A pretrial hearing was held Monday in Ellis County Court at Law No. 2 on a case involving animal cruelty.
Waxahachie police officers arrested Michelle Lehman on July 29, 2011 for the alleged offence. Lehman has been charged with 11 counts of cruelty to a non-livestock animal.
Lehman’s attorney, Rodney Ramsey, presented a motion to dismiss to Judge Gene Calvert at Monday’s hearing. Ramsey based his motion that the police officers illegally entered the property and had no probable cause to do so.
Ellis County Assistant County and District Attorney Seth McCloskey presented a recording of a 9-1-1 call that prompted the officers to respond to the property. On the recording, the caller reported to dispatchers that he saw a woman beating a dog with a stick in a field as he drove by on Ovilla Road.
Following the playing of the recording, McCloskey called Waxahachie Police Officer David Bittle to the stand. Bittle testified after he had received the call he met with the motorist at a church down the road before going to the location.
Bittle said at the location officers met Lehman at the fence line of the property. Bittle explained their reason for being there. He said Lehman denied the claim that she had beaten an animal.
Both Ramsey and McCloskey asked Bittle if officers had permission to go on the property. Bittle informed the court that Lehman had given the officers permission.
Upon entering the property, Bittle said Lehman had multiple dogs chained up in different places. Plastic barrels had been cut in half to be used as shelters for the animals and some of the animals appeared to be mangy and sick.
Ramsey asked Bittle if he knew what condition the animals were in when they were brought to Lehman’s property, when they were fed or last received water. Bittle said he did not know.
Since the police department does not deal with many cases that involve animals, Bittle said help was requested from Waxahachie Senior Animal Control Officer and Advanced Animal Cruelty Investigator Warren Howell.
Following Bittle’s testimony, Waxahachie Police Officer Brian Fuller was called to testify.
Fuller corroborated Bittle’s testimony about Lehman giving them permission to enter the property and his assessment of the animals.
Waxahachie Police Lt. Billie Pendleton was then called to the stand to reaffirm that the officers made first contact with the defendant outside the gate leading into the property and gained permission first.
Pendleton said she observed that some of the animals where skinny and had skin conditions. Pendleton stated the only food available for the animals at the site, which Lehman referred to as a “rescue facility” was pizza crusts. The water in the bowls was green in some cases, she said.
Ramsey asked Pendleton what made her think that she had a case of animal cruelty? Pendleton said one of the big factors that led to the arrest was the condition of a dog that had been tied up, was out of the reach of water, was sickly and appeared to be deceased or near death.
Howell was then called to the stand and stated that he spoke with the defendant and asked to conduct a welfare check of the animals on the property, which she gave permission to do so.
Howell reported that there were animals that were on short leashes, which resulted in cuts around the neck. He added food bowls were overturned, there were some animals that appeared to be very skinny and some had bones showing.
Some of the animals were in need of immediate medical care, Howell said. One of the examples Howell cited during the hearing about the poor condition of the animals was seeing a cat that passed a tar-like substance directly in front of him.
Lehman then took the stand to provide the court with her testimony. Before answering questions, Judge Calvert advised Lehman of her rights and told her that she was not required to testify in court.
Ramsey asked Lehman if she provided consent for the officers to enter her property. She told the court she did not give consent and said she “didn’t know who the woman who was swinging the stick but wishes (the police) could find her.”
McCloskey asked Lehman how she obtained the pets for a “rescue” shelter. Lehman told the court that some of the animals were owner surrenders because the current owner could not financially take care their pet any more.
Other animals were ones Lehman found on the streets who appeared to be abandoned and in poor health.
Lehman said when she picked them up off the street, she would place flyers at the location where the animal was found or at a local business in effort to contact the owners. A few times owners did contact her and retrieved their pets, but Lehman could provide the court with no records of these events.
During the times she did adopt animals, Lehman told the court she did require a home visit to ensure the safety and welfare of the animal but could not provide any paperwork on adoptions.
McCloskey asked Lehman if medical care was provided to the animals and how she was able to fund these operations. Lehman said she supported the operations on the property through the money she earned as a part-time stagehand. These funds paid for the medical care if the animals got sick and had to see the veterinarian. Visits to the vet were paid in cash, Lehman said. She told the court she did provide documentation of these visits to Howell when he was at the site conducting the welfare check.
Lehman was asked about where the food she received for the animals came from. She told the court the pizza crusts came from a friend who saved them from cleaning tables at local restaurant.
Judge Calvert asked Lehman if she had a separate residence. Lehman said she had places that she could go to but chose to stay with the animals at the barn. Through earlier questioning, Lehman indicated that the barn only had running water that was provided by an outdoor water spicket.
At the end of the pre-trial hearing, Judge Calvert ruled that the officers responding to the call had probable cause and had the right to enter the property based on the evidence provided in court.
Calvert denied Ramsey’s motion to suppress.
Following his decision, jury selection for the trial was set for 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 12.