Case Snapshot
Case ID: 13189
Classification: Neglect / Abandonment
Animal: dog (non pit-bull)
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Wednesday, Jan 30, 2008

County: Gallatin

Charges: Felony CTA
Disposition: Alleged
Case Images: 2 files available

Alleged: John T. Hessert

Case Updates: 4 update(s) available

A West Yellowstone man has been charged with animal cruelty for allegedly abandoning 33 sled dogs earlier this month near Targhee Pass, west of West Yellowstone.

John T. Hessert was charged with one count of felony aggravated animal cruelty and 33 counts of animal cruelty. He is expected to enter a plea in District Court in Gallatin County at a later date.

Court records say a man called animal control on January 30th to report that 33 sled dogs weren't being cared for near West Yellowstone.

The man said he had not seen the owner of the dogs for several days, and that the dogs were emaciated, in poor condition and had no food, water or shelter.

A veterinarian found they were "well below normal health," and had not been fed enough. Court records say one of the dogs had a collar embedded in its neck and other dogs had frostbite.

According to news reports, Hessert was involuntarily withdrawn from last year's Yukon Quest. The race marshal cited a lack of preparation because Hessert didn't have a handler. Hessert finished the 2005 Iditarod.


Case Updates

Attorneys say a man accused of 34 counts of animal cruelty has changed his tune, and will plead guilty to the charges. Authorities arrested West Yellowstone resident John Hessert back in January, after Police say he kept 33 sled dogs in an unsafe environment with no shelter, food or water.

The animals were put in foster care, and after passing medical evaluations last month, they were returned to Hessert's father in Maine.

Hessert is scheduled to enter a change of plea and be sentenced on the cruelty charges next week.
Source: Montana News Station - July 14, 2008
Update posted on Jul 15, 2008 - 10:06AM 
Breaking trail through snow that topped nearby fence posts, Roger "Rodeo" Vincent -- a West Yellowstone concrete contractor and sled dog musher -- trudged toward the sound of barking dogs. The dogs' owner, a musher named John T. Hessert, had been seen leaving town in a fully-loaded truck on Friday, January 25. It was now Wednesday, January 30. After hearing Hessert's dogs barking that morning, Vincent had received permission from Gallatin County Animal Control Officer Pat Hess to enter a parcel of land west of West Yellowstone to check on them.

When he reached the area where the dogs were staked, he saw no tracks, indicating that they had not been fed or watered in days. The chains used to tether the dogs to drop-lines and fence posts were so short or buried so deep in snow that the dogs could only move a couple of feet. Several dogs were chained to trees and one was roaming free. Only 17 of the 33 dogs had any means of shelter. "Dogs absolutely need to get out of the wind," Vincent explained. "It had gotten down to 20 or 30 below recently, and the wind had been blowing pretty good. Huskies burn a lot of calories just trying to stay warm. Unless they have plenty of water and good food, they get dehydrated."

Hessert, who had reportedly been at the Wyoming Stage Stop dog sled race, arrived on Wednesday afternoon and encountered a sheriff's deputy. Instructed to feed and water his dogs, Hessert returned with a bin containing dog food soaked in water. Vincent later commented, "The food he showed up with, I wouldn't feed to a pet dog. Even a low-rent musher would've taken better care of his dogs."

Based on observations made by Animal Control, a warrant was issued and the dogs were seized on February 1. Forest Service officers and sheriff's deputies shuttled dog crates on snowmobiles to a waiting trailer. Rob Greger, a Bozeman-based musher called in to assist with the rescue, hooked two of his lead dogs to a sled to bring several of the dogs out.

Sue Geske, head veterinarian of the Race to the Sky and a member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, determined that the dogs were seriously underweight, even for the lean, athletic Alaskan Husky breed. Some of the dogs were suffering from frostbite. The youngest dog had a collar deeply imbedded in its neck. Within days of the seizure, eight pups were born, bringing the total to 41.

The dogs were transported to a county barn where a dozen volunteers cared for them over a five-week period. Volunteers named the dogs based on physical or behavioral characteristics. Blue had one blue eye and one brown eye. Pacino had a scar on his face. Buster would wrap his paws around volunteers as if greeting a long-lost friend. Yodel serenaded the pack with elaborate whine-songs. Shake-N-Bake would stomp her legs and shake at the sight of food.

When Seeley Lake musher Rob Loveman learned of the dogs' plight, he donated 800 pounds of top-shelf dog food that he had intended to use in the Iditarod before withdrawing to undergo knee surgery. By week five, the dogs had regained enough strength to be transferred to locations where they could satisfy their innate desire for exercise. Pat Hess and Cara Greger recruited experienced Montana mushers to provide foster care as the case is adjudicated. Hessert was charged with 33 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty and one count of felony aggravated animal cruelty.

