A woman whose 70 dogs and cats were seized from her by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas was acquitted by an Upshur County Court jury Wednesday of a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge.
The six-member jury deliberated just under an hour before finding Linda Darlene Luker, 56, of Big Sandy, not guilty of a charge of “failing to provide a sanitary and adequate” living environment for the animals under her care.
The SPCA and law officers confiscated 64 dogs, six cats and a horse from Luker and another woman from a Gladewater area address on a private road last May 8. Two judges, including the one who presided over the two-day criminal trial (County Judge Dean Fowler), had subsequently upheld awarding custody of the animals to the society in civil hearings, with Fowler finding they had been cruelly treated.
In this week’s subsequent criminal proceeding, however, Luker’s attorneys presented testimony from three Upshur County veterinarians and one of her neighbors in an attempt to refute SPCA employees’ testimony that the animals were in inadequate, unsanitary conditions, and that several were diseased or underweight.
The defense also indicated that SPCA staff veterinarian Dr. Terri Stevenson’s testimony as to how many dogs were underweight conflicted with SPCA technicians’ written records of their findings.
Lead defense attorney Andy Tefteller, assisted by his brother, Gilmer attorney Jarom Tefteller and Longview attorney Edward Choy, portrayed Luker as a kind-hearted woman who for nine and a half years had run a shelter for stray animals nobody else wanted.
“In no way could her treatment of these animals be considered cruel,” and the “irony” is that “the experts in this area are on Linda’s side,” Andy Tefteller told jurors before testimony opened.
Upshur County Assistant District Attorney Camille Henson presented more than 100 exhibits, including individual photographs of the animals and a video with sound which was taken during the seizure. Henson argued Luker “failed to provide them with adequate care.”
The prosecutor also said some animals were caged in a room without lighting, and that Luker had refused help offered to her by Jacqui Lynch, a city of Longview senior animal control officer who testified for the prosecution during the two-day trial.
Henson additionally argued there was no evidence the cluttered property where the dogs were housed had been cleaned. In her opening statement to jurors, she said Upshur County Pct. 1 Constable Gene Dolle would testify that conditions at Luker’s rented residence on a private road in the Union Grove vicinity were “nothing short of deplorable.”
The seizure stemmed from the constable going to the property to serve an eviction notice last May. He testified that he noticed several dogs tied up, and that Luker said she had “about 50 or more,” but denied his request to go inside the property, which had a warehouse-like structure.
Dolle, first of the state’s six witnesses, came under strong fire from Choy, who told the constable that “everything you’ve testified to is contrary to what’s in” a report on the case, and at one point told Dolle, “I’ve gone through all your reports with a fine-tooth comb. Would you please stop lying?”
The second state witness, former Humane Society of East Texas Executive Director Scott Holloway, said he visited the property in question last May 5 at the request of the other woman who owned the animals, Carol Pinckert. He quoted her as saying the legal system had indicated to her that “she had to remove the dogs from the property.”
Holloway said animal control officers and a humane society relocation coordinator accompanied him to the site. The witness, who said he was a certified kennel operator, testified it was “totally inadequate” that only one person (Luker) was taking care of so many animals and that he visited the site to see how many could be salvaged.
He said Luker admitted him and the others on the property, which he termed “filthy” and so cluttered that it was “difficult to find a pathway that was clear.”
In addition, Holloway said, cages “looked small for the animals they were supposed to be accommodating,” and that he could “barely come up with four or five animals,” of the dozens at the site, which could be relocated in rescues
SPCA representatives did not testify what happened to the dogs and cats once they were seized and taken to McKinney, and Holloway testified he did not know. The prosecution alleged Luker committed animal cruelty on or about May 5, the date of his visit.
The next state witness, Lynch, said she visited the property several times and that Dolle had asked for her to go with him due to “animal concerns.” She said she saw Luker last May 10 and “offered to get some of the rescue groups involved but she denied my help.”
Lynch said junk and litter were piled more than five feet high in the warehouse, which had feces and urine on the floor, and that there were “little makeshift pathways” to the rear of the property.
Lynch said the animals were living in conditions that “were not healthy, were not sanitary.”
Another witness, SPCA Cruelty Investigator Troy Willmon, said he took photographs at the property, which had junk, clutter, and “dirty debris,” and that some caged dogs were kept in a dark room without lighting.
“Conditions were not just unsanitary,” but “unsafe” for animals’ longevity of life, Willmon testified. He also said one person could not care for 71 animals.
Art Munoz Jr., supervisor of the SPCA investigatons unit and an employee of the Dallas County district attorney’s office, testified about his visit to the property during the seizure, and the jury saw a video he made which featured loud barking from dogs. He said the environment (where dogs were kept in crates, cages and pens) was not sanitary.
Dr. Stevenson said that when she went to the property for the seizure, “it was really cluttered” and she “had to step over stuff.” She said there was no room for some confined animals to do anything but “sit there,” and that she did not believe Luker was providing a sanitary, adequate living environment.
