The long-running criminal case against a Mesa animal shelter owner accused of abusing dozens of dogs suffered a setback last month when he was re-indicted on lesser charges after initial charges were dismissed.
Domenic Asprella, who remains free on his own recognizance, now faces 51 misdemeanors for animal cruelty or neglect, another 51 misdemeanors for failure to provide medical treatment, and one Class 6 felony for alleged animal cruelty or neglect.
The original 117 charges against him included a felony fraud charge, which stemmed from an allegation that he'd misused donations to his Mesa facility, Shelter Paws Rescue. That fraud charge is now gone, as are 11 other felony charges for intentional mistreatment of animals. Only one felony, for animal cruelty or neglect, remains in the new roster of charges.
Asprella's Scottsdale attorney, Charles Johnson, told Phoenix New Times that the case was dismissed and remanded back to the grand jury "because of all the mistakes and misstatements provided to the [first] grand jury." For instance, prosecutors did not disclose to grand jurors that when the Maricopa County Sheriff's office took the case against Asprella to the East Mesa Justice Court in January 2019, a judge did not find "abuse," he said, but rather that Asprella had "merely neglected" the dogs because he was "overwhelmed" with taking care of them and didn't have enough volunteers to help him.
Johnson said he's looking forward to seeing the transcript of the new grand jury presentation, where he believes he'll again find "a lot of mistakes" he can use in Asprella's defense. The attorney criticized how both the sheriff's office and county attorney's office has handled the case.
"How credible is a prosecutor's office that after a year of pursuing  felonies, says, 'We'll just indict for one.'"
Tough Case for Penzone
Authorities have been pursuing the criminal case against Asprella since October 4, 2018, when Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputies raided the shelter at 8831 East Apache Trail following a complaint about possible abuse.
Inside the building, deputies allegedly found 53 dogs in poor condition, living in cages, some "emaciated" and laying in feces. One dog died after it was rushed to an emergency veterinarian, and four were later euthanized.
Ironically, Asprella had received positive news coverage from ABC15 just a few months earlier. The station covered Shelter Paws and interviewed Asprella, reporting how he'd created a sanctuary for "Death Row dogs" that he adopted from the county — dogs scheduled for euthanization because of behavior problems. At the time, he had "just started a lease on a building in Mesa" with "lots of space and land where the dogs can play." But he had recently purchased 10 acres of land in north Scottsdale where he hoped to build his "huge dream" of operating a bigger facility, he told the station.
Sheriff's investigators would soon accuse Asprella of intentionally withholding food from the dogs, saying that dog food was found at the shelter. But Asprella claims that the dogs were skinny because of crowded conditions at the Mesa shelter, which resulted in "kennel stress" just prior to his planned move to the bigger facility.
Animal rights activists were outraged following the raid and after seeing photographs of the underweight dogs. Animal advocate Laura Zundel, who had reported the shelter to MCSO, created a Facebook page the very next day called Justice for Shelter Paws, using it not just to provide information but to attack Sheriff Paul Penzone for not doing enough in the case. She alleges that MCSO knew about problems with the shelter for three weeks before its raid.
A group including Zundel and lawyer John Schill, who later helped launch a failed civil lawsuit against Asprella, held a demonstration outside of the sheriff's office on October 18, 2018, demanding justice. A week later, Penzone held a press conference about the case and took news media members on a tour of the sheriff's office MASH facility for abused animals, where the Shelter Paws dogs were being kept during their recovery. As video of the press conference shows, Penzone grew visibly angry when discussing comments on the Facebook page criticizing him and his deputies as incompetent investigators.
"I find that to be disgusting, I find that to be inappropriate, and I find that that just shows me the lack of your character," said Penzone, a Democrat and retired Phoenix police officer who defeated Joe Arpaio in 2016. Last week, he won reelection to another four years in office.
After a grand jury finally charged Asprella in July 2019 with the original 117 felony and misdemeanor charges, Penzone went on KTAR radio to explain why the case was taking so long.
"We need to recognize the justice system requires that we are thorough, that we are thoughtful, and that we are fair," Penzone told listeners.
Now, more than a year later, the criminal case is starting over again with the new indictments.
"We are at a loss for words," Zundel wrote on Facebook last month after prosecutors moved to dismissed the first round of charges.
Her Justice for Shelter Paws Facebook page this year had openly supported Republican Jerry Sheridan for sheriff.
Schill didn't return a message.
On Tuesday, Penzone's office declined comment on the latest developments in the case
"MCSO filed the report and initial charges were filed by the County Attorney’s Office," said Norma Gutierrez-Deorta, an MCSO spokesperson. "If they feel they need to amend the charges, that is up to them and you would have to direct your questions to them."
The county attorney's office also declined commenting directly about the case because it was still pending.