Who Is JT Hessert?

John Travis (JT) Hessert, 24, developed a passion for sled dog racing while growing up in Maine and set his sights on the hotbed of the sport: Alaska. He reportedly began corresponding with legendary musher Martin Buser at the age of 14 and finally convinced the four-time Iditarod champion to take him on as a dog handler in Alaska in 2004. Hessert worked with Buser's younger dogs, and he qualified for the 2005 Iditarod by placing second in the Klondike 300. At the age of 21, he finished the 1,161 mile Iditarod in 50th place.

According to several mushers familiar with Hessert, it was when he tried to establish his own racing team that he ran into trouble. Even those who object to Hessert's treatment of his animals say he is an intelligent man with an encyclopedic knowledge of champion sled dog bloodlines. "He had a solid breeding plan," said one Alaska-based musher who asked not to be identified. "But common sense seemed to be missing. Before he accumulated 30 dogs, he needed to have the means to support them and support himself."

By 2006, Hessert was living out of his truck in the Fairbanks area and the vehicle's cab was perpetually filled with trash. In November, he dislocated his kneecap in a trailer hitch mishap, forcing him to ask mushers he hardly knew to care for his dogs. One of those mushers recalled, "He had no home, he barely had means of transporting his dogs and he had no job. I knew these dogs would be in a bad situation if they didn't get help."

Another Fairbanks musher, who asked not to be named because he fears reprisal from Hessert, said, "He's very bright and manipulative. He was good at convincing people to stay on their property, but he always wore out his welcome and had to leave. He used and abused people." He also claimed that Hessert routinely refused to provide his dogs with shelters, even when they were available.

Matthew Ruger, Animal Control Manager for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, said, "I have a dossier on Mr. Hessert that's two inches thick. We have records of 21 different calls related to him."

Several complaints involved Hessert staking his dogs on borough property or private property without permission. There were also complaints regarding the physical condition of the dogs as well as how they were staked out -- their chains being too short or wrapped around brush. Animal Control was also aware that Hessert would disappear for days without feeding his dogs. "We observed that his dogs were seriously emaciated," said Ruger. "We took photographs of them. We could see shoulder bones, hip bones and ribs sticking out. We were concerned they weren't going to live through the winter." He added, "At no time in our encounters with Mr. Hessert did we observe that he provided shelter to all his animals. Some of the dogs were digging holes to find shelter."

Alaska's animal cruelty and due process laws require that -- unless an animal is in immediate danger of death -- a "removal notice" be posted 24 hours prior to seizure. Ruger said they posted several removal notices at various sites. "When we'd roll back out 24-hours later, we'd find warm tire tracks and he'd be gone. We spent a good deal of time chasing him around. The borough is the size of Connecticut, and we have five officers." As a result, Hessert's only animal-related penalty in the Fairbanks area was a citation for failure to properly restrain an animal.

Animal Control officers would leave bags of dog food with the removal notices. "There's no sense in letting these dogs suffer if we can prevent that," Ruger reported. He also said that Hessert is an anomaly in the sled dog world. "Ninety-nine percent of our dealings with mushers are positive. They're good stewards of their animals."

Hessert's lack of planning became evident during the 2007 Yukon Quest race. According to published accounts, Hessert was fined $500 for being late for a mandatory pre-race meeting. He was penalized for not cleaning up at race checkpoints and was fined $250 for not having vaccination records when he arrived in Dawson City. Hessert was involuntarily "withdrawn" by a race official due to his lack of preparation and failure to have a dog handler. An on-site observer was quoted as saying, "Those poor dogs don't know what they're getting into."

Hessert arrived in West Yellowstone in September 2007 without a place to stake his dogs. He eventually leased a parcel of land west of town that bordered National Forest property. Although the leased property had plenty of space, Hessert staked several dogs on neighboring federal land, earning him a Forest Service citation.

Hessert's trial is scheduled to begin on August 13. He is represented by attorney Chuck Watson. His father Stephen Hessert, a managing partner in a Maine law firm, requested custody of the dogs until the case is decided, a move that was opposed by the County Attorney's office. On May 12, Judge Holly Brown granted the request; Stephen Hessert will transport the dogs to Maine. The senior Hessert testified at the hearing that he has been monetarily assisting his son's mushing efforts, and that he intends to return the dogs to his son if he is acquitted.

John Worsfold, the Deputy County Attorney who was trying the Hessert case, is relocating to California to continue his law career. Worsfold said he was disappointed in the ruling. "The Judge's decision contradicts the clear and well defined intent of the Legislature who wrote the law regarding the return of seized property."

Candace Hamlin, a volunteer who provided care for Hessert's dogs at the county barn, fears the case is heading in the wrong direction. "After everything these dogs have endured at the hands of JT Hessert, the possibility that they might one day be given back to him is unthinkable. That would be the height of injustice."

