check out all the dogs, according to Toole County Under-sheriff Don Hale. But after looking at 54 male collies and two females, Hale said, Eberley phoned the AKC and was told that "if he'd seen enough to substantiate one way or the other" he didn't need to inspect every dog.

A spokesperson at the AKC's headquarters in New York confirmed that Lethcoe-Harman's AKC privileges have been on hold ever since cruelty charges were filed against her. That means she's unable to register or show any of her dogs with the AKC, Daisy Okas said.

If the AKC had enough information to substantiate neglect or abuse on the part of the Harmans, the organization would take action regardless of whether any legal charges had been filed, Okas said.

Hale said it's his understanding the AKC would hold a hearing before taking any action to give Lethcoe-Harman a chance to rebut any findings.

The Harmans were unavailable for comment. Their attorney, Scott Albers, declined comment.

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

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