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New Michigan laws take aim at animal abusers

Lawanda Alford, 38,  pled guilty to animal abuse for the killing of her former boyfriend pets. She received 3 years of probation. Here she appears with her attorney Samuel Churikian for her sentencing at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit, January 17, 2019.

Lawanda Alford was angry with her boyfriend, so she took it out on his pets.

By the time her attack on the animals was done, the Detroit woman had cut her beau's six geckos in half and stabbed the man's pit bull to death.

Her punishment? A 60-day jail sentence, three years of probation and a no-contact order with her boyfriend.

New state laws that take effect next month would have given a judge the ability to give Alford a stiffer sentence.

Police and prosecutors in Michigan are starting to pay more attention to crimes against animals, and legislation signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder late last year increases the maximum penalty for killing or torturing an animal from four years to 10 years in prison. 

The two-bill package also allows judges to sentence offenders who harm or kill animals with the aim of causing emotional distress to another person to as much as 10 years. 

State Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, spent a year and a half trying to get the companion bills through the Legislature.

Brann, who owns a restaurant in his hometown, still recalls a conversation he overheard while busing tables 25 years ago between two young women who were sitting in a booth.

"They said the way to get even with someone is to kill their dog," recalls Brann. "When I came to Lansing, I thought about Booth 99."

He said he hopes Michigan judges will keep the new laws in mind when they sentence defendants who have neglected, harmed or killed animals.

"What this does is tell the judge to take it seriously," said Brann. "This is someone's loved one."

According to an analysis by the Senate Fiscal Agency, animal abusers in Michigan have typically avoided prison terms. "In 2016, there were 40 violations under this offense category with zero offenders sent to prison and five sent to jail," the agency said. 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the new legislation is a step in the right direction.

“The current laws are not sufficient enough to protect animals and hold offenders responsible for their conduct," she said. "We have been working with legislators on changes to the law for seven years. During that time there have been many lawmakers that have been fighting this battle with us, and we are very grateful for their support. This is certainly a positive step forward.”

Most prosecutor's offices don't have separate units for investigation of animal abuse cases. In Wayne County, prosecutors take on animal abuse as part of a specialty division that is staffed by assistant prosecutors in between other cases.

County Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said the Animal Protection Unit "has been able to work successfully with law enforcement and (the Michigan Humane Society) to successfully prosecute these cases. In addition, the APU has become a key resource for animal prosecution questions from around the state and a conduit between WCPO and the community."

Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton agreed on the need for tougher penalties for animal abusers.

"Animal cruelty has been treated as a property crime," said Walton. "(It) is sometimes treated as an afterthought."

In one particularly gruesome case, a Lathrup Village man who was angry with his mother grabbed her dog and beat the animal to death last October. Timothy Crow, 24, was convicted of animal abuse in December and sentenced to six months in the Oakland County Jail.

The prosecutor's office said Judge Leo Bowman of Oakland County Circuit Court was restricted by the law in force at that time in how harshly he could sentence Crow. 

In a sentencing memo, Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor John Pietrofesa said he believed Crow "will remain a danger to society" because of a history of mistreating other animals.

"The defendant stated he punched, kicked, strangled and slammed on the ground (every) pet they had ever owned," Pietrofesa wrote in a presentence memorandum.

"As gruesome as that killing was, an equally disturbing fact was that the defendant video recorded it on his phone," he wrote. "The dog can be seen looking into the cameras as it is dying. It is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen ... it is burned into my memory."

In Macomb County, which is prosecuting multiple abuse cases, Prosecutor Eric Smith said the new laws will help authorities crack down on people who intentionally harm animals.

"Every step toward making animal cruelty or abuse a more serious crime is a positive step," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, (the penalties) are never high enough, judging by what we've seen."

What authorities have seen lately includes the discovery Jan. 24 of a dog that was found stabbed to death under a picnic table in Utica's Grant Park. A trail of blood could be seen between the table and a nearby trash can.

Alexander Gerth, 23, of Shelby Township is charged with killing and torturing an animal. According to police, Gerth killed the two-year-old pit bill mix because he "wasn't getting along with him."

This is the mugshot of Alexander Gerth, who allegedly killed his pitbull named Sterling. He was arraigned in Utica. Photo courtesy Utica Police Dept.

Authorities allege Gerth had applied to adopt the dog from an animal shelter but was denied due to his living arrangements, so he had someone else adopt the animal for him.

The person who adopted Sterling for Gerth will not face charges and is expected to testify against the defendant, according to the prosecutor's office.

Kristina Rinaldi, the executive director and co-founder of Detroit Dog Rescue, said Rinaldi said there is usually a secondary crime discovered when animal abusers are arrested. Typical offenses include domestic violence, possession of child pornography and drug dealing.

"I've been pushing and pushing for animal abuse to be taken more seriously," said Rinaldi. "If someone is torturing an animal, they're a danger to society."


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