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Monday, Jul 31, 2006County: Erie
Defendant/Suspect: Sally Chavez-Casler
An investigator who helped seize 31 animals from a Conneaut Township woman has herself been found guilty of cruelty to animals.
Sally Chavez-Casler, a state-licensed humane-enforcement officer, was found guilty of the summary offense of cruelty to animals in November 2006, according to court records.
Chavez-Casler called the case against her "bogus." Her conviction, which she never appealed, has raised questions from another animal-enforcement officer as well as Yvonne Murkens, the subject of the search in Conneaut Township.
Murkens, who has said she treated the 31 seized animals properly, questioned how someone found guilty of animal cruelty could investigate her on similar charges.
"Who's watching the watchdogs?" she asked.
Under Pennsylvania law, humane-enforcement officers, though licensed by the state Department of Agriculture, work independently of one another and answer to their sponsoring organizations rather than to a government agency. The sponsoring organization for Chavez-Casler is the Broken Arrow Animal Sanctuary, which she founded.
Chavez-Casler, 40, was convicted of one count of cruelty to animals for an incident in August 2006. She was found guilty of keeping a black Labrador retriever-mix in her home in a cage that was so small the dog could not stand up without hitting its head, according to the citation. The court also found that the dog had an inadequate amount of drinking water.
Those allegations are similar to the claims Chavez-Casler and others made against Murkens, whose home on Porky Road state police searched March 19. Chavez-Casler provided information that helped police get a search warrant to investigate allegations of cruelty to animals at Murkens' residence.
The Pennsylvania State Police and the Erie County District Attorney's Office have yet to decide whether Murkens will face criminal charges. The prosecutor handling the case said he wouldn't comment on whether Chavez-Casler's conviction would affect the investigation.
"I have no comment because we're still conducting our investigation," said Doug McCormick, an assistant district attorney.
The trooper investigating the case, Jon McClain, was off work and could not be reached for comment Thursday. A state police spokesman, Cpl. Mark Zaleski, said he had no idea whether Chavez-Casler's conviction would affect the case against Murkens.
"It would be speculative to say," he said. "The case is based on its own merits."
Millcreek Township District Judge Paul Manzi found Chavez-Casler guilty of one summary count of cruelty to animals on Nov. 11. She was fined $100.
Merle Wolfgang, the Humane Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania's chief cruelty investigator, issued the summons against Chavez-Casler after visiting her home in the 5000 block of West Lake Road on Aug. 23, 2006.
Wolfgang said she went to the residence after the state dog warden received a complaint that Chavez-Casler was offering puppies for adoption that were "covered in feces and fleas," according to Wolfgang's report.
Wolfgang cited Chavez-Casler for five counts of cruelty to animals, all as summary offenses. Manzi found Chavez-Casler guilty of the one count involving the Labrador retriever-mix and dismissed the four other counts. Wolfgang in each of those counts identified a different dog she believed did not have adequate water or shelter.
Chavez-Casler said in an interview that she plans to appeal Manzi's decision, but the 30-day appeal period expired Dec. 11. She paid the fine.
"Those were bogus charges, part of Merle's personal vendetta against me," Chavez-Casler said, referring to Wolfgang. "She just doesn't like me. She's a very kill-oriented person. She euthanizes on the spot."
Wolfgang said she was doing her job. She questioned how Chavez-Casler can continue to do hers.
"How can you enforce the law when you've been cited for animal cruelty?" Wolfgang said.
Wolfgang said her file showed she had visited Chavez-Casler's home on five previous occasions to investigate complaints about the welfare of animals there. Wolfgang said she had issued warnings on those occasions for lack of water and crates that she believed were too small.
Chavez-Casler has retained her state-issued humane-enforcement officer license, though state law lists a conviction for cruelty to animals as a reason to revoke the license.
That license, which can be obtained after two weeks of classes, allows Chavez-Casler to be part of animal-cruelty investigations with Broken Arrow Animal Sanctuary, which calls itself a "no-kill" animal-welfare organization.
Broken Arrow does not have a shelter building. The nonprofit organization relies on volunteers to care for animals until they are adopted. Chavez-Casler is among those who have kept such animals at home. Wolfgang said Chavez-Casler had about 100 cats and a dozen dogs when she visited Chavez-Casler's home in August.
Chavez-Casler founded Broken Arrow in 2002, the same year Erie County Judge William R. Cunningham swore her in as a humane-enforcement officer.
Chavez-Casler has been involved in about 60 animal cruelty cases since then. She cited her experience as part of the information she supplied to the state police in the Murkens case.
Investigators during the search of Murkens' home seized 31 animals -- 21 puppies, three baby goats, and seven adult dogs, including a pregnant poodle. Chavez-Casler participated in the search.
Chavez-Casler said last week that the Broken Arrow Animal Sanctuary has placed all of the dogs with volunteers. The Hooved Animal Welfare Society placed the goats. One of the goats has since died, Murkens said.
Murkens' friends held a rally for her Tuesday in Albion. Murkens' supporters collected more than 50 signatures from people who said they believed Murkens, 62, who describes herself as the "goat lady," had been unfairly treated.
State police got the search warrant for Murkens' home after getting three complaints over two days about the condition of her residence and the way she was handling the puppies.
According the warrant, Chavez-Casler told state police that a woman who had been to the home, Beth Pude, told her that the puppies were living in "poor conditions" and that feces were "all over the living area."
"It was one of the most horrific experiences I've ever had," Chavez-Casler said the day after the search. "I don't know how people can live like that, let alone dogs."
The dogs were treated at the Erie Animal Hospital, 3024 W. 26th St. A veterinarian said last week that some of the dogs had tumors and hookworm, all of the dogs had fleas and none of the animals were malnourished.
"Overall, their general health was good," veterinarian Diane Ventrello said. "It seems she was doing the bare minimum."
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