"Animal cruelty statutes outline the difference between felonies and misdemeanors and we only seek a grand jury indictment on charges where we believe there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction at trial," said MCAO spokesperson Jennifer Liewer.
Zundel told New Times on Tuesday that she has been "utterly disgusted [at] the way the case was handled."
"I will never be able to get the images out of my head of the dogs," she said. "They were malnourished, going [a] little crazy, some injured and living in urine and ... small kennels. Not only did it take a long time for the Sheriff's department to make a case, but they handled it in such an amateur manner that [Asprella] will not get the sentence that he deserves."
Asprella, who's 49, hasn't been in any serious trouble before. Online records show he's manager or principal of businesses including Wider Media, LLC, and Copy Express, LLC, both based in Fountain Hills, where he had a home until earlier this year.
"My house went into foreclosure because my money was going into the dogs," he said in an interview on Monday. Online records show the home was sold in January.
Asprella said that before the MCSO raid, he was "days away" from completing the Scottsdale sanctuary and moving the animals over from the "temporary shelter in Mesa." That's why the Mesa facility was so crowded with dogs, he said.
He said he was working "more than 80 hours a week" on his planned sanctuary in Scottsdale, which embodied his "mission to save dogs labeled extremely aggressive or have a bite history," he said.
He earned money during this time from "an extended warranty insurance-type business that was destroyed due to all the bad press," he said, and that his revenue source for the sanctuary project was "mainly out of pocket."
"I did have some donations come in," he added.
MCSO's investigation showed Asprella took in more than $23,000 in donations between June and October of 2018 on Facebook and PayPal. Asprella said all the money "went to associated expenses at the shelter."
All the dogs had been adopted from Maricopa County Animal Care and Control except for 10, which were his, he said. Claims that he was boarding people's pets at the facility was "so far from the truth."
He said he has no regrets about how he cared for the dogs.
"The kennel was cleaned, the animals were cared for," he said, claiming that photos of the dogs standing in feces were taken by MCSO 15 hours after he was prevented from going into the facility.
He's not sure why the animal rights community attacked him, and he sees himself as the victim of a "smear campaign" by Penzone, who wanted to show voters that he was trying to curtail animal abuse.
"He continues to say that I abused the animals, which is an outright lie," he said.
"At the end of the day, the dogs, at best, were underweight," he went on. "There was no neglect. No abuse. The dogs that were suffering, well, I don't want to use the word suffering, were experiencing kennel stress. They had enough food. There was food there every day."
Asked to define "kennel stress," Asprella said he didn't really know much about it. [Update: He said after publication that he chose not to talk about kennel stress with New Times at the time.]
Despite his criminal prosecution, Asprella said he eventually did open the Scottsdale sanctuary, and he ran it for a year before losing the property because he couldn't pay the mortgage.
Sheriff Penzone, in a presentation to the media last year, laid out much of the case against Asprella as MCSO saw it. He explained that to get a conviction, it was important to conduct a thorough investigation, and that took time. One key factor would be to show that the animals, which had reportedly been rescued from the county and therefore might have already showed signs of neglect, arrived at Asprella's facility in a healthier state than they were found, and that the neglect was an intentional, criminal act.
The agency began receiving witnesses' reports of animal abuse at Asprella's Fountain Hills home in mid-September. They dispatched deputies, but Asprella wouldn't let them in. As complaints came in about the Mesa facility, deputies obtained a warrant for their October 2018 raid.
Asprella didn't give any statement or information to MCSO in the case, Penzone said.
Background histories on all the dogs had to be obtained. Penzone acknowledged that Asprella took in dogs on "the euthanasia list" that were collected by Asprella or others from rescue facilities and the county. The agency identified two owners of the dogs and reuinted them with their pets. No one else came forward to show they owned the animals, he said.
The dogs were considered evidence in the case and are being cared for in the MASH unit, in which inmates help rehabilitate rescued animals.
Penzone reiterated this was one of the most "egregious" cases of animal abuse he'd ever seen.
Photos of the dogs before they were rescued and after they were properly fed shows they had been subjected to something worse than mere hunger, he said.
"They are actually suffering in pain because their bodies are so neglected," he said.
Penzone addressed criticism of the investigation and "passion" about the case up to that point, saying good police work wasn't just about slapping handcuffs on someone, it was about being thorough enough to get a conviction.
"Our deputies and detectives put hundreds of hours into the investigation so that when it was presented to the county attorney, we had everything we needed to go forward," he said.
Following the re-indictment, the case is now tentatively scheduled for a trial in June 2021.
Most of the dogs ended up going to new homes.
Five of the total of 53 "had to be put down at the recommendation of the veterinarian, and 34 have been successfully adopted," Gutierrez-Deorta said, in a late update to this article just after publication.
Below: the new indictment:
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