Grand jury gets dogcatcher case

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lewisburg's animal control officer has been transferred to the stormwater management department pending a decision by the grand jury today in a case involving an English bulldog.

City officials have confirmed that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been sorting through allegations surrounding Christopher Neal Owens, 36, of Lewisburg's Adams Subdivision.

Owens says he didn't do anything wrong. Monday he was asked for his side of the story about a dog he picked up at a man's house. Owens says he thought the English bulldog was owned by the man who called for the dog's removal. Owens later donated the dog to a rescue group, but he's been accused of trying to sell the animal.

"This is America," City Manager Eddie Fuller said, noting the lack of a conclusion to the chain of events. "You're still innocent until proved guilty."

Fuller provided the following general outline of the situation on Friday.

* A resident of Buchanan Street called the Animal Shelter on Woodside Avenue saying a stray English bulldog was being held so the city could pick up the animal, later seen as owned by a resident of Woods Avenue North.

* The dog apparently didn't have a collar or an electronic chip to help animal control officers identify its owner.

* Owens got the dog, took it to the shelter, then allegedly took it home. Other people saw the English bulldog and Owens supposedly recognized that it probably had more value than the average stray dog.

* It's been alleged that Owens tried to sell the dog for $1,000. The attempt was reported to have included a digital photo. Some information was received indicating that the digital photo is how the dog was recognized as having another owner.

* Without a sale, the dog was transferred to someone with a rescue organization.

Fuller's been advised that some English bulldogs have sold for as much as $1,800, he said.

Two sources speaking on a condition of anonymity, said the individual who received the English bulldog breeds those dogs.

Owens "admitted to it," Fuller said, unsure of all the legal implications. "At this point in time, we're going to wait and see what the grand jury says."

Owens on Monday declined to speak at length about his situation, explaining, "I told my story to the only one who matters." That person is the city manager who also serves as personnel director for the city.

Asked if he sold the dog for $10 instead of charging $71 for adoption, Owens replied there's no fee charged to rescue groups. "I work with a lot of rescue groups."

Owens clearly indicated he knew the grand jury is scheduled to meet today and that he believed that the situation surrounding him would be presented to the panel.

Grand Jury deliberations are secret and there's rarely any indication that a case is being taken to the panel unless it's been through the General Sessions Court. Cases are taken to the grand jury by the District Attorney's General Office, now led by Charles Crawford of Fayetteville.

"I can not comment on an on-going investigation," Crawford said.

Most of the time, grand juries issue what's technically called a "true bill of indictment," meaning the panel has concluded that there's probable cause to send a case to circuit court for a trial. It does not mean the defendant is guilty. Grand juries may also issue a "no true bill of indictment," providing a clear statement that the 12 grand jurors wouldn't send the case toward trial. A grand jury may also take no action on information presented.

Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis said the investigation into the city's handling of the English bulldog was conducted by the TBI and the Marshall County Sheriff's Department.

Owens was transferred from the Animal Control office to the Stormwater Management Department on Sept. 11, Forbis said.

The local Animal Control office has been manned by a city employee and an employee paid by Marshal County. Under those circumstances, Owens' immediate supervisor was Police Capt. David Ray who oversees other aspects of the department's operations.

For about a week and a half now, Owens has been helping Stormwater Management Director Corey Pleas map the city's drainage system in connection with a state order for more organization in that department.

"He's not suspended at this point," Forbis said on Friday morning. "He's technically on paid leave from is department. He's been reassigned to another department pending completion of the investigation."

Owens was transferred so the city could get some value for his time, rather that place him on paid leave, Forbis said.

The chain of events described by the city manager and police chief were being examined by other law enforcement agencies before city leaders became aware of them, Fuller said.

Owens started working for the city in December 2003. His first job was in the Street Department. Because of overtime connected to weekend feeding times at the animal shelter, Owens' annual pay is "probably ... in the $30,000 range," Fuller said.

People who want to adopt a dog held by Animal Control are to pay $71. The money is then available for the city to pay a veterinarian who spays or neuters the animal for its new owner.

Owens says he believes the English bulldog has been returned to its owner.