She agreed with other witnesses that there were too many animals on the site for one person to care for. She also said about 10 percent of the animals needed medical issues addressed right away and that 36 percent were underweight, but acknowledged she did not weigh them.
Stevenson said she believed Luker was feeding the animals, and that their lack of weight was due to worms.
But when Andy Tefteller began asking the veterinarian about individual pictures of the dogs, which were displayed on a large screen, Stevenson acknowledged that in two cases where she had contended the dogs were underweight, an SPCA technician had written the animals had ideal body weight.
At one point, Tefteller said “We’ve gone through one-third of them (the pictures) and I think I’ve made my point” that none were underweight. Dr. Stevenson replied that the written records from the technicians were “not my assessment.”
When Tefteller asked her to look at records and see how many were shown to be underweight, she contended, “Some of these are definitely underweight, but they’re marked as ideal.”
Tefteller then said the technicians had shown all but two of the animals to have ideal body weight.
Replied Stevenson, “They were incorrectly marked, in my assesment.” She argued that technicans “don’t have the years of training that I do” and need education in the area of evaluating weight.
The first defense witness, Luker’s former neighbor Clint Coleman, said the animals had shelter, hay and bedding and that the pictures left no doubt in his mind the dogs were receiving care.
They did not appear to be living in unsanitary conditions, he added.
The first veterinarian to testify for the defense, Dr. Clint Owens IV (son of a longtime Gilmer and now Gladewater veterinarian), said he had been to Luker’s property last April to run a blood test on her horse and vaccinate four of her dogs at her request. Owens, who runs a mobile veterinary practice, said he saw no indication she was cruel to the animals, and charged it was “ridiculous” she was on trial. He also said the animals’ environment was sanitary and adequate.
Responding to the SPCA findings that some of the dogs had hair loss, heartworms and possible ear infections, Owens said strays have those more than house dogs.
He said the SPCA’s papers and the pictures showed Luker’s animals to be in “pretty good shape.” He further said he did not think “clutter and dust and cobwebs” are “a threat to their health,” nor that 71 animals were too many for one person to handle.
Owens also said he was not being paid for his testimony. “I’m actually losing money” by being in court rather than working, he said.
Gilmer area veterinarian Dr. Robert Wright, who said he once worked for the SPCA and had worked in 160 veterinary clinics during his 19 years in his profession, said he had thoroughly gone through the SPCA records of the seized animals and “I see no indication that those animals were cruelly treated. They look healthy.”
He said he did not think Luker had committed a crime. He said he had been to her home 10 years ago, but no since.
Wright also termed the SPCA a business which makes money. “They’re a private organization,” he said.
Dr. Cherie Nazzal, a Gilmer veterinarian for the past 30 years, testified she personally knew Luker, who had brought 50 dogs and some cats to her, and that she had been to Luker’s home multiple times. Nazzal said, “I feel so sorry for this girl. She is a good, good person.”
Nazzal said Luker’s animals did not live in the cages, but were rotated. “She had a system and she knew how to use it,” the veterinarian said.
“The care she gave them was excellent, honestly,” she said. She said she had seen Luker attempt to clean up animal feces and, when asked if the defendant committed a crime, Nazzal replied, “Oh, my gosh, no.”
Asked if the animals’ conditions were adequate and sanitary, she said “the clutter is secondary,” and that Luker took better care of the animals than of herself.
In his closing argument to jurors, Andy Tefteller opened by quoting Sam Houston as saying “Do right and suffer consequences.” He said Luker had tried to do right by taking in animals no one wanted, and that testimony showed she used all her money on them and “neglected herself. Yet she’s on trial for being cruel to these animals when she was the only one that cared about them in the first place?
“Now they want to convict her of a crime for doing a public service,” Tefteller asserted. “The only friends that she had was these dogs and cats.”
He also charged that “a hit squad from Dallas (the SPCA)” had been sent to her property and that they were “paid, by the way, to do it.” He pointed out that unlike Luker, the SPCA was not a no-kill shelter.
Tefteller additionally argued that three respected local veterinarians “seemed not to think she did anything wrong.”
In her closing argument, Henson said “We’re here for the animals.” She said she did not think Luker “is a terrible person,” but “trying’s not good enough, always.”
Following the verdict, Luker, who did not testify in the case, referred a request for comment to Tefteller. He said, “I want to thank the jury for having the courage to do what was right and I hope this was a message that you can do right and not have to suffer the consequences.”
He also thanked the veterinarians who testified for Luker for “having the courage to tell the truth,” and added, “Apparently, the citizens of Upshur County have a conscience.”
Henson referred a request for comment on the case to District Attorney Billy Byrd, who did not take part in the prosecution. Dolle meanwhile, said“I want to thank the jury for their time, their efforts and all of the hard work they put in.”
He also expressed special thanks for the cooperation of the SPCA in McKinney in the case.