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PETA workers found guilty... of littering

In the last issue of OUR CATS, we reported on the first four days of the trial of two workers from the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – PETA – in Hertford County, North Carolina, USA after discarding the bodies of euthanised dogs and cats in a dumpster behind a Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

Adria J. Hinkle, of Norfolk, Virginia, and Andrew B. Cook, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, are charged with 21 counts each of animal cruelty, a felony that can carry a prison sentence, along with charges of littering and obtaining property by false pretences.

After a trial lasting ten days, Hinkle and Cook were found guilty, but only of the lesser charges of ‘littering’ and illegal dumping of the animals’ bodies. They were found not guilty of animal cruelty. There were plenty of surprises and revelations in the remaining six days, extracts of which are reproduced here.

Police Testimony

On Day 5 of the trial (Friday, January 26) District Attorney Valerie Asbell started the questioning of five law enforcement officers about their roles in the investigation and arrest of Hinkle and Cook. First was Bertie County Sergeant Ed Pittman, who recounted how Animal Control Officer Barry Anderson described the relationship between his animal shelter and PETA:

“He [Anderson] informed me that the PETA employees would come into our county on either Wednesdays or Thursdays, and pick up animals and carry them back to their place of business in Norfolk ... And the ones that were able to be adopted would be put up for adoption. I then asked him: Did the same employees come each week? And he said that no, different employees came on different weeks.”

Defence attorneys had appeared reluctant to argue that PETA employees other than Adria Hinkle regularly did exactly what got her arrested. On the one hand, they did not want to promote the idea that she made a weekly habit of personally destroying animals that she picked up on behalf of PETA, but on the other hand this raised the question as to how many other PETA employees made similar runs with similar outcomes?

Bertie County Detective Tommy Northcott testified about his role in the surveillance of PETA’s van. And he testified that he had no idea the van Hinkle was driving belonged to PETA until he “ran the licence plates” - after Hinkle and Cook had already picked up a cat and two kittens in Ahoskie which wee swiftly and then dumped by Hinkle.

Fellow Detective Frank Timberlake first stopped PETA’s van after Hinkle and Cook made their June 15, 2005 dumpster run e. He related his conversation with Hinkle: “She asked me why I had stopped the van, and I explained to her that detectives - Ahoskie detectives - believed that they’d just dumped dead dogs in the dumpster behind the Piggly Wiggly, located there at the Ahoskie Newmarket Shopping Centre. Miss Hinkle replied to me that she didn’t know that there was anything wrong with that.”

Ahoskie Animal Hospital receptionist Teresa “Reesie” Ray, a grandmotherly 21-year veteran of the hospital (took the stand and explained the relationship between PETA and her employer. While PETA paid for the hospital’s Dr Patrick Proctor to spay and neuter local strays, the group had been picking up animals from the hospital for several years.

Asbell: “Ms Ray, prior to that day [June 15, 2005], had you ever contacted the PETA organization before, to come and get animals from the Ahoskie Animal Hospital?”

Ray: “Yes, I had.”

Asbell: “And who actually initiated contact between the Ahoskie Animal Hospital and the PETA organisation?”

Ray: “I don’t really remember how. It’s been going on for, since, well, several years before … We would call, and they would come pick up animals that people couldn’t keep, and take them back - we thought - for adoption.”

Asbell: “Had anything ever been represented to you by anybody at PETA or this defendant before, that they didn’t find homes for animals?”

Ray: “No.”

Asbell: “So you were specifically calling the organization to help pick up animals and find homes for them?”

Ray: “Yes.”

Asbell: “Was that always your understanding?”

Ray: “Yes.”

Asbell: “Each time anybody from PETA came down to pick up animals?”

Ray: “Yes.”

Next, she described Adria Hinkle’s reaction on June 15, 2005, when a veterinary technician named Tonya gave her a cat and two kittens to take back to Norfolk:

Ray: “Adria took them, and she held the carrier up like this, and she said ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have any trouble finding homes for them.’”

Asbell: “After she said that, or before she said that, what did you think Ms. Hinkle was going to do when she carried the cat and the two kittens out?”

Ray: “I thought she was going to take them and try to find homes for them.”

Asbell: “And - had you thought she was going to do anything otherwise, would you have handed those kittens over to her?”

Ray: “No. I wouldn’t have called them [PETA] in the beginning.”

Despite aggressive cross-examination by defence lawyer Blair Brown, Ray didn’t flinch or deviate from her account of events:

Brown: “You knew that there was no guarantee that PETA was going to find homes for these cats.”

Ray: “If I had known they were not going to even try, I would never have called them.”

Brown: “There was no guarantee that they were going to find homes for those cats.”

