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Guilty verdict reached in neglect, animal cruelty case

November 13, 2013 | 09:27 AM

A Depauw couple arrested two years ago on a felony charge of neglect of a dependent and four misdemeanor counts of cruelty to an animal was found guilty by a jury in Harrison Superior Court Friday evening.

After two days of testimony, a jury of three men and three women (and a female alternate juror) took almost two hours to find Randell T. Lee and Samantha Sue Lee, both of the 5700 block of Milltown-Frenchtown Road, guilty on all counts.

Though Samantha Lee broke down several times during testimony at the trial, the couple showed no emotion as Judge Pro Tem Elizabeth Swarens read the verdict.

Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 12, at 1 p.m.

"After two long years, the State of Indiana is thrilled to finally have reached finality in this case and, naturally, we were glad that it came back guilty on all counts," Harrison County Prosecutor J. Otto Schalk said at 10 p.m. Friday after the verdict had been announced. "At the end of the day, this isn't so much about the State of Indiana, but the 36 animals that were at (Harrison County) animal control. This case was really about justice for them, and that was achieved today."

The Lees were charged in December 2011 after 36 cats, three dogs and four chickens were removed from their home on Nov. 17. The Dept. of Child Services told the couple that their two children had to stay elsewhere until the home's living conditions were deemed more suitable. The children were allowed to return home after a couple of days, after their parents cleaned the residence, which photos show as being filled with clutter and what appeared to be feces on multiple surfaces, including flooring, clothing, a kitchen counter-top and near food.

"I hope this sends a clear message that we take animal cruelty seriously," Schalk said. "We are not going to hesitate to take the resources available to us to prosecute. When the facts necessitate a trial, we are going to do that. I think that the amount of evidence the State presented was the nail in the coffin."

The prosecution mainly focused on two components of the case: the condition of the Lees' home and the condition of the animals inside the home (the four charges of cruelty to an animal involved cats that died while in the care of HCAC).

The first to testify was Jeri Warren, the Louisville woman who, in essence, started the case after she contacted No Kill Louisville, a nonprofit organization that helps place animals, to find a shelter that would take in two cats that she'd recently had fixed.

No Kill Louisville contacted Frisky Felines Foundation, the nonprofit rescue the Lees operated at their residence. Samantha Lee said on the stand that she offered to drive to Louisville to take possession of the two cats after Warren begged her to do so.

Warren said she called Frisky Felines the night she gave up the cats and again the next morning, but there was no answer. Suspecting something unusual, Warren said she called the Better Business Bureau to get the location of Frisky Felines. She drove to the Lees' home and immediately called police after walking to the front door of the residence and noting the strong odor of animal feces and urine.

Warren drove a short distance away and called police.

"Had Jeri Warren not contacted the police, we may not be here today," Schalk said during closing arguments.

The second person to testify was Officer Gary Gilley of the Harrison County Sheriff's Dept., who also went into detail about the strong smell inside the home and the living conditions of the Lee family.

Harrison County Public Health Coordinator Tony Combs followed Gilley on the witness stand. He described the strong smell of ammonia coming from the home and said the amount of feces on the floor led him to make the determination that the house was deemed unfit for human habitation.

Combs returned to the home on Nov. 21 and said house was remarkably better but there was still a strong smell of ammonia in the air. He went on to say that ammonia can be a dangerous or toxic gas that can cause a variety of health issues.

Combs said that, in eight years as health coordinator, he only knows of two homes (including the Lees') that have been deemed uninhabitable.

"It was not a close call in this case," Combs said.

After Combs, Jessica Houchin, a DCS worker who assesses homes and the safety of children in homes, reported her findings.

She said Samantha Lee told her the reason the house was so disheveled was because her oldest son and a cat were sick and both had to be taken to the doctor, making the family "a little behind on chores."

Houchin said the entire house was alarming but, as a DCS worker, she paid most attention to the kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms that the children may use.

"You could smell cat urine before you got inside the home. It was a sickening smell that would stick in your nose and clothes the rest of the day. There was the smell of feces but the ammonia was the most powerful," Houchin said. "I told the Lees their children were not safe in that environment and, until it was cleaned up, it was not appropriate for children to stay at the home ... and (the Lees) needed to make other plans."

