Protesters expected this week at 2 animal cruelty cases that sparked outrage in Butler County

Two men facing animal cruelty charges that have sparked outrage and protests in the past few months are scheduled to be back in court this week.

David Neanover, 35, of Reily Twp., is facing three misdemeanor charges of cruelty to companion animals after the death of his dog, Lou.

A Butler County grand jury declined to indict Neanover on felony charges, instead sending the case back to county area court on first-degree misdemeanor charges.

MORE: 5 days, 2 arrests, 1 restraining order: A heated week on a Madison Twp. street

Protesters have been present outside the courthouse for all of Neanover’s court appearances. Charles M. Rittgers, Neanover’s attorney has filed a motion for a jury trial, but a date has not been set. He is scheduled to be in court Thursday for a pre-trial hearing.

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.

Two weeks ago, police officers surrounded the Middletown Municipal Court and Butler County Sheriff’s deputies had to keep the peace in a Madison Twp. neighborhood after Charles K. Miller was charged in the death of his neighbor’s dog. Ruger.

A large crowd was on hand for Miller’s arraignment on a a felony charge of animal cruelty of striking the German Shepherd in the head with a bat while in his yard. The dog was later euthanized.

The angry crowd carried signs, passed out t-shirts and bumper stickers urging “Justice for Ruger.”

Miller was arrested after the charge was raised from a misdemeanor to a fifth-degree felony. He is free on $10,000 bond.

Miller is scheduled to be back municipal court Friday for a preliminary hearing. He has pleaded not guilty. Miller said the dog was attacking his chickens, then he feared for his safety.

MORE: ‘I am not guilty of this’: Madison Twp. man now faces felony in dog’s death

Skyler Foster, Ruger’s owner, was cited for failing to keep a dog physically restrained or secured after the incident that caused high emotions as residents disputed how the dog ended up in the neighbor’s yard and how many times it was struck with a bat.

Butler County Deputy Dog Warden Supervisor Kurt Merbs said Miller was charged with cruelty because of the number of times he allegedly hit the dog.

A change in Ohio’s law that can allow animal cruelty charges 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 Butler County Prosecutor Michael 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.

MORE: A large protest supporting an alleged starved dog signaled Butler County’s recent animal cruelty cases

“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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