Ray: “No there was no guarantee, but I thought they would at least have given them a chance.”
One of Ray’s co-workers, a veterinary technician named Susan Dunlow, testified about the moment when Tonya first showed Adria Hinkle the cat and two kittens:

“Tonya held up the carrier to, like, face level. And Adria was looking into the carrier, saying ‘Oh! They’re so cute!’ At that point, Tonya was telling her that we’ve had them for several weeks, they were very socialised, they were very healthy, and that we hoped they would be able to find homes for them. At that point, Adria said ‘We shouldn’t have any problems finding homes for these kittens. They’re absolutely gorgeous! Do they have names?’”


Hinkle and Cook - together with their lawyers - embrace after the verdicts were delivered.

Later, when Asbell showed her an evidence photo of the dead felines found in the PETA-owned van Hinkle was driving, Dunlow burst into tears. A bailiff was nearby with tissues, and Dunlow regained her composure, but some jurors also appeared distressed at the photographs.

On Day 6, after legal wrangling over the defence’s unsuccessful motion to dismiss all charges, PETA lawyer Jack Warmack began presenting his client’s case. But it didn’t turn out quite the way he intended.

The defence called Susan Belch, a former police officer who volunteered at the Bertie County animal shelter for a few months in 2000. Belch has since left law enforcement and now works as a truck driver. She testified that she hasn’t been back to the animal shelter since the summer of 2000.

Belch testified for an hour - aided by projected enlargements of her own snapshots - about the deplorable conditions in the shelter more than six years ago. Then images were quite horrific, as were Belch’s descriptions of conditions within the shelter. The court heard about dead animals, unsanitary conditions, and blood left behind when an officer decided to dispatch an unruly dog with his sidearm.

But in less than 15 minutes, the prosecution reminded the jury that the shelter was completely transformed between 2000 and 2005, ironically, largely at PETA’s expense. Shown pictures of the shelter as it was just 19 months ago, however, Belch could hardly believe her eyes.
“I almost didn’t recognise it,” she told the jury. “It looks a lot better.”

Hearsay

The biggest confrontation of the morning on Day 7 concerned the Hearsay rule. PETA’s lawyers had been trying to show - without any credible evidence thus far - that Bertie County Animal Control Officer not only knew PETA was killing his animals, but asked them to do it.


The defence lawyers produced a report, supposedly written by one of PETA’s director of domestic animal programs Daphna Nachminovitch’s fieldwork employees, which described Shelter Chief Anderson asking for PETA’s help injecting an animal with something.

However, as the assertion was hearsay, Nachminovitch wasn’t allowed to read it in open court. The defence couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say who wrote the report - only that the person no longer works for PETA - and North Carolina law requires that this person be “trustworthy.” Since nobody could say who he or she was, the question of trustworthiness was an open one.

Strays Fair Game?

PETA manager Daphna Nachminovitch returned to the witness stand at 9.30am on Day 8. District Attorney Valerie Asbell picked up where she left off with her cross-examination, with questions relating to the Virginia law that governs animal shelters (of which PETA is technically one) as to how long animals should be held before being euthanised:

Asbell: “Do you agree that it says that ‘an animal confined pursuant to this section shall be kept for a period of not less than five days, such period to commence on the day immediately following the day the animal is initially confined in the facility, unless sooner claimed by the rightful owner thereof.’? Do you agree with that?”

Nachminovitch: “That’s what it states.”
Nachminovitch maintained that this entire law only applies to stray animals. She offered no proof for this. It was pointed out that there were some exceptions to this law. If an animal is critically injured or ill, the Virginia Code says it can be euthanized “for humane purposes” right away.

Animals that pose an immediate threat to people are also not subject to a waiting period. And, we learned, there’s a third exception. “Immediate euthanasia and disposal” is permitted for...
“… an animal that has been released to a pound, animal shelter, other releasing agency, or animal control officer by the animal’s rightful owner after the rightful owner has read and signed a statement (i) surrendering all property rights in such animal, (ii) stating that no other person has a right of property in the animal, and (iii) acknowledging that the animal may be immediately euthanized or disposed of…”

However, the state of North Carolina apparently has no similar law. And PETA admitted that it hadn’t been collecting signed waivers for animals it collects in North Carolina.

Nachminovitch: “It is our policy to have a consent form signed. But our legal counsel has researched this issue, and the State of North Carolina does not require give-up forms to be signed.”

Asbell: “Are you stating that you, as the PETA organization, do not have to follow the rules of Virginia just because you come down to North Carolina and take animals?”


Nachminovitch: “I’m saying that on the advice of counsel, we have give-up forms signed as a matter of policy. But in the State of North Carolina, animals taken into our custody are not subject to a mandatory surrender form.”

Asbell: “Where’s the form that Pat Proctor, or anybody from the Animal Hospital signed on June 15, 2005.”

Nachminovitch: “There was not a consent form.”

Asbell: “Any reason for that?”

Nachminovitch: “I don’t know the reason for that.”

