Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced today that animal cruelty charges will be dropped against the four suspects in the Green Acre dog-death case.
One count of fraud remains against Jesse and Maleisa Hughes, owners of the Gilbert boarding facility where at least 23 dogs died overnight in June, Montgomery's office says. Austin Flake, son of Arizona U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, and his wife, Logan, daughter of Maleisa Hughes, appear to be completely off the hook. All four were indicted by a grand jury in late October following months of speculation and frustration over potential criminal charges in the dogs' deaths.
Prosecutors will ask that the animal-cruelty charges be dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be re-filed if new, incriminating information ever surfaces.
The Hugheses had been charged originally with 22 felony counts and seven misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, plus the fraud count. The Flakes were charged with 21 felony and seven misdemeanor animal cruelty counts.
Somehow, the grand jury that indicted the four suspects didn't receive as much information as they should have. The prosecutors' decision to dismiss the charges hinged on motions filed to dismiss by the defense, showing the importance of solid legal representation in any criminal case. Here, it's easy to see how different suspects with a less-than-competent lawyer could get railroaded by eager prosecutors and an ill-informed grand jury.
In this case, Flakes' lawyer was Dennis Wilenchik, a politically connected, experienced attorney who filed several important court motions in the case a few weeks ago.
One allegation by the defense, as New Times columnist Stephen Lemons described on December 4, is that Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Detective Marie Trombi and the prosecution may have "intentionally misdirected the jury and committed perjury." The sheriff's office failed to present evidence that electricity at the Hugheses home, which doubled as a dog-boarding facility, had dipped dramatically at about the same time an air-conditioner froze up that had been providing fresh air to a room where the dogs were being stored.
After reviewing records and Wilenchik's motions, prosecutors decided that "the theory of the case as initially presented to the Grand Jury did not take into account the possibility that there were issues with an air conditioning unit," Montgomery says. "This could impact a Grand Jury's charging decision and how we might present a case to a trial jury."
We asked Montgomery's office for clarification about this: Was the grand jury misled, either intentionally or not? And are any employees of the Sheriff's Office going to be facing perjury charges based on their testimony to the grand jury?
Jerry Cobb, Montgomery's spokesperson, says the answer is "no" to both questions.
"The information originally presented to the grand jurors was oriented to one specific theory of what happened that night," Cobb says. "Subsequent questions raised in defense motions obligated us to take another look at alternate theories, particularly with respect to the functioning of the AC. Rather than wait for the court to tell us what to do, we opted to dismiss the animal cruelty counts without prejudice to provide an opportunity to gather additional information to address the issues raised by the defense."
While the latter sentence by Cobb indicates the possibility that new animal-cruelty charges will be filed at some point, in fact very few cases dismissed like this ever get re-charged.
Montgomery, in his written news release, says if there is a decision to re-charge animal-cruelty allegations, it would only come after "any open questions" about the dog deaths are "fully answered."
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A civil lawsuit continues against the four suspects, focusing on the allegations of fraud. Owners of the dead dogs say they were led to believe their pets would be treated like members of the Hugheses family at the boarding facility. After the dogs died, voicemail evidence shows, according to the lawsuit, that Jesse Hughes lied to many of the dogs' owners about what had happened.
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