The Lees sent the children to a friend's grandparents' house until the home was cleaned, Houchin said.

Houchin said she interviewed a teenage daughter of the Lees and asked if she believed the home's condition was appropriate, or that it was OK to live in those conditions. The daughter allegedly said, "No."

Testimony of Harrison County Animal Control Officer Bruce LaHue capped Thursday and started Friday's sessions. He went into further detail about the condition of the home and the animals he seized in 2011, noting an unusual amount of cat feces — some solid, some not — on floors and in and around litter boxes. It was his opinion that, even with the large number of cats, it would take several days to get to the level of animal waste that was inside the home. One photo showed a full litter box with what appeared to be cat diarrhea on the floor near a sack of potatoes.

The defense objected to LaHue's testimony about ammonia and its effects on the human body, saying he had no expertise on the subject.

LaHue was allowed to explain that he had been an emergency medical technician for about 20 years and had taken part in HAZMAT training, making him knowledgeable about the subject. He noted that animal control facilities have ventilation systems designed to remove ammonia to make the facility safe, not just for animals, but for humans as well.

The defense did what it could to discredit LaHue under cross-examination, pointing out that several of the animals had died while under the care of HCAC and that LaHue's records showed that two of the cats were dewormed and given Frontline flea treatment on Dec. 2, despite the same records showing the two cats were euthanized on Nov. 28.

LaHue said the clerical mistake did not change his opinion of the accuracy of the report and, if anything, showed that his employees were human.

District 8 Field Technician Dr. Jodi Lovejoy of the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, who evaluated the animals and rated them using the Purina Body Condition Scoring System, and Dr. Ronald Smith, a veterinarian from Ramsey, also testified Friday about the conditions of the Lees' animals.

The animals were rated on a 1.0 to 9.0 scale, where 1.0 is emaciated, 9.0 is extremely obese and normal body condition is 5.0. The presence or absence of periodontal disease was also noted in the report.

Lovejoy said that of the 36 cats, 21 scored in the 1.0 to 2.0 range and nine others were in the 2.5 to 3.5 range. Six of the cats scored in the 4.0 to 4.5 range. Of the dogs, one was scored 7.0 (heavy) while the other two were in the normal range of 4.5 to 5.0. One of the dogs also tested positive for heartworms. Two of the four chickens were in thin body condition, while the other two were in good condition.

Lovejoy noted that half of the cats had an active upper respiratory infection at the time of evaluation, and some of the cats were infected with feline infectious peritonitis, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Chlamydophila felis and Mycoplasma felis. Both C. felis and M. felis may cause disease or may be present in healthy cats.

Samantha Lee elected to take the stand in her own defense.

She said from a young age she wanted to be a veterinarian and had volunteered at various animal hospitals and volunteered at a zoo. It was her children's idea to start a pet rescue, which she said had taken in donations of maybe $70 since her 501(c)(3) status was approved in 2011.

Lee claimed moisture on a kitchen counter wasn't cat urine, but grease from french fries that her son cooked the night before the animals were seized, and she said photos that the prosecution and witnesses claimed to have shown cat feces on a linoleum floor was actually "sludge" that had been tracked to the main living floor from her basement, which flooded about a month before she was arrested. She said sludge was different than mud and was a mixture of wet dirt and wet cardboard boxes that had disintegrated.

Lee claimed scratches and eye drainage seen in photos of the cats taken at HCAC weren't there when the cats were seized.

When asked about a full fly-catching strip that had been hanging in her daughter's bedroom, Samantha Lee said she didn't feel it was her place to remove the item.

"Naturally, when Samantha took the stand, I felt that was detrimental to their case," Schalk said. "Based on the evidence, I think it made the jury's decision quicker. The theme throughout this trial has been responsibility and accountability. (Samantha Lee) pushed the blame on everyone else, from the condition of the house, to Jeri Warren, to her own children, to expert witnesses who all testified that it was feces and not 'sludge' that was on the floor throughout the house."

A pre-sentencing investigation is scheduled and probation will make a recommendation for sentencing, with the final decision for a sentence being left up to the judge.

