Trial begins in St. Louis puppy-dragging case

2013-04-09T23:25:00Z 2014-10-24T14:24:49Z Trial begins in St. Louis puppy-dragging caseBy Robert Patrick rpatrick@post-dispatch.com 314-621-5154 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS • At first, Dee Ann Ducote thought that the pickup was dragging a coat north on Interstate 55 last November.

But when she got closer and pulled alongside, she was able to peer through the chilly fog enough to see what it really was.

“It was a dog,” she said. “It was looking at me.”

Ducote’s anguished testimony came during the first day of the misdemeanor animal abuse trial of Benetta Johnson, the East St. Louis woman who has admitted allowing the dog to be tied to the truck’s trailer hitch the night before the dragging.

The 6-month-old pit bull, later dubbed Trooper by its rescuers at the Humane Society, was left gravely injured by the miles-long dragging, and was once at risk of losing a leg.

But after a series of operations and intensive care, he is now running and playing with a foster “parent,” according to court testimony.

Johnson has yet to testify during the bench trial in front of Associate Circuit Court Judge Theresa Counts Burke, but during her questioning by St. Louis police Officer Louis Naes in December, she said she told her teenage son to put the dog in the bed of the truck. He tied the dog to the hitch instead, thinking that the puppy would jump out of the truck bed, according to a video recording of the interrogation played in court Tuesday.

Johnson said that when she found out that the puppy had been dragged behind her ex-husband’s truck and beneath his 16-foot flatbed trailer, she was “crying” and “hysterical.”

“I love animals,” she told Naes.

But Johnson was frustrated that her ex-husband, Victor Washington, did not respond when she asked him to take the dog back.

Johnson said that the dog seemed sick, didn’t bark, and didn’t eat much or play. She also said that the dog was too big for her 5-year-old daughter. She said she returned him on the advice of Washington’s brother, and left the dog at Washington’s apartment in St. Louis when Washington didn’t answer more calls or texts.

She said that neither she nor Washington intended to hurt the dog. She blamed it on a “lack of communication.”

Washington said Johnson never left word that she had left the puppy, and he didn’t see the dog when he did his regular early-morning check of his truck and trailer on Nov. 21.

It wasn’t until Ducote began frantically blowing her horn that he realized that something was wrong.

He wasn’t sure “what or who” was beneath his trailer when he got out, and told Burke that he was so shocked and devastated that he ran 100 yards away.

After investigators showed him a surveillance tape, he recognized Johnson’s car at his apartment, and wiped away tears as he watched the teen tie the dog’s leash to the trailer hitch.

Johnson also dabbed away tears during the testimony.

But contrary to what she told Naes, Dr. Mark Wright, the Humane Society’s director of shelter medicine, said that Trooper was now a high-energy dog who loved to play for hours.

Wright said that in addition to Trooper’s grievous injuries, which included road burns and wounds that exposed bone, he was 25-30 percent underweight and suffering from intestinal parasites.

Prosecutors rested their case Tuesday. The trial will continue Thursday morning. Johnson is expected to testify, along with one other witness.

She declined to talk to reporters outside of the courtroom Tuesday.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer Thomas Gilliam said that the evidence would show that Johnson “did not intend or purposefully cause” Trooper’s injuries.

If convicted, Johnson could face a year in jail and a fine of $1,000.The Humane Society has posted a gallery of Trooper photos on Flickr{/a}.

Robert Patrick covers federal courts and federal law enforcement for the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter: @rxpatrick.

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