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Prosecutor earning reputation as staunch defender of animals

By MIKE ALLEN | The Roanoke Times

November 24, 2007

FINCASTLE, Va. - The bulletin board in Jill Deegan's office displays one stomach-churning picture after another.

A black dog so starved, every knob of his spine and curve of his rib jut out beneath his skin. Another dog, named Randi, emaciated and infested with maggots. A white cat facing the camera with its mouth torn and bloody.

These are survivors, she says, animals taken from homes where they were neglected and abused, that have recovered and now live with new owners.

Deegan, an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Botetourt County, played an instrumental role in putting those animals in the custody of organizations that would find them homes.

Her hands-on approach to pursuing animal cruelty cases--not just bringing in rescue organizations, but going with officers on investigations, attending veterinary examinations, consulting national authorities in the fledgling field of veterinary forensics _ is earning her statewide recognition as an expert in prosecuting crimes against animals.

"Jill gets a lot of calls from around the state," said Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom. "She is in demand to teach at our conference now."

At the state commonwealth's attorneys' conference in April, Deegan will give other prosecutors an overview of cases involving animal cruelty, animal hoarding and animal fighting, then show them how to use the resources she has developed. She's also on a state committee to set training standards for police dogs, and she's a member of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force.

"She doesn't wait for the case to land in her lap. She starts working with it at the beginning and that's awesome," said Melinda Merck, a forensic veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and one of the few national experts in her field. Deegan is the only Virginia prosecutor who consults with Merck on cases, she said.

Media attention to connections between animal abuse and other crimes, such as domestic abuse or even serial murder, has driven home the importance of animal cases, Deegan said.

"The animal cruelty aspect is a lot of times the tip of the iceberg as to other things that are going on," she said. "There's a definite link between animal cruelty and violence to humans."

Soon after she joined the Botetourt County prosecutor's office in 2004, Deegan said in a news story that she was particularly disturbed by crimes involving abuse of animals. After that, the county's animal control officers began coming to her with their cases.

Animal Control Sgt. W.D. Horton said Deegan has networking connections "to just about anything involving animals," and she brings all her knowledge to bear as a prosecutor. "She goes out of her way to be every bit of assistance she can to us."

Before she became a prosecutor, Deegan's career spanned the range of the justice system. Five years as a Roanoke County police officer, two years as a probation officer and five years as a defense attorney in Salem give the 41-year-old insight into virtually every side of a case, she said.

She even cleaned kennels at a veterinary clinic while waiting to learn whether she passed the bar--and continued to work there part time when she opened her practice. "Ever since I was a kid, I've loved animals," she said.

She prosecutes other crimes as well, but Branscom has enough assistants that she's able to devote the time she needs to animal cruelty cases. Branscom and Botetourt County Sheriff Ronnie Sprinkle both recognize the importance of such cases, she said.

"It's proved to be worth our attention," Branscom said.

One recent investigation led not just to the discovery of 35 very sick dogs but ultimately to federal fraud convictions.

Botetourt County authorities found dead and severely dehydrated dogs at two houses owned by financial adviser Monica Yates. A probe into how she could afford those properties uncovered a scheme in which she bilked her clients for more than $2 million.

To Deegan's knowledge, all of the surviving dogs taken from Yates found homes.

When conditions at home endanger a child's life, state social service agencies step in as a matter of course. But not in animal cases. Deegan herself has filled that gap, bringing in appropriate rescue organizations.
"It's hard for me on these cases to take these animals in, nurse them back to health," only to have them put down because they aren't adopted, she said.

In October, Zachary Lee Arthur became the first person convicted in Botetourt County under the "T-Bone" law, a 2002 bill that makes the killing or torturing of animals a felony.

Arthur, 19, entered into a plea agreement in the strangling of a dachshund puppy and received a year to serve in jail.

Deegan brought in Merck to help with the investigation. While a student performed a necropsy at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Merck was on the phone, explaining what injuries to look for that would indicate death by strangulation.

Most veterinarians are trained in diagnosing disease, not in detecting signs of a crime, Merck said.

The first veterinary forensic symposium is happening next year in Florida, but Deegan will have to miss it because of the training session she's giving.

Deegan hopes that after her training session, she won't be the only Virginia prosecutor making use of Merck.

When investigators found Randi last year--the emaciated, maggot-infested dog whose picture occupies the top left of Deegan's bulletin board--she was in the last stages of starvation, her body temperature dropping.

The dog's former owner was convicted of a misdemeanor count of animal cruelty.

Randi took nine days to regain the ability to walk. She eventually found a new home.

While cases such as Randi's might seem to have obvious signs, prosecutors shouldn't forget that it doesn't take horrific photographs of skeletal pets to prove an abuse case, Deegan says. The law provides clear minimum standards, and even an apparently healthy animal qualifies as abused if it's not being given adequate food, water and shelter.

In some cases, Deegan hasn't pursued charges, concluding that the pets' conditions are the result of the owner's mental illness that needed treatment, or of simple ignorance.

"We're not the animal cruelty Gestapo out to tag everybody," she said. "We prefer education and compliance versus conviction and jail."

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