Jury convicts Nikiski couple of 180 counts of animal cruelty in second trial

Posted: Monday, June 02, 2003

ANACONDA, Mont. A Justice Court jury found Jon and Athena Harman of Nikiski guilty of 180 counts each of animal cruelty Saturday for transporting a tractor trailer full of 180 animals, mostly collies, 2,240 miles in filthy and miserable conditions and denying them food and water.

The six-person jury deliberated less than two hours before returning the unanimous verdict at 8 p.m.

The Harmans didn't stick around for the outcome. They left the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County courthouse moments before the jury filed in. Their attorney, Scott Albers, also declined to comment.

An audience of 10 collie lovers burst into cheers and applause. A smiling Toole County Sheriff Donna Matoon, whose deputies arrested the Harmans in November, said, "I'm relieved, very relieved by the verdict."

The five-day trial was the second for the Harmans. They went on trial in Shelby in January, but that jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.

Deer Lodge County jurors filed out without comment except for Denise Scanlon, who said merely, "We feel that justice has been served."

The Harmans were arrested at the Port of Sweet Grass, Mont., on Nov. 1 after U.S. customs inspectors discovered 170 dogs, mostly collies, and 10 cats that authorities said were hungry, dehydrated, diseased and shivering in the truck. One dog was dead of starvation and pneumonia, and veterinarians testified that had the Harmans been allowed to drive on, more dogs would have died before they reached their new home in northeast Arizona.

The Harmans are expected to appeal the verdict to district court. The American Kennel Club automatically suspends breeders convicted of cruelty to animals for 10 years, which would effectively put Lethcoe-Harman out of business.

Teton County Justice of the Peace Pete Howard, who presided over the trial, said he'll set a sentencing date early this week.

The case of the collies and the town of Shelby's care for the dogs, which have been in Toole County custody for seven months has garnered national attention.

The Harmans pleaded not guilty, maintaining that, while they ran into bad luck moving their collie kennel from Nikiski to Arizona, they did not subject their animals to cruelty or negligence.

"Usually with an animal cruelty case you see broken ribs, gashes, problems that are life-threatening," defense attorney Albers told the jury. "All these animals needed was a bowl of food, a bowl of water and a bath."

Prosecutor Joe Coble of Teton County asked jurors not to believe the Harmans' "hocus-pocus." The couple has lied repeatedly about the caliber of care they gave their animals, he said.

"If they had a chance tomorrow, they would put them right back on that truck and they'd do it to 'em again," Coble said.

The Harmans left Nikiski on Oct. 23 and, over nine days, drove an estimated 2,240 miles into Canada's Yukon Territory and down through Alberta. They arrived at the U.S. border around 10:30 on Halloween night.

The couple testified they spent two years planning the trip but suffered misfortune after misfortune chiefly an engine fire that burned up a support vehicle full of dog food and supplies and the loss of a third driver who bowed out only three days into the trip.

Harman, 50, and Lethcoe-Harman, 40, testified they provided for the animals as well as they could under the circumstances.

In fact, they argued, their plan worked until authorities detained them at the border keeping the collies locked up in the trailer for another 18 hours. By the time the animals were removed the following afternoon they were in bad shape, the Harmans agreed, but it wasn't their fault, they said.

Lethcoe-Harman spent several hours on the witness stand Friday and Saturday rebutting veterinarians' claims that her dogs were dehydrated and, in many cases, emaciated.

For example, asked about dog No. 53, whom veterinarians had described as dehydrated and thin with crusty ears and eyes, Lethcoe-Harman said it was nothing food, water, Q-tips and some Visine couldn't cure.

Shown a picture of dog No. 165, whose shaven body exposed a nearly skeletal frame, she explained the dog had "very high energy" and, while he was on a "triple-feeding of puppy food a day," didn't like to eat on the road.

Lethcoe-Harman stood before the jury and beamed as she recalled the prizes her collies have won and the pleasure they have given her.

She denied admitting to Shelby veterinarian Hardee Clark that she had been unable to care for the dogs for three days before reaching the border, as Clark testified earlier in the week.

"I did not say it," Lethcoe-Harman testified vehemently. "It would not have been true. It would have been a lie."

In their closing arguments, Coble and Toole County Attorney Merle Raph counted up the number of witnesses the Harmans contradicted and asked jurors to decide for themselves who was telling the truth. The Harmans lied repeatedly to officials about the number of animals in their truck and claimed to have retrieved dogs that escaped from them from Palmer contradicting an eyewitness who said they drove away, leaving behind as many as a dozen collies.

Coble also questioned whether the Harmans stopped as often as they claimed along the way to feed, water and exercise the dogs. He pointed out that on the final day of their journey, they went 13 hours without once giving the animals a break.

"For 13 hours, those dogs went with no light, water or food, laying in urine and feces," Coble said. The Harmans managed to feed themselves and go to the bathroom during the same period, he said.

"Think about who toughed it out. The animals toughed it out," he told the jury.

Lethcoe-Harman wept from time to time as the trial wound down. An audience of a dozen or so collie lovers listened carefully to the testimony.

Raph was careful to make sure jurors understood they didn't have to find the Harmans guilty of every element of Montana's animal cruelty law. They could be found guilty merely of carrying or confining the animals in a cruel manner or of failing to provide them with proper food, drink or shelter, he said.

After the Harmans' first trial, the jury forewoman said jurors misinterpreted their instructions and thought they had to find the couple guilty of every component of the law.

The case of the collies prompted the state legislature to toughen the state law this spring, but the new language doesn't apply in this case.

Unlike the Toole County jury, which scribbled copious notes during the first trial, the Deer Lodge County jurors didn't take a single note. They absorbed the testimony stoically, giving no indication of their sentiments except for a lone occasion when one juror gaped open-mouthed at 8-by-10-inch photos of the Harmans' truck.

For seven months now, Toole County has had custody of and responsibility for the collies, five other dogs and what's now 16 cats. A month ago the animals were transported to a metal warehouse in Great Falls. The Marias fairgrounds outside Shelby needed to reclaim the 4-H barn the collies had been housed in, and volunteers who had devoted up to 30 hours a week to the dogs were worn out.

Private donations have borne the cost of Camp Collie, which currently runs $1,000 a day, according to Toole County Undersheriff Don Hale.

Camp Collie volunteer Sandy Newton of Helena, who sat through most of the trial, called the verdict "a victory for the dogs."

"That's the best way to put it," fellow volunteer Candy Kirby of Helena chimed in as she wiped away tears.

Forty more volunteers who were dining at Jaker's in Great Falls whooped and hollered when they learned of the verdict.

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

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