Differing rules dog animal abuse investigations

Jul. 3—CENTRAL LAKE — Kali Williams, a Phoenix-area reptile enthusiast, called a county sheriff’s office in Arizona, imploring deputies there to conduct an animal welfare check at a property in a rural area known as Golden Valley.

Williams said she had no idea her April 3 call would bolster investigations 2,000 miles away in northern Michigan, where in that same month local authorities found hundreds of dead animals inside a chest freezer.

She just knew her four snakes — Jigsaw, Lucie, Sneck and Big Mama — were missing.

“I went super sleuth,” Williams said, of her efforts to find out what happened to her pets after she said she loaned them to a Golden Valley man on a breeding agreement.

Williams said she is still waiting for answers, and records show her amateur sleuthing helped trigger a state-to-state investigation that has area officials weighing in on difficulties of investigating and prosecuting animal abuse cases.

For example, procedures can differ from state to state from the very first call to law enforcement. Records received from Arizona in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, show Williams called weeks before, and was told by officials the missing snakes sounded like a contract dispute.

Jaime Bemiss, a Grand Traverse County Animal Control supervisor, said such a request called in by a resident here, might also be categorized as a civil dispute, but would prompt an in-person response.

“If they request a welfare check, we would have gone out,” Bemiss said. “As far as what they had agreed on, that’s where the civil case would be. But if she had some type of thought process that the animals could be in harm’s way, you want to check that portion of it out.”

In Arizona, Williams called the sheriff’s office. In Grand Traverse County, animal control operates within the health department, not the sheriff’s office, which Bemiss said can leave animal control officers without access to vital information.

Local animal control officers don’t have access to LEIN — the FBI’s law enforcement database of criminal histories and active warrants — the way police officers and sheriff deputies do, she said.

“We’re going to almost all the same houses that PD (police department) is going to, but we’re going in blind,” Bemis said.

This arrangement is different from state to state and county to county. Bemiss said she works closely with the sheriff’s office, regularly checks in with dispatch and can request a deputy accompany her on calls.

But Bemiss can’t run a criminal history or look for active warrants, and she said it would help if animal control had access to this data.

“Dispatch might tell us to stand down, but they can’t tell us why,” she said. “That tells us that something isn’t right, but we don’t know what it is.”

It was the second tip from Williams that in April helped officials first in Arizona and later in Michigan, make a series of grim and headline-grabbing discoveries — freezers with hundreds of dead animals inside, found at residential properties in Golden Valley and Central Lake, that records show were rented by the same couple.

Bemiss said a similarly-timed complaint was called in by a woman whose dog died after being groomed at a pet salon in Grand Traverse County, and officials were eventually able to link the two investigations.

“We learned about the situation we had, our prosecutor filed charges, then Antrim County investigated the addresses we were given for their county,” Bemiss said. “Everything went in sequence after that.”

Michael Patrick Turland, 43, and Brooklynn Beck, 28, each face multiple animal cruelty charges; Turland in Arizona’s Mohave County Superior Court and Beck in Michigan’s 86th District Court for charges filed in Antrim and Grand Traverse counties.

Arizona records show law enforcement found dogs, rabbits, snakes, a Savannah monitor lizard, a turtle, a cockatoo and three cockatiels inside the freezer in Golden Valley. The dogs, rabbits and birds were emaciated, the report states.

“Michael had been notified that they were being evicted,” a Mohave County incident report states. “He had moved to an unknown address in Michigan. He was planning on coming back for a few items, including the freezer.”

Court records show Beck was initially charged by Antrim County Prosecutor James Rossiter with five felonies in relation to frozen animals found at the Central Lake property, and additional felony charges were added once law enforcement began investigating.

Both have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Beck is out on bond; Arizona court officials said Turland was taken into custody this week on a bond violation, then later released on a new bond.

Traverse City attorney Mattias Johnson, listed in court documents as representing Beck, and Emily Weiss, the Mohave County, Arizona attorney listed in court documents as representing Turland, did not return calls seeking comment.