Author's notes:

Neither JT nor Stephen Hessert replied to email and/or telephone requests to provide input for this article. The author was one of the people recruited to care for the seized dogs at the county facility.

In researching this article, the author discovered a number of interesting tangential stories including:

In February, 2003, the defendant's father, Stephen Hessert of Cumberland, Maine, was on a 70-mile training run with a team of sled dogs near Success, NH when he was struck from behind by a snowmobiler. The snowmobiler, 20-year-old Denis Lancey, fled the scene, leaving Hessert lying on the trail with two broken legs in below-freezing temperatures. Stephen Hessert managed to stuff his broken legs into an emergency sleeping bag. He was rescued an hour later by a group of snowmobilers who towed him to Berlin, NH in his sled. Hessert had titanium rods surgically inserted into both legs and has made a full recovery. Lancey was arrested in March, 2003, sentenced to a year in jail and was required to pay $2,000 to the victim for personal property damage.

The condition of John Hessert's truck was frequently mentioned by people interviewed for this article. One Alaskan musher said, "He was notorious for his truck. It was piled from floor to ceiling with trash. He seemed to be hoarding things like fast food wrappers. It was really weird." Photos of the trash-filled truck were posted on the Web site of an Alaskan TV station that was covering the Yukon Quest race. At one point during the Yukon Quest race, Hessert asked a fellow musher to drive his truck to the Dawson City checkpoint. A musher familiar with the incident reported, "There was so much trash in the truck you couldn't drive it. There was trash under the gas pedal and brake pedal. They took five garbage bags of trash out of the truck." Hessert told one Alaskan interviewed for this article that he kept the truck purposefully cluttered so he would have an excuse for not being able to produce insurance or registration records. A check of Alaskan Court records indicates that John Hessert accumulated 18 motor vehicle citations within a 12-month period in 2006-07. Infractions included a broken headlight (4 citations), a broken taillight (3 citations), failure to carry proof of insurance (7 citations) and operating a vehicle with an expired registration (2 citations).

After arriving in Montana, Hessert announced he was planning to organize and host a West Yellowstone sled dog race in December, 2007. He reported that in addition to the race, there would be a 5K road race, an environmental keynote speaker and evening parties. Hessert instructed entrants that there wasn't an official entry form and that checks should be made out to him rather than a race sponsor or organization. Hessert posted event updates on sled dog Web sites in the form of rhyming verses. Three weeks prior to the event date, Hessert defended himself in sled dog forums against accusations that the race was a "scam." On December 3, 2007 (two weeks before the proposed event) Hessert cancelled the race, citing the fact that he hadn't received the necessary Forest Service permit as the primary reason for the cancellation. His online post said, "I'm a big picture thinker, got caught off guard with the time requirements of the great guys in green at the FS who have to process detailed environmental analysis re dogs on the trail vs. localized bald eagle nesting - nevermind the zillion snowmachines that travel that trail daily, etc." There is no indication that Hessert cashed any of the entry fee checks, and it is more likely that the event faltered due to a lack of foresight and planning than any other reason.
Source: Bozemam Tributary - June 4, 2008
Update posted on Jun 4, 2008 - 11:14PM 
The man accused of neglecting more than 30 sled dogs near West Yellowstone was back in court Tuesday.

John Hessert already faced a judge last month, pleading not guilty to 34 counts of animal cruelty. This time, Hessert's attorney requested that custody of the dogs be given to Hessert's father pending the outcome of the case.

Hessert's father lives in Maine, though, which caused prosecutors and Judge Holly Brown to question whether it's in the court's best interest to send the dogs out of state.

Brown's concern was that the dogs may be needed as evidence in an upcoming trial. No decision reached in court Tuesday, instead, Judge Brown will meet with attorneys out of the courtroom to discuss the best option.

The animals were seized this past winter, after police say Hessert allegedly kept the dogs in an unsafe environment with no shelter, food, or water.
Source: Montana's News Station - April 2, 2008
Update posted on Apr 2, 2008 - 12:19PM 
A man accused of neglecting more than 30 dogs near West Yellowstone won't go before the judge for almost another month.

According to court documents, John Hessert faces 34 counts of animal cruelty for allegedly abandoning the animals near West Yellowstone. Officers say a man called animal control to report that 33 sled dogs were being kept in an unsafe environment with no shelter, food or water.

After searching the area, authorities seized the dogs from the property. Court records say a veterinarian examined the animals and determined that all of the dogs were well below normal health and underfed.

Hessert is scheduled to appear before the judge March 17th.
Source: CBS News - Feb 20, 2008
Update posted on Feb 20, 2008 - 10:26AM 

References

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