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Friday, February 1, 2008

St. Bernard Parish deputies won't be prosecuted in dog shootings

Citing insufficient evidence, new state Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell has dropped animal cruelty charges against two men accused of killing stray dogs while working for the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina.

Michael Minton, 44, a former sheriff's deputy, and Clifford "Chip" Englande, 36, a sergeant who has been on desk duty for more than a year, were indicted on charges of aggravated animal cruelty in November 2006.

A state grand jury concluded they fatally shot "numerous dogs" that had been abandoned by their owners and were roaming the streets after Katrina swamped the parish.

The indictments, which were obtained by Caldwell's predecessor, Charles Foti, were partially based on jerky video shot by a Texas photojournalist that shows a black Labrador lying mortally wounded on a Violet street as two civilian vehicles commandeered by the Sheriff's Office drive past.

Shootings not shown

Minton was accused of shooting the dog while standing in the back of a Jeep driven by Englande, according to court records. But the recording does not show the dog being shot, and Caldwell, who was sworn in Jan. 14, dismissed the charges in a pair of letters filed Tuesday in 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette.

"Despite the existence of probable cause for arrest and sufficient evidence for a grand jury indictment, considering all the facts and circumstances in this matter there is insufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the defendants beyond a reasonable doubt," said the letters signed by Assistant Attorney General Dana Cummings.

A spokeswoman for Caldwell declined Thursday to elaborate on his reasons for dropping the charges.

Englande, who joined the Sheriff's Office in 1991 and was assigned to administrative duties after his indictment, referred questions to his attorney, Pat Fanning, who said Englande was misidentified as the driver of the Jeep.

"There is not a lick of evidence that my client killed any dogs," Fanning said. "These guys never should have been prosecuted. I'm just glad the new attorney general gave the case a fair review and determined the right outcome."

Minton, who left the Sheriff's Office in February 2006, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Sheriff praises development

St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens said the decision to drop the charges exonerates his department, as well as the two men.

"I'm happy for the two officers involved. They have been under a great deal of heartache and pressure," Stephens said. "I also want to reiterate how proud I am of the way we responded to the greatest disaster in our country's history."

Stephens said Englande will immediately be reinstated to full duty.

The dismissed charges mark the third time a Katrina-related criminal case initiated by Foti has fizzled.

In July, a grand jury refused to indict Dr. Anna Pou on second-degree murder charges stemming from the death of patients at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. And in September, a jury found Sal and Mabel Mangano innocent of negligent homicide charges in the deaths of 35 elderly residents who drowned during Katrina's aftermath at the couple's flooded nursing home in St. Bernard Parish.

Foti, whose office investigated both cases and prosecuted the Manganos, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Minton's trial had been scheduled to start Tuesday, with Englande's to follow Feb. 14. The felony charges carried penalties of up to 10 years in prison upon conviction.

'This place has gone crazy'

Court documents indicate prosecutors with the attorney general's office under Foti, who lost his re-election bid in the October primary, had planned to show the jury a video shot by David Leeson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Dallas Morning News who once worked for The Times-Picayune.

The recording, which can be viewed at, includes the sound of a gunshot as the camera pans to a black Lab lying in the middle of the street. The dog yelps and tries to get up as a pickup and Jeep spray painted to indicate they had been seized by the Sheriff's Office drive away.

"They just killed that dog, man," Leeson says on the recording. "This place has gone crazy."

Moments later, another gunshot can be heard, and Leeson says, "They shot that one, too."

In a subsequent interview recorded by Leeson, Minton acknowledged shooting dogs, citing safety and humanitarian concerns.

"It's better for that dog, really. Where's he going to find food? Where's he going to find water?" Minton says on the recording. "We're doing it to protect ourselves, but it's more humane for the dog."

Later in the interview, Leeson asks Minton, "So how many dogs?"

"Enough," Minton replies.

Susan Michaels, co-founder of Pasado's Safe Haven, an animal welfare group in Sultan, Wash., that organized scores of volunteers to rescue pets after Katrina, said she is "appalled" that the charges were dropped.

"There couldn't have been a better case," she said. "You have an admission from Minton, a videotape of the shootings, as well as statements from eyewitnesses. It's just amazing that this is not being pursued."

The charges against Minton and Englande focused on the black Lab and a pit bull puppy and did not address reports that about three dozen dogs were shot and killed in three St. Bernard schools after authorities forced the pets' owners to leave them behind during post-Katrina evacuations.

Lawsuit pending

The owners of some of the dogs have filed suit in federal court in New Orleans against the St. Bernard government, former Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, the Parish Council, Stephens and numerous deputies.

Michaels, whose organization helped the pet owners file the suit, said the slain dogs were friendly and posed no danger.

"These animals were not packs of wild dogs," she said. "They were people's pets."

Tammi Arender Herring, Caldwell's director of communications, said authorities had legitimate concerns that stray dogs could spread diseases. But she expressed sympathy for St. Bernard residents who lost their pets.

"It's a very unfortunate incident, and we're saddened that it happened," she said. "But from a legal angle, there was not sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Paul Rioux can be reached at or (504) 826-3321

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