Retrial in animal abuse case under way today

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2003

ANACONDA, Mont. The retrial of Jon and Athena Harman, formerly of Nikiski, on animal abuse charges gets under way today.

The retrial is expected to wrap up in four days; the first trial lasted seven days. Lawyers for both sides will begin by selecting a six-person Justice Court jury.

The first trial, in Shelby, Mont., ended in a mistrial when a jury of four men and two women failed to reach a unanimous verdict. A new verdict won't necessarily resolve matters for good, however. Either side could appeal the outcome.

The Harmans have pleaded not guilty to 181 counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals. They face a maximum of six months in jail and-or a $500 fine for each count. They also could be required to forfeit their animals and reimburse Toole County for their care.

Toole County sheriff's officials arrested the couple Nov. 1 after U.S. customs inspectors discovered the animals crammed into a 45-by-8-foot tractor trailer when the Harmans tried to cross the Canadian border into Montana late Halloween night.

The dogs had traveled 2,240 miles over nine days. Veterinarians later testified that the animals were dehydrated, emaciated, diseased and filthy from lying in pools of their own urine and feces. One dog was dead by the time authorities removed the animals from the tractor trailer, and veterinarians predicted more would have died if authorities hadn't rescued them when they did.

The Harmans' attorney, Scott Albers of Great Falls, argued that Lethcoe-Harman cares too much about her dogs to abuse and neglect them. He blamed a series of misfortunes on the dogs' conditions, but said that, at worst, they were merely "hungry, thirsty and needed a bath."

The Harmans were moving their breeding kennel from Nikiski to Arizona at the time of their arrest. They moved last fall to Shelby and then relocated to Great Falls a month or so ago after the dogs were brought there.

Toole County Attorney Merle Raph's task will be to prove to the jury that the Harmans broke the law by carrying or confining their animals in a cruel manner and failing to provide them proper food, drink and shelter. He does not have to prove that they did so intentionally.

"We think it's a pretty strong case," Raph said. He said he and Teton County Attorney Joe Coble, who's helping prosecute, will ask the jury to decide "What's the community standard for treatment of animals?"

The cost of housing and caring for the Harmans' 169 collies, three Stabyhounds, two shelties, one fox terrier and 16 cats is running $1,000 a day, according to Toole County Undersheriff Don Hale. Private donations pay for almost all of the dogs' care, he said, but Toole County Deputy Sheriff Mike Lamey is putting 1,000 miles a week on a cruiser driving to Great Falls each weekday morning to supervise the Harmans' visit to Camp Collie, and two of the county's nine deputy sheriffs have been pulled off their regular duties to prepare for the case full time.

Along with dog food, utilities and security guards, Camp Collie has had to pay for workers compensation insurance to foot the medical bills of volunteers and others who have been injured on the job.

"People have gotten bit by dogs," Hale said. "An elderly gal banged her knuckle on the side of a cage and it turned out to be fractured. A lady twisted her ankle walking a dog. We get lots of (claims)."

Donations to defray the cost of Camp Collie may be sent to the Toole County Community Collie Rescue Fund, First State Bank of Shelby, 260 Main St., Shelby, MT 59474 or to the American Working Collie Association, c/o Bethany Bruke, AWCA treasurer, 2807 Lee Trevino Court, Shalimar, FL 32579.

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