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October 21, 2014

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In court of public opinion, cases involving animals pushed to center stage

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L.E. Baskow

Zzyzx the dog joins the Nevada Political Action for Animals protestor’s rally outside the Clark County Justice Center prior to an appearance by Gloria Lee Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Lee is accused of arson and animal cruelty in connection with a fire at her pet store, Prince and Princess Pet Boutique.

When animals end up at the center of legal battles, they also seemed to be pushed to the center of the public's fascination.

In Clark County, prosecutors and defense attorneys marvel at the attention cases involving animals garner outside the courthouse and in the court of public opinion.

Here are four cases involving animals that have made local and national headlines over the past few years:

    • 'Arson Puppies' case riles community

      While sprinklers may have quickly put out flames inside a Las Vegas pet store earlier this year, the arson case against the shop’s owner has ignited public outrage.

      The case has been making headlines regularly, from fuschia- haired owner Gloria Lee’s first appearance in court, where an animal activist got into a verbal spat with one of Lee’s lawyers, to the capture of Lee’s alleged accomplice Kirk Bills in Indiana by an FBI task force.

      The case also has sparked compassion for the 27 puppies that were rescued from the fire at Prince and Princesses Pet Shop, 6870 S. Rainbow Blvd. More than 1,000 people have called the Animal Foundation, which has been caring for the puppies since the fire, about adopting the “Arson Puppies”, said Meghan Scheibe, marketing and public relations manager for the nonprofit shelter.

      Authorities say security footage from the store shows Lee grabbing files from the store as Bills dumps kerosene on the kennel cages.

      The defendants are charged with more than 30 counts, including arson and attempted animal abuse. Both remain in the Clark County Jail on $310,000 bail.

      Lee is scheduled to go to trial July 7.

      Meanwhile, activists have been warring with Clark County over what should be done with the dogs.

      A civil dispute between Prince and Princess pet store managing owner Donald Thompson, who is not accused in the arson case, and the Animal Foundation is ongoing.

      Thompson wants the dogs to go to a private rescue. The Animal Foundation had planned a raffle to find homes for the puppies.

    • Killing for the thrill

      A 22-year-old gave a harrowing response when his mother demanded to know why he had stabbed his family’s dog, according to an arrest report.

      “Because I wanted to,” Jeremy Espiritu said.

      An officer on the scene intervened, “Because you wanted to?”

      “Yes,” Espiritu replied. “I like to hurt dogs.”

      Espiritu has since pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to kill an animal. Clark County District Court Judge Jerome Tao will decide Espiritu’s fate at sentencing on May 6.

      His stepfather, Jay Vigilia, 43, said his stepson struggled with addiction and undiagnosed mental illness.

      Before arresting Espiritu, the officer asked Espiritu if he was OK and whether he had stabbed the dog, Serenity, in self-defense.

      “Nope. I just wanted to stab the dog,” Espiritu said. “So I sat on the floor and cut its neck.”

      Serenity was transported to an animal hospital, but bled to death.

      Espiritu could get probation or up to four years in prison.

    • Berkeley law students' trip ends in bird beheading

      Eric Cuellar

      Eric Cuellar

      Justin Teixeira

      Justin Teixeira

      A group of Berkeley law students’ booze-fueled vacation turned barbaric in October 2012, costing an exotic bird at the Flamingo Wildlife Habitat its life.

      The men, all students from University of California, Berkeley School of Law at the time of the crime, chased the 14-year-old helmeted guinea fowl named Turk around his enclosure before one of the students tore off the bird’s head with his bare hands.

      Two of the students, Justin Teixeira, whom prosecutors eventually pegged as the decapitator, and Eric Cuellar, were arrested at the hotel after a witness reported the bird’s death to security.

      The witness told security she saw two men walk out of bushes in the habitat with the dead bird, according to the arrest report. Teixeira, who was holding the bird, allegedly threw it toward Cuellar and said, "I (expletive) killed wildlife," the report states.

      While three men could be seen on security footage chasing the bird during his final moments, Turk’s grisly demise happened off camera.

      Metro Police caught a break in the case when additional footage of the incident was uncovered on Cuellar’s cellphone. This led to Metro Police arresting a third man, Hazhir Kargaran.

      Teixeira is in a six-month boot camp program as part of a guilty plea to one felony count of killing another person’s animal. Teixeira returns to court April 14 for sentencing. He will be eligible for probation.

      If Teixeira makes it through boot camp and then gets through probation, which could last anywhere from one to three years, the felony charge could be reduced to a gross misdemeanor.

      The other two men involved have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and have met the requirements of their pleas, according to court officials.

      Cuellar pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a fine and restitution to the Flamingo, and was credited for jail time.

      Kargaran pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors and paid a $1,500 fine.

      “They can be as skunk drunk as they want; it is not an excuse and it is not a defense,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Frank Coumou.

    • This May 9, 2013, photo provided by the city of Henderson shows Onion, a mastiff-Rhodesian ridgeback mix, at the Henderson Animal Care and Control Facility.

      When a dog faces the death penalty

      Animals aren’t always the victims of crimes — sometimes the family pet is the killer at the center of a case.

      Onion, a family dog that tragically killed a 1 year-old boy in April 2012, was released after nearly two years of legal wrangling between Henderson and animal rights advocates.

      An 8-year-old, 120-pound mixed-breed mastiff, Onion belonged to Elizabeth Keller, who acquired Onion as a therapy dog.

      On April 27, 2012, Keller’s grandson, Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan, was celebrating his first birthday. At the end of a long and busy day, according to court documents, Onion was sleeping in a dark room in the house. Jeremiah, went over to Onion to say goodnight, but tripped and fell on the dog.

      Onion grabbed the toddler by his head and shook him for less than a minute, according to court records, but Eskew-Shahan died at the hospital that evening.

      The city of Henderson seized the dog and declared it vicious, scheduling Onion to be euthanized after a 10-day quarantine period. However, animal rights advocates enlisted the help of the Lexus Project, a New York-based organization that finds legal help for animals that face being put down.

      The Lexus Project sued, arguing that the city obtained custody of Onion when Keller was under duress, on the night of the tragic death of her grandchild, and therefore was not the legal owner. The city argued that Keller knowingly signed over her dog and accepted the “vicious” designation.

      The case went to the Nevada Supreme Court, which sided with Onion’s defenders, saying there should have been a hearing about who owned the dog. Before the case could pick back up in Clark County District Court, litigation surrounding Onion was dropped and the dog was permanently relocated to a rescue to avoid dragging out the drama.

      During the 20 months that the court battle played out, Henderson Animal Control kept Onion. Community animal rights advocates protested the dog was languishing with little human contact or ability to move around while the legal maneuvering continued.

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