Nikiski couple ordered to give up animals

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. After seven long months, Camp Collie will soon be history.

Convicted collie abusers Jon and Athena Harman of Nikiski agreed Friday to relinquish almost all of their 191 animals and waive their right to appeal, a process that could have dragged out the case up to 15 more months.

The Harmans get to keep a Siamese cat, a short-haired collie and a fox terrier.

In return for throwing in the towel, the Harmans were given 10-year suspended jail terms. They don't have to pay any fines, nor do they have to reimburse the tens of thousands of dollars donated by private citizens from across the United States to pay for the collies' care.

The jointly recommended sentence cobbled together by the state and the defense spares Toole County the monumental task of supervising the dogs' care through another winter and summer.

It also means that, in a matter of weeks, the animals found dehydrated, emaciated, matted with urine and feces, full of parasites and shivering in the Harmans' 18-wheeler last November can finally be adopted to loving homes.

"I think it's wonderful and now we can go forward," collie volunteer Mayme Ober said outside the courtroom, her eyes brimming with happy tears. "The dogs deserve a better life."

The agreement was reached one day after the American Kennel Club confirmed it would suspend Athena Lethcoe-Harman for 10 years and fine her $2,000 in the wake of her animal-cruelty conviction. With or without the AKC's stamp of approval, her reputation as a breeder was in tatters.

Neither Lethcoe-Harman nor her husband chose to make any remarks in court. Presiding Justice of the Peace Pete Howard of Teton County had several to make, however.

For 10 minutes, while a standing-room-only crowd looked on, Howard delivered a scathing condemnation of the Harmans' behavior, saying he, too, would have convicted the couple had the decision been left to him.

Toole County authorities arrested the Harmans Nov. 1 after U.S. customs inspectors discovered the animals in the tractor trailer when they tried to enter the country at the Canada-Sweet Grass, Mont., border.

A Justice Court jury in Anaconda, Mont., found the couple guilty a week ago of 180 counts each of misdemeanor cruelty to animals.

Howard took over the case at Toole County Justice Janice Freeland's request after the Harmans' first trial in Shelby in January ended in a mistrial. The six-member jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

Howard questioned the truthfulness of the Harmans' testimony on the witness stand and said the conditions they imposed on their animals were "pretty horrific and unconscionable."

He said he trusted veterinarians when they testified that the heavy matting of the dogs' hair, the giardia and hookworms that infected them and their pungent stench were chronic conditions, not something they acquired on their nine-day, 2,240-mile trip from Nikiski to the Montana border.

Howard inspected the poorly ventilated tractor trailer for the first time Friday morning when he drove to Shelby to conduct the sentencing, he said.

He called it "an abomination."

"I wouldn't have wanted to have ridden across town in that truck," he said.

He particularly scolded the Harmans for failing even once to thank the hundreds of volunteers who have spent time and money taking care of their animals.

"Shame on you," Howard said more than once.

Collie volunteers seated in the courtroom wept as Howard reminded the defendants of two time-honored axioms: first, that "Man's best friend is his dog," and, second, "To have a friend, man must first be one."

"You were not a friend to your dogs," the judge told the Harmans. "Your dogs did not have a friend."

The Harmans showed no signs of remorse at his comments. When the hearing ended, Lethcoe-Harman held her head high and, with a fixed gaze, strode out of the courtroom, her husband a couple of feet behind her.

They ignored requests for comment and disappeared up a flight of stairs with their attorney, Scott Albers.

Lethcoe-Harman's parents, Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, sat in the second row and later accompanied the couple to Camp Collie Great Falls, where they retrieved the animals returned to them by the sentencing agreement.

Toole County Attorney Merle Raph said afterward he wasn't entirely satisfied with the compromise. But it wouldn't have been realistic to try to retain custody of the dogs another 12 to 15 months, said Teton County Attorney Joe Coble, who helped prosecute the case.

"Their care is excellent. It couldn't be better," Coble said. "But they need homes."

At Camp Collie, 24-year-old volunteer Stephanie Fox agreed.

"It takes so much to care for these dogs," she said inside the cavernous warehouse where the sight of a collie coming in from a walk touched off a thunderous round of barking. "It was such a relief to hear these guys are going to get to go to good homes."

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

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