Twitter: @_alanstewart

  1. print email
    Thank you for the great coverage.
    November 14, 2013 | 08:44 AM

    I will be at the sentencing to show my support for the animals. So many communities don't support animals in times of crisis like this was. I am proud to say I am in Harrison County with the support shown from the legal system thus far and the media calling one of our own to task for being irresponsible with animals. Animals ARE a responsibility. A delightful one, but other than children one of the most significant reasponsibilites we have.

  2. print email
    Animal Story
    November 14, 2013 | 12:59 PM

    It was nice to see that there will be some accountability here in this case. Good job from the Prosecutor and all involved.

    It is sad to think that all these animals had to go thru this. If someone has alot of animals and takes proper care of them, great, however, when this happens it's unacceptable. I hope the 501c3 status has since been revoked as well.

  3. print email
    501c3 status
    November 14, 2013 | 01:18 PM

    I think she would need to be reported. I thought the same thing. And from a facebook page they have I don't see any sense of accountability. I hope the judge is made aware and takes this into account at sentencing:

  4. print email
    Animal Story
    November 14, 2013 | 08:10 PM

    After showing support for the animals you'll return home and enjoy a meaty dinner that evening. Pot meet Kettle.

    I'm sure
  5. print email
    Actually, no, not a lot of meat here.
    November 14, 2013 | 11:04 PM

    But, that's neither here nor there. The animals that reside with us won't score on a scale of 1-2 on the Purina scale. And yes, the are carnivores and omnivores, so meat is purchased. Any one with cats or dogs can't say they bring no meat in their home even if it's in a bag of dog or cat food.

  6. print email
    November 14, 2013 | 11:11 PM

    Every last animal in our home has been FULLY vetted and has all legal vaccinations (rabies) and wellness shots / heartworm preventative and regular dentals. Obviously, if they are sick they see the vet as well. Apparently the animals in this situation did NOT have their vaccines and 30/36 cats were underweight, most substantially. To boot none even had rabies shots? Excuse me, 2 ferals that may well have gotten those for free through a feral program. I can't see that they were vetted as it was told previously since I don't know a vet that will let that many animals go without the bare minimum. This is sad. This is very sad. And even worse it appears that the blame was placed on everyone except the parents including their own kids.

  7. print email
    November 15, 2013 | 04:26 PM

    What a sick, sick couple. I hope as part of their sentencing they get some mental help No. 1, and No. 3 I hope they'll never be allowed to own another animal again.

    You'll notice I didn't use No. 2. There was plenty of that to go around, apparently.

  8. print email
    Sentencing hearing cancelled
    November 18, 2013 | 02:05 PM

    Alan, when is the hearing going to take place? I saw it was cancelled on this site:

  9. print email
    November 20, 2013 | 04:09 PM

    Why didn't you write about how the dog was seized based on being skin and bones but scored a 5 on the body condition scale, why didn't you write about how LaHue DID NOT provide the medication I, nor Dr. Smith provided for the cats until the 5th day (which caused them to get sick), why didn't you write how NONE of my vet bills were allowed to be introduced as MY defense, why did you not write how BOTH Dr. Smith and Dr. Lovejoy said they CANNOT say the cats died because of anything my husband or I did, why didn't you write how the last cat starved to death in animal controls care and was NEVER vetted from Dec 5- Dec 13, 2011 for anorexia and reported dead on Dec 14, why didn't you write how my sons cat had a seizure on day 12 and was not vetted but euthanized, why didn't you write how Garfield got sick and was taken off of medication 2 days before he died and was NEVER offered veterinary care, why didn't you write how Jeri Warren LIED that she was NEVER GETTING EVICTED, but told No Kill Louisville and Me she had only 2 weeks to rehome 7 cats or be evicted, which was why I helped her to keep her in her home., why didn't you write her cats were not part of my rescue, but I had in fact contacted my vets office to ask for local maintained feral colonies in which to take them to, why did you lie and say the living room floor when the living room floor wasn't shown, the sludge was on the kitchen floor between the basement door and the back door, why did you not write how I was staked out for 5 1/2 hours and could not do my daily chores, which led the cats to go outside the litter box, which is common if you do not stay on the litter boxes, the litter boxes were not overflowing with feces, but there was a 19 hour gap from when I went to bed and from when they took the photo, why didn't you state all of the facts??? This has been a one sided story for the good old boys to get back at me for filing a tort claim against LaHue. Use your head people, there is A LOT more to this story than they want you to know. I have the proof to back up what I say!