Bemiss said while cooperation between animal control officers in different Michigan counties is quite good, state-to-state issues are more complicated and access to LEIN while in the field would be helpful.

Both Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg and Capt. Randy Fewless, head of Grand Traverse Sheriff Office’s detective bureau, said for animal abuse and other cases, there is a caveat to how helpful the database can be.

“Active warrants are going to pop up immediately and criminal histories will take longer,” Fewless said. “The information available is only as good as what’s been entered.”

Moeggenberg agreed, and said judges decide whether active warrants travel beyond state lines and prior convictions in other states aren’t necessarily available to a prosecutor, even with access to LEIN, prior to an arraignment.

“Hopefully if there are other convictions in other states they’re on the out-of-state criminal history but that’s not always the case,” she said.

Records from Arizona and Utah do show prior convictions for Beck and Turland in animal-related cases. When shared with Moeggenberg, she said some of these charges were not evident in the LEIN database.

Beck faced 16 charges in Washington County, Utah, in 2017, including owning dogs that attacked and injured one another, owning dogs that disturbed the neighborhood and failed to vaccinate her dogs against rabies.

Records show she later pleaded guilty to four of those charges, completed community service and the remaining charges were dismissed.

In 2019, Beck was convicted of criminal trespass and Turland was convicted of obstruction of justice and assault on a police officer, in relation to an investigation into theft of a flyball dog, records show.

Flyball is a competitive dog sport where four dogs on two teams compete in a relay-style race.

Williams said as part of her ongoing sleuthing, she’s researched how various counties from state to state handle animal abuse cases and share information.

“I don’t know how the courts can’t see these records from one state to the next and let people out on bond,” Williams said. “I’m just a random person and I’m finding all this stuff out.”

Moeggenberg said a lack of records isn’t necessarily the only reason someone in Michigan with a history of animal abuse convictions facing new charges is often granted bond by a judge.

“Jail reform legislation has changed the law and we now have first offense CSC’s out on a PR bond,” Moeggenberg said. “People often don’t like this, but by Michigan statute, animals are seen as property.”

That statute came to the fore in 13th Circuit Court in June, when Judge Kevin Elsenheimer charged an East Bay Township man to six months in jail on felony animal cruelty charges, after more than 160 dogs, many exhibiting signs of severe abuse and neglect, were found in and around the man’s Supply Road home.

The sentence, which Moeggenberg also advocated for, was an upward departure from guidelines calling for three months jail time, Elsenheimer said during a sentencing hearing.

The term “CSC,” Moeggenberg referenced above for comparison, refers in general to a criminal sexual conduct charge, not a conviction, and a PR bond releases a defendant on their promise, or personal recognizance, to appear for future hearings.

The jail reform legislation Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law last year, was aimed at changing the way courts handle “low-level” offenses. For animal abuse to be considered a more serious crime, the state legislature would have to change laws written decades ago, Bemiss said.

Prosecutors can still ask a judge to remand a defendant to jail when there’s evidence they’ve violated bond, present a threat to the public or a specific victim, or are a flight risk, Moeggenberg said.

A previous criminal history can only be used when newly charged crimes relate to previous convictions, Moeggenberg said, which may come into play for Beck

“This one is similar enough that we would attempt to use it if she went to trial,” Moeggenberg said. “It’s a pattern of behavior, not a one-time thing.”

Turland’s case in Mohave County has been bound over to Superior Court and a hearing is scheduled July 6; Beck is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing in 86th District Court July 7, records show.

Williams said she’s found credible information two of her snakes, Jigsaw and Lucie, were likely among the dead animals Mohave County Sheriff’s deputies found in Golden Valley.

Sneck and Big Mama, who Williams described as friendly and “puppy-dog tame” enough to accompany her on elementary school visits, are still missing, she said.

“They were my world,” Williams said. “Jigsaw was the best example I’ve ever seen of a bco (boa constrictor occidentalis). He was just beautiful.”

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