The Cat Did It: WilCo off the Hook in Shelter probe

Animals blamed in abuse case (and for squealing to the pigs)

The Cat Did It: WilCo off the Hook in Shelter probe
Illustration by Doug Potter

Blame the victim, shoot the messenger, shift the focus, and stall as long as possible.

Judging by a case report issued in May by the Williamson Co. Sheriff's Office, that strategy dominated the county's protracted, 10-month probe into allegations of animal cruelty and neglect at the Williamson Co. Regional Animal Shelter. But WilCo Sheriff Detective John Foster is quick to defend his office's investigation, which effectively found nothing amiss at the shelter despite a series of animal deaths that sparked outcries from animal rights activists across Texas. "The case was not taken lightly," he told the Chronicle. "No time limit was given."

The investigation began in June 2007, after shelter volunteer Lori Rogowski and animal rights activist Ruthann Panipinto filed a complaint with County Constable Gary Griffin's office, which included photos of caged cats, either dead or ailing and languishing in their own waste. District Attorney Jana Duty's office immediately transferred the case to the sheriff's office and many months later, advised investigators that "there was not sufficient evidence for a prosecutable violation of the law," according to an April 1 notice concluding the case. "This was not an investigation," countered Austin attorney Bill Ale­shire, whom Rogowski and Panipinto retained to monitor the probe. "The courthouse gang took care of themselves."

From its inception, the investigation seemed to hold culpable not the shelter but a dead cat, photographed in chilling death masque, in a state of decomposition, in a tiny blue box. Detective D. Hancock's first instinct, based on his report of a softball interview of former shelter Director Dana Boehm (who was later convicted on unrelated theft charges), was that the cat had sealed its own fate by its own behavior. "If a cat was to get aggressive in the box, the door could have easily fallen down," Hancock deduced in the report, implying that the cat's entrapment was an accident. He didn't address Rogowski and Panipinto's main concern, though: that the cat could have fought for its life for days, possibly eventually expiring due to a lack of food and water, a chronic problem, they told investigators, they had witnessed at the shelter. On the whole, the crux of the complaint held that the shelter lacked adequate staff, medicine, and euthanasia fluid, and that it neglected to provide basic health and hygiene needs. Activists charged that these conditions were causing an animal death per day.

But investigators saw nothing out of the ordinary at the shelter, according to the report. The sheriff's office apparently gave Boehm a pass, too – not even touching on the concerns of staff and volunteers that Boehm had dispensed her own euthanasia fluid, possibly because the county's license reportedly wasn't in effect yet, and had demanded that adoption fees be paid in cash only. As reported in the Chronicle ("Dying Alone in Williamson County," July 6, 2007), County Treasurer Vivi­an Wood said her office had to demand and physically fetch those payments, because the shelter failed to submit them in a timely fashion. Foster confirmed that no such concerns figured into the probe. The niece of former WilCo Commissioner Frankie Lim­mer, Boehm apparently enjoyed kid-glove treatment by WilCo officials, even following her arrest Aug. 15, 2007, on charges of forging an employer's endorsement on a $3,270 IRS refund check. Upon the district attorney's referral for a reduction, she was convicted of misdemeanor theft on April 15, 2008. Aleshire described such political cronyism as severely compromising the cruelty investigation.

By contrast, investigators did conduct extensive, hardball interviews with Rogowski and Panipinto after a confidential informant, referred to only as "CSI" in the report, impugned their records as volunteers and blamed them for all the "bad press." "The report included slanderous comments about my client Lori Rogowski, without even checking the accuracy of those statements, while protecting the identity of the person who made those slanderous comments," Aleshire said. Moreover, the report alludes to Rogow­ski's photos but offers no analysis of their relevance to the case.

Asked about the photos, Foster dismissed them as inconclusive – claiming, for example, that investigators cannot determine whether a subject is dead based on photos of the body (curiously negating the evidentiary significance of crime-scene photos, Griffin observed). Griffin, a former animal control officer, flatly told the Chronicle: "The photographs depicted animal cruelty," adding that his first question would have been, "Where's the cat?" No autopsy was performed on the cat, in fact; according to the report, the corpse was whisked away even before Boehm had a chance to examine it. To investigators, Boehm faulted volunteers: "Dr. Boehm stated the protocol at the shelter was to leave the deceased animal in place until she could look at it. Dr. Boehm stated this was not followed in either instance," the report states. However, when interviewed last year by the media, Boehm gave the distinct impression she had looked over the cats by announcing they had died of "natural causes."

According to Foster, 500 hours of real-time surveillance video (recorded after the complaint was filed) vindicated shelter personnel, though he said he'd not seen Rogowski's photos or videos. But the two cats mentioned in the police report died long before the videos were recorded. "I reviewed surveillance video ... starting on 7-3-07 ... and ending on 7-20-07. I did not observe any criminal activity, suspicious activity or animal cruelty in this video," the report states. There are no June videos, because the system loops and erases footage every two weeks, Foster said. "If it weren't so sad, this case would have made a funny segment of the Keystone Cops," Aleshire added.

Shortly after the 2007 complaint was filed, veterinarian Beverlee Nix of the Department of State Health Services Region 7 wrote in an e-mail to the Chronicle that the allegations of neglect were "old news," but she philosophized that "the truth was somewhere in between or lost in the sensationalism of the events." On July 17, 2007, Nix performed an "unannounced" inspection that she in fact had arranged in advance with the sheriff's office and found no infractions, though she recommended corrections to rabies quarantine measures.

To Aleshire and the activists, the truth surrounding the cats' demise was indeed lost in transit, during the lax, languorous sheriff's investigation. But the report has reignited furor over the case. Animal rights advocate Audrey Moses told the Chronicle: "Unlike a lot of people I have spoken with, I was surprised by the outcome of the 'investigation.' I guess I am an idealist and thought justice would prevail." So, given the questionable outcome of the investigation, Moses is reprising her blistering website, , which documents the case and citizens' reactions to it.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter, Bill Aleshire

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