Bond was set at $25,000 for David Neanover, 36, of Reily Twp., who was charged with felony animal abuse. After Butler County Judge Robert Lyons announced the bond, several people in the courtroom applauded. RICK McCRABB/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

1 case, many questions: Why animal advocates are upset about a Butler County man’s prosecution

David Neanover, 36, was originally charged with felony animal cruelty, but last week a Butler County grand jury declined to indict him on the fifth-degree felony and sent the case back to county Area I Court for litigation on three misdemeanor charges

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Butler County Sheriff’s Office deputy dog wardens responded to 6165 Main St. in April and found the emaciated dog, according to Sheriff Richard K. Jones. The dog, named Lou by caregivers, was cared for and hospitalized for five days at Animal Care Centers and died several days later.

The medical staff was surprised when X-rays showed rocks in the dog’s stomach. He lived his life on a very short chain and was “deprived food for quite some time,” according to the Animal Friends Humane Society.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said he has received many calls concerning the legal process in the Neanover case asking why the grand jury didn’t indict on a felony charge.

“I am prohibited by law to say what was presented to grand jury,” Gmoser said. “It is secret and I cannot discuss what was said.”

Gmoser also said because the case is pending he will not talk about the specifics of the evidence. But neglecting an animal of sufficient food and water will be addressed criminally, he said.

“It you chain up a shivering, skinny dog and deprive it of sufficient food and water, that is cruelty and it will be dealt with,” Gmoser said.

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Neanover’s attorney, Charles M. Rittgers, said a medical condition, not lack of food or water, killed the dog, which is likely the reason the grand jury did not return a felony indictment.

After consulting with a local veterinarian who viewed the sores on Lou’s face, Rittgers said he believes the dog was suffering from a fungal disease.

“With the quick loss of weight and death that occurred, we believe the dog suffered from something called Blastomycosis. It is an infection that is caused by a fungus that is in the environment in soils. It is not uncommon in this area. This local vet says he sees it a few times a year. And even if the dog is given food and water, when it has this fungal disease, it becomes emaciated, doesn’t get the nutrients and dies pretty quickly,” Rittgers said.

The dog did have food and water, Rittgers said, adding even if a dog is well-nourished, it can get the disease.

“It is not because it was eating rocks and dirt,” he said.

Lou may have contracted the disease by chewing on a stick with dirt from the yard, he said.

“Based on everything I have been told, based on the pictures, based on consultation with the local vet, this dog suffered from a fungal disease that was no fault of David’s,” Rittgers said.

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A change in Ohio’s law that can allow animal crueltycharges to be felonies has resulted in felony convictions in Butler County in the past two years. But no one has been sentenced to that maximum of 12 months in prison, which has frustrated animal advocates.

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Stephens told a crowded courtroom before sentencing a woman for three counts of felony animal cruelty that he was restricted by the law. The judge explained that the woman didn’t have a previous conviction and, by statute, animal cruelty is not considered a violent offense — two factors that would permit a prison sentence on the low felony.

The woman was placed on probation, along with other sanctions, and she also was ordered to serve 60 days in the county jail.

“If you disagree with that,” he said, “feel free to contact your state legislator.”

Legal officials say sentencing guidelines simply don’t allow the kinds of sentences that passionate advocates want. The charge of cruelty to a companion animal had been a first-degree misdemeanor for years, with a maximum sentence of 180 days. Now it can be classified as a fifth-degree felony in certain cases, usually when there is a prior charge of abuse or extreme cruelty, according to Gmoser.

The maximum penalty is up to 12 months in prison for a fifth-degree felony, but by law that is rare, whether for a drug charge or animal cruelty charge.

For a judge to send a person to prison for a fifth-degree felony, by law, the defendant has to meet certain criteria, such as prior felony convictions, a firearm being involved, the defendant holding office or a position of trust or the victim suffering serious physical harm.

“They have to meet the requirements for prison time,” Gmoser said, “If it is not a sex case or an assault or the person doesn’t have a significant prior record, that (prison) just can’t happen on a fifth-degree felony.

Judges do have the ability to sentence a convicted felony animal abuser to up to six months in the county jail. In the Butler County cases, most have spent some time incarcerated, either awaiting trial or sentencing.

Gmoser said harming and killing of animals often leads to violence against humans later in life, so prosecution is a must. But sentencing is up to the judges, he said.

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