Animal lives matter (except in Guilford)

As far as I’m concerned, NFL star Michael Vick should still be in prison for torturing and murdering scores of pit bulls at his dog fighting operation in Virginia. Instead he was only incarcerated for 18 months. It was a small price to pay for his heinous crimes, but at least it was a price. Too bad for Vick he wasn’t abusing his dogs at the Guilford County animal shelter, otherwise he’d have gotten off scot-free. That’s what happened to shelter director Marsha Williams and her staff when District Attorney Doug Henderson and his chief assistant Howard Neumann decided not to prosecute anyone for the widespread, systematic, and heart-breaking abuse and neglect that went on at 4525 West Wendover Avenue.

The Guilford D.A.’s office said that it had no definitive proof that any one individual committed the abuses, but something about that explanation smells to high heaven. For one thing, there were security cameras located throughout the shelter. As one inside source told me, “there were so many cameras in that place that you couldn’t fart without someone knowing it.” For another, the abuses and neglect had been going on for years under the supposed oversight of Williams and the United Animal Coalition Board, whose former President John Nieman just happens to be a public defender. Notice I said “former President.” Nieman and fellow Board member Judge Michelle Fletcher both bailed out just when the shelter investigation was about to hit the fan. Somehow, Henderson’s refusal to prosecute those sickening abuses, smacks of cronyism. Speaking of oversight, how is it that a respected Board that included a public defender and a Judge never took time to conduct unannounced inspections of the facilities under their purview?

It should be noted that UAC operated both the Guilford and Davidson County shelters, but it was an investigation of the latter that triggered charges of abuse in the former. The saga began when the Davidson Sheriff’s department was tipped off about the Lexington shelter’s possession of the pain med Tramadol, which they were not licensed to have. Sensing there might be corroborating evidence at the Guilford shelter, Davidson prosecutors sought a search of the Wendover facility. Guilford Sheriff BJ Barnes and his deputies executed a search, which involved seizing computers and other materials. During their investigation and a series of interviews, the Sheriff’s department and the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services learned of horrendous conditions and signs of abuse and neglect, including one dog who had been caged up for six days with his eyeball hanging out of the socket. On a subsequent visit to the shelter, deputies, now armed with a broader warrant, discovered a freezer door jammed shut with a crowbar. Upon opening the door they witnessed animal carcasses piled up over five feet high.

That discovery begs the question, “Why were animal bodies stacked up in a freezer when the Guilford shelter had its own crematorium?” Here’s where the story gets a bit murky and more disgusting, if that is even possible. According to my source, Williams, whose base salary exceeded $90,000, was also eligible for a bonus if she reduced the number of euthanizations at the shelter. The bonus was presumably offered in order to facilitate more adoptions. But in order to euthanize less dogs at the Guilford shelter, Williams was allegedly sending animals down to Davidson to be cremated, then piling others up in her own freezer. If true, that is a hell of a way to earn a bonus. But bonus not, dogs who either came to the shelter abused, or were neglected while there, needed to be cared for, or else put out of their misery. In many cases, it seems, Ms. Williams did neither, causing animals to endure untold suffering.

Speaking of bonuses and money, Williams hired a number of her own family members to work at the shelter, where the total employee salaries exceeded $900,000. That in addition to Williams’ base pay, accounted for over half of all public funds contributed by Guilford County. One could conclude that family members don’t rat out other family members, especially when big money is involved, so perhaps that’s another reason why the D.A. was reluctant to prosecute. But common sense dictates that Williams and her staff should be prosecuted because they were the only ones who had access to the dogs being abused and neglected. If a man in good condition walked into a store that had ten employees and no other customers, then he exited five minutes later beaten and bloodied, the police would charge all ten employees with assault if none of them ratted out the attacker. Same should apply with abuse and cruelty at an animal shelter. The dogs didn’t abuse and neglect themselves, so the D.A. should have charged the entire shelter staff as accessories to felony animal cruelty.

Yes I know there’s a difference in gathering evidence about abuse of animals versus abuse of a human. Dogs can’t talk, and they can’t tell you who abused them. But dogs also don’t have friends on Boards or family members covering for them. Fortunately Marsha Williams has been charged with several felonies at the Davidson shelter, and late last week, Sheriff Barnes was able to tack on five misdemeanor charges in spite of the Guilford D.A.’s foot dragging. That means Ms. Williams may pay a price yet. But she should be in prison for what she allowed to happen in Guilford, and her entire staff should join her in a cell. Meanwhile the NCDACS has suspended UAC’s license to operate in the State. As for the D.A., he and his assistant should resign for refusal to prosecute a case which involved a public defender and a sitting judge as members of the Board whose shelters were being investigated.

Going forward, Guilford County has the resources to run a clean, caring, and efficient animal shelter, and Guilford Commissioners have an obligation to thoroughly vet anyone who works there, or who operates that facility. As taxpayers, we can never again allow any agency to abuse our trust the way that UAC did. As human beings we must never again allow individuals like Williams to abuse the pets in their care. Animal lives matter. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).