Feline cruelty case gets heave-ho

More than two years after authorities raided a Pahrump animal shelter filled with hundreds of sick and starving cats, the criminal case against those responsible for the operation appears to have fallen apart.

Pahrump Justice of the Peace Kent Jasperson dismissed all 18 counts of animal cruelty last week, citing glaring errors by prosecutors.

The Nye County district attorney's office botched the case so badly, said defense attorney Thomas Gibson, that the judge had no choice but to "throw the whole thing out, the baby and the bath water."

And because the statute of limitations has long since expired, it now appears unlikely that anyone will face charges in connection with the shelter, which a national animal rescue group described as "one of the worst cases of institutional animal hoarding ever in the United States."

A Las Vegas group called For the Love of Cats and Kittens, or FLOCK, opened the shelter in 2006 on a dirt lot surrounded by a 12-foot fence at the south end of Pahrump.

When Nye County animal control officers took control of the place in July 2007, they found more than 700 feral cats and strays roaming the grounds, many of them in desperate need of food and medical treatment. A few of the animals had untreated wounds infested with maggots.

The subsequent cat rescue by Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society has been called the largest operation of its kind anywhere in the country. More than 60 of the cats died or had to be euthanized.

As Best Friends officials and other cat lovers screamed for criminal charges, prosecutors waited until June 2008, a few days before the one-year statute of limitations ran out, to file misdemeanor animal cruelty against FLOCK as a corporate entity.

No one was listed by name in connection with the charges, but the criminal complaint left the door open for as many as 200 people to be prosecuted, from volunteers to FLOCK's board of directors.

Then, on Feb. 10, less than 24 hours before the case was finally scheduled for trial, prosecutors filed an amended complaint that listed 10 defendants by name for the first time.

Gibson said none of the people were summoned to appear in court or otherwise notified that they had been charged with crimes that could land them in jail for up to one year on each count.

Jasperson, the judge in the case, said that despite his own personal feelings about the terrible conditions at the sanctuary, he had no choice but to rule the way he did. The statute of limitations ran out a year and eight months before the defendants in the case were finally named, he said.

Since Jasperson dismissed the charges, he said he has received angry e-mail messages from cat lovers across the country.

"Our society is built on the foundation that all persons are innocent until proven guilty," the judge wrote in response to one of the tamer messages he received. "Defendants have to be noticed that they are being charged with a crime, that they have a right to an arraignment hearing, and the right to obtain (counsel) to represent them. None of this was done."

What got Gibson, he said, was that the prosecution showed up for court on the morning of the trial with 14 witnesses in tow and ready to proceed.

"It really pissed me off, the waste of county resources that was spent on this thing they couldn't win," Gibson said. "It was insane -- pure Nye County district attorney's office."

But District Attorney Bob Beckett staunchly defended how the case was handled, and he promised to appeal Jasperson's decision.

"The case is far from over," Beckett said. "They can celebrate all they want, but it just flat-out isn't over."

Specifically, he said the judge should have allowed written arguments for and against the dismissal before simply tossing out a case this important and "disturbing."

In court on Feb. 11, Gibson laid the blame squarely at Beckett's feet.

"He spends a whole lot of time doing absolutely nothing and then at the last minute throws all this stuff on poor deputies, putting the burden on them," Gibson, who worked for Beckett as a prosecutor from 2001 to 2005, told the judge. "If the people at the top of the food chain at that office did their job, we wouldn't be here talking about this today."

The response from Beckett, who was not in the courtroom on Feb. 11: "That's his spin, and he's entitled to that. But that's not the way I see it at all."

As for why the defendants were not named until the afternoon before the trial, Beckett offered varying -- and at times conflicting -- explanations.

Initially, the four-term district attorney said the names were added at the last minute because that's how long it took for investigators to sort out who was really to blame.

Later, though, he said FLOCK officials "absolutely knew who they were and what they were charged with" long before they were named in the amended complaint. His office only decided to reference them by name in an effort to be "fair," he said.

Ultimately, Beckett said, their reasons for naming the defendants when and how they did will be fully explained when they appeal the case to the district court in Pahrump.

"We will thoroughly address this in writing, because obviously there was some confusion," he said.

FLOCK President Maggie Ward said she didn't find out she had been formally charged until after the case was dismissed on Feb. 11.

She took over as the group's president shortly after the rescue at the sanctuary, and she blames FLOCK's troubles on the actions of a few people who are no longer affiliated with the group.

Ward said board members tried to keep tabs on what was happening at the shelter in Pahrump, but the person running it at the time literally locked them out of the facility.

"I remember the day we all walked into the sanctuary and saw what had been done. We all left in tears," she said. "It's a terrible, God-awful thing, and if we could do it over we would have pushed our way through the gates."

FLOCK still operates in Las Vegas, where its members continue to feed and trap feral animals, support spay and neuter programs, solicit donations and hold adoption events at one locally owned pet store.

"We'll never have a sanctuary again," Ward said.

Unless Nye County prosecutors prevail in their appeal, Jasperson and others said that could be the only justice there is for the cats that suffered and died behind a 12-foot fence in Pahrump.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal. com or 702-383-0350.