  10. print email
    This was a travesty
    November 20, 2013 | 05:10 PM

    I support Samantha one hundred percent and she has told and documented the truth about this case. She took that documentation to the judge and the humane society people dictated to the judge, the prosecutor, and the jury exactly what they would do to Samantha.

    The reporter who wrote this article would do well to find out what really happened.

    It is time to shut down fraudulent charities that push these dishonest prosecutions.

    Thomas Kirby
  11. print email
    All this
    November 20, 2013 | 05:19 PM

    Connie, what has already been done to this family is disgusting. Please consider not showing up to gloat over it.

    I would love to see Bruce LaHue taking a liking to your animals, except that it would hurt the animals.

    Thomas Kirby
  12. print email
    All this and more
    November 20, 2013 | 06:47 PM

    So no, I would not actually like to see him taking a liking to your animals, Connie, but I can see it happening. What he did to the Garwoods was completely illegal, too. It was not legal to seize the animals. It was also not legal to seize Samantha Lee's animals. There really is no effective law anymore. So would you be celebrating the enforcement of the law or the defeat of the law by animal rights groups?

    Thomas Kirby
  13. print email
    Truth and Justice will prevail one day for ALL
    November 20, 2013 | 08:24 PM

    This poor family! All they were trying to do was help an evidently jealous and hateful woman. How horrible, a family destroyed, and that daughter and son will never forget or be able to get over this ordeal. May God bless all involved and may those casting those big stones get what ONLY GOD CAN GIVE TO THEM FOR THESE EFFORTS! FYI: That 16-17 year old daughter was definitely old enough to remove the fly trap from her room when necessary! COME ON PEOPLE!!! AND WHAT DID THE LAB SAY WAS ON THE FLOOR BETWEEN BASEMENT DOOR AND BACK DOOR? WITH A FLOODED BASEMENT, A REAL MESS COULD BE MADE WITHOUT THE STATED SLUDGE/MUD BEING FECES. THIS JUST ISN'T RIGHT!

  14. print email
    November 21, 2013 | 08:36 AM

    So someone convicted of four misdemeanors and a felony by a jury her defense helped pick now claims she was set up and she has evidence to back it up, yet apparently none of this evidence was heard in court so it might help clear her name.

    Sorry. I'm not buying it.

  15. print email
    It happened exactly that way
    November 21, 2013 | 12:35 PM

    That's exactly what happened, "not buying it." ...

    Thomas Kirby
  16. print email
    So, those of you saying this was right...
    November 21, 2013 | 09:46 PM

    For those supporting the Lee's I must ask if 21 cats at a weight of 1-2 out of 9 isn't that what you would describe as starved? And only 2 ferals had a rabies shot which is the law? If you look at nothing aside from that 21 cats were virtually starving! 9 of the cats were from 2.5 to 3.5 which I would still say was substantially underweight. Maybe I'm naive, but if the Lee's were regularly vetting animals why didn't they have rabies shots? I don't know a vet that doesn't give rabies UNLESS the animal is too sick to receive the shot at the time. Did they really have 34 cats that couldn't have shots? Isn't that what negligence would be? Yes, I will be in court to show my support for those animals.

    These animals were seen by two different vets. I would call that substantiated.

    The paper DID say that the dogs were normal weight with one being overweight and that six cats were normal weight. Apparently some of the chickens were underweight. So, yes, I call that fair reporting.

    I have heard other things within the community that have helped form my opinion, but I won't share those as they could be considered rumors when I personally can't substantiate them. But, they have basically been substantiated for the most part via the paper on the court case.

    I also concur with the person that Mr and Mrs Lee had the opportunity to select a jury of their peers from the community and they said they are guilty.

    I too share the hope that the family gets mental help and that they aren't able to have animals again. Those are things I'm hoping to hear in court.

    I will pray daily for those children. I think they must have been horrifically scarred by this. But, I hold no sympathy for someone that can starve an animal. And two vets saying they were at a weight of 1-2 tells me that's exactly what must have happened.

