Harmans to go back to court for animal cruelty

Nikiski pair faces retrial

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

CHOTEAU, Mont. -- Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman of Nikiski will be tried a second time on animal cruelty charges stemming from the discovery of 181 animals, mainly collies, in their tractor trailer last fall, a Teton County justice of the peace ruled Monday.

The trial is expected to take place in mid- to late April after he's had a chance to sort through motions from either side, Judge Pete Howard said. He'll determine the location of the trial in a matter of weeks.

The Harmans asked, but Howard refused to give them custody of their animals in the meantime, with one exception: Lethcoe-Harman, a diabetic, may reclaim a short-haired collie she says helps alert her when her blood sugar is about to drop.

Even if the dog, Panache, had no medical intuition, "dogs are pretty nice to have around," Howard said.

That was his only concession.

The couple was arrested Nov. 1 after U.S. customs inspectors discovered 166 collies, five other dogs and 10 cats in the back of the Harmans' tractor trailer when they arrived at the Canada-Sweet Grass, Mont., border stop late Halloween night.

The animals had traveled 2,240 miles over nine days. They were malnourished, dehydrated, shivering, sick and distressed. One dog was dead.

Toole County charged the Harmans with 181 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Each count is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. A seven-day Justice Court trial ended in a mistrial in January when the six-person jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict, however. Only one of the jurors wanted to convict the Harmans.

The case has attracted national attention in part because, for four months now, Toole County residents have operated "Camp Collie" at the Marias Fairgrounds. Supporters from across the country have donated more than $100,000 to help care for the dogs and animal lovers from Florida to Alaska have flown to Montana to help feed, water, groom and walk the collies.

Spectators whispered "Yes!" under their breaths as Howard denied the Harmans' requests first to dismiss the case and then to let them move their dogs to Arizona while they await a second trial.

Whether the dogs can remain in Shelby is another matter, however. Toole County Sheriff Donna Matoon testified that the local 4-H club wants its building back by the first of April, although she said the organization might be willing to extend that deadline.

The regional office of the Humane Society of the United States is scouting for new sites to house Camp Collie, but no deal has been announced.

On the witness stand, Lethcoe-Harman described the 40-foot-by-40-foot metal Quonset hut and four dog runs awaiting the collies on the Harmans' property south of Woodruff, Ariz. Defense attorney Scott Albers presented an affidavit signed by Winslow, Ariz., veterinarian Emerson Scott noting the Harmans' new kennel met his approval.

Contacted later Monday, Scott said the kennel wasn't completed when he visited it in December, but he was impressed by the "extremely big" size of the four runs and by the Harmans' interest in treating their dogs humanely.

Parents sold interest

Lethcoe-Harman said she has given her parents, Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, a secured interest in the dogs in exchange for roughly $30,000 that she can apply toward her legal bills. The Lethcoes are living in Arizona and would be able to care for the dogs while the case against the Harmans continues, Lethcoe-Harman said.

She repeated her desire to adopt out about 70 of the collies. Under cross-examination, she acknowledged that the kennel permit granted to her by Navajo County would allow an unlimited number of animals.

Albers spent half an hour trying to prove that the record-keeping during the first trial was inadequate and therefore grounds for rejecting a second trial. Howard denied the motion.

Albers also argued that, given the lack of evidence demonstrated by the hung jury, there was no probable cause to go forward with the case. When he opened a law book to cite an argument he hadn't included in his written motion, Howard stopped him and made him close the book.

Judge: Retrial appropriate

Montana has a long history of handling mistrials, Howard said.

"I can't imagine the legislature or the state Supreme Court would have created a Catch-22 situation" by which a mistrial would negate retrying a case, he said.

Albers said he'll ask the state Supreme Court to review that decision, but agreed that Howard shouldn't wait to hear the results before proceeding.

The bulk of the hearing was spent discussing Lethcoe-Harman's dissatisfaction with the care of the collies in Shelby. She said Toole County authorities not only allowed Jon Harman's personal fox terrier, Kryptonite, to be stolen out from under them and neutered, they dodged questions about the theft for more than a month.

The dog disappeared two days after Christmas and was returned on Valentine's Day. Under oath, Toole County Undersheriff Don Hale said he didn't disclose the incident earlier because it was still under investigation, and he wasn't certain the Harmans themselves hadn't taken Kryptonite. He said he also didn't want to upset Lethcoe-Harman any more than she already was in light of the upcoming trial.

He told her of the dog's disappearance the night the mistrial was declared.

Hale said the dog was traced to Lethbridge, Alberta, resident Kerry Lee King and said felony charges are pending.

Didn't know about surgery

Lethcoe-Harman, who moved to Shelby three months ago to be near the dogs, also protested that no one told her or asked her permission to perform surgery on a 10-year-old female collie, Link. The dog died last month, a couple of days after undergoing surgery for an anal-rectal tumor that was obstructing her bowels.

Matoon said she didn't think it was necessary to inform Lethcoe-Harman every time one of her dogs needed medical treatment.

"The animals are under my care and custody," Matoon said. If a problem arises, "we take care of it. We keep a record of it."

Albers tried to make an issue of the Humane Society's involvement in looking for new Camp Collie sites. Lethcoe-Harman said Jean Levitt, president of the American Working Collie Association -- which has donated tens of thousands of dollars in supplies and hours toward caring for the collies -- co-owns a collie that has competed against Lethcoe-Harman's at shows.

Albers questioned openly whether all of the money raised by the Humane Society and the AWCA on behalf of the collies is actually getting to the dogs.

Dogs too fat

Lethcoe-Harman also complained that life at Camp Collie is making her dogs obese. On a veterinarian's scale of 1 to 9, she likes to keep her dogs at a 3 or 4, Lethcoe-Harman said. She said most of the dogs are now at 6 or 7 and some have reached a 9.

"One morning one of the bitches could barely stand up, she was so fat," Lethcoe-Harman protested.

"That wasn't the same one that had to be carried out of the truck" the night of Nov. 1? asked Teton County Attorney Joe Coble, who's helping prosecute the case.

Veterinarians testified during the first trial that a number of the Harmans' dogs were so emaciated they ranked a 2 on the scale.

Howard said the dogs were being treated well and humanely under Toole County's care and would remain in the county's custody.

Agree on care

The judge ordered both sides to draft a joint agreement addressing the care of the dogs. Among other things, Lethcoe-Harman wants permission to tape the ears of show-worthy collies so they will curl the proper degree.

Howard told her she's not allowed to take Panache outside Toole County except to the nearby town of Cut Bank, which Lethcoe-Harman said is a frequent destination.

The judge will review motions regarding the new trial at 10 a.m. April 4.

Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune.

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