At this point, Asbell pulled out a trump card. Over defence lawyers’ objections, she introduced an Inspection Report into evidence. This was dated June 30, 200, concerning an inspection of PETA’s headquarters by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).
Nachminovitch testified that she was present when the inspection was conducted. It happened just 15 days after Hinkle and Cook were arrested.


Asbell referred to page four of this report - which Nachminovitch herself initialled and signed in several places - on which the VDACS inspector apparently told PETA that it had to obey the law dictating that “animals held require a holding period.”

Again, Nachminovitch claimed that this didn’t refer to any animals handed over willingly by their rightful owners, but she conceded moments later that those “rightful owners” might include Dr Proctor at the Ahoskie Animals Hospital.

Making matters even more confusing, when Nachminovitch insisted that it was PETA’s policy to get a signed consent from when accepting animals from people - and Judge Cy Grant asked if he could see what one looked like - nobody on the defence’s legal team could produce one. And Nachminovitch admitted that on the day of Hinkle and Cook’s arrest, there were no copies of it in their van.

The remaining days of the trial centred largely on legal arguments as to whether Hinkle and Cook needed licences to carry ‘controlled substances’ to dispatch he animals with, and whether they were legally entitled to kill healthy animals as opposed to sick ones.

Receipts were produced to show that PETA had bought a giant, walk-in freezer to store dead animals’ bodies at its headquarters and also had a contract with a nearby pet crematorium for the disposal of the bodies – obviously not those dropped in dumpsters. All the evidence pointed to PETA having little or no intention of rehoming any animals taken into its ‘care’ from animal shelters.

The defence and prosecution rested and closing summaries were given. At the beginning of the trial, each defendant faced 21 felony Animal Cruelty counts, three felony counts of Obtaining Property By False Pretences, and seven misdemeanour counts of Littering. However, Judge Cy Grant adjusted things considerably, stating that the jury would only consider eight animal-cruelty counts against each defendant - and these would be the “lesser included” misdemeanour offences, not felonies.

Grant threw out the Obtaining Property By False Pretences charges against Cook, but kept them against Hinkle. And he consolidated the littering charges to one count each, reasoning that any alleged illegal disposal of animal bodies was carried out in a single act.

Verdict

After three-and-a-half hours deliberation on Day 10, the jury returned “Not Guilty” verdicts on everything except the littering charges. But even those were high-level misdemeanours, not as minor as they might initially seem.

Judge Grant sentenced Hinkle and Cook to a year’s supervised probation, 50 hours of community service, and a suspended ten-day jail term, together with a $1,000 fine apiece. They were also ordered to pay $5,970 in restitution for the town’s expenses in cleaning the crime scene, burying the animals, and storing the van. The van would not be returned to PETA, as the town of Ahoskie had confiscated it.

Many media commentators pointed out that Hinkle and Cook had escaped relatively lightly, thanks to their lawyers arguing successfully that they were not cruel in carrying out the euthanasia of the animals. However, PETA’s agenda had been revealed to the wider media and the trial would surely have damaged their credibility as an animal welfare organisation.

Internal Investigation

After the trial it emerged that an internal investigation by PETA showed it was likely that other PETA workers tossed animals into the same Bertie County Dumpster where Ahoskie police caught Adria Hinkle and Andrew Cook, according to a top PETA director.

For the first time since police arrested Hinkle and Cook in June, 2005, Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s director of domestic animal programmes talked openly and frankly on local TV news about the “life-altering” experience, including the steps she and PETA leaders have taken since.
“There is just not a chance that something like this will ever happen again,” said.

In her own testimony Thursday, Hinkle had told the jury she was responsible for just two of the four times where police found bagged dog and cat carcasses in a grocery-store Dumpster. Hinkle said she did not tell other employees about the Dumpster.


Nachminovitch said, for legal reasons, she never sat down with Hinkle to ask for a full accounting of what happened. However Nachminovitch said that the Bertie County episodes expanded beyond Hinkle.

“The only thing I can figure is that when she did it the first time, there was someone with her who then went on the other trips,” Nachminovitch said. “That is the only thing I have been able to figure because I had been wondering the same thing.”

Nachminovitch said she was “elated” by the court victory but has never been able to fathom what led one of her most compassionate and trusted workers to the Dumpster in the first place.
“I’ve been trying to explain that for a year and a half,” she said. “I couldn’t explain it. There is no reasonable explanation for it.

All I can surmise is during that period of time, two people did it together, somebody went back, and then somebody went back, and nobody ever told me or anyone else in a position of authority. So we weren’t able to stop it. We just didn’t know.
“There is no possible excuse for having done that,” she said.

Nachminovitch said those responsible either left the organization or were asked to leave.
“I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that anybody who was responsible for something like that is no longer here,” she said.

By NICK MAYS, Chief Reporter