    From what I've seen the Corydon Democrat has been nothing but responsible in their reporting of this story.

    And Mr Kirby, considering the fact that I have no animals starved here and they all are fully and regularly vetted I think they are pretty safe. I thank you for your concern though.

  17. print email
    Mr Kirby, I do have a question.
    November 22, 2013 | 01:50 PM

    What fraudulent charities are you referring to? I would like to presume that you are not referring to me. If you are I would like to set the record straight. First of all, I am NOT a charity by any means. I volunteer in several areas and one of those areas includes animal rescue. I am not a charity and I do not accept money to fund vetting my own personal pets. If anything, I donate to 501c3 rescues and I've been known to assist some that can't afford to vet their pets when it's been possible for us to do so. I had one instance in the past five years that I acted AS a rescue for a dog that I could not find a rescue with space and I rehomed him on my own dime. I didn't take anything for that and asked that they make a donation to a rescue I volunteer for in lieu of any donation directly to me. Thus, if you're referring to me being a charity you have been misinformed. And I can't be fraudulent if I don't accept donations. It probably might be best if you clarify who you are referring to rather than make vague insinuations towards someone in the community.

  18. print email
    Fraudulent charities
    November 22, 2013 | 08:26 PM

    Any charity that goes on a "raid" is a fraudulent charity.

    Connie, did you know that rescues take in sick cats and those sick cats are sometimes thin?

    Thomas Kirby
  19. print email
    Yes, I do realize that.
    November 23, 2013 | 09:06 AM

    Yes, I am aware of that. That might account for the cats that were in the 2.5 to 3.5 range. But what about the 21 that were starved? I do consider a 1 to 2 rating starved. And unless the Lee's had a massive intake very recently I don't see how anyone could account for 21 of them being starved to that point. How many of these cats were immediate intakes? I have never had a cat or dog that came to me thin that wasn't approaching a healthy weight within a month.

    I do know some people from the rescues that came in to save some of the animals that were in animal control when the Lee's cats were at intake point. They saw some of the Lee cats and I heard some verbal confirmations that what the Corydon Democrat reported were accurate. Thus, this in part confirmed my opinion on Frisky Felines from the beginning.

    I still have NO idea what you mean by a charity that goes on a raid. No animal rescue went in the Lee's. What are you talking about? Are you referring to rescues? There was child welfare, animal control and the sheriff's department from my understanding. None of these would be defined a charity. Feel free to elaborate because I have no clue who you are referring to.

    So, Mr Kirby, what has been your involvement with the Lee's? And since you seem to feel that this is appropriate what is your connection to rescue within this community?

  20. print email
    November 26, 2013 | 03:33 PM

    NO cat in my care scored a 1, 2, 3 or 4 on 11/17/11. What you are not getting Connie is that NONE of the cats were seen by Lovejoy until the 5th day! If you have cats, you know how they can lose weight quickly if they don't eat. Why would I had paid over $500 on vet care in November 2011 alone but allowed my cats to starve?? Why did Jeri Warrens cats score LOW?? Why are there discrepancies in the vets reports?? Why does Dr. Smith say "good weight" but Lovejoy scored a LOW BCS???? So you think it is ok for ACO to just stop giving medication to cats he seized, wait another 3 days to pick up meds to ordered by Dr. Smith??? Do you wait to pick up meds for your pets 3 days later Or do you do like me and medicate that day??? ALL of this I have proof of.

  21. print email
    Obviously different was proven at trial Samantha.
    November 26, 2013 | 11:13 PM

    There are personal friends that saw the animals when they were there to save others that had been in animal control that would have died when your pets were brought in. The sorry shape of your poor animals has been confirmed through those people for me. So frankly, I don't believe a word you are saying. If there had been admissable evidence I believe it would have been seen. And the two vets did say what method of analyzing the cats was used and 21 were at 1-2. Yes, they can lose weight quickly. But, I can assure you even if mine had a couple days of being persnickity with eating they would not rate a 1 to 2 on the Purina scale. Would they lose some weight? Yes, but they would FAR from appear starved.

    You stress all you've spent at the vet and yet only two had rabies shots? And those were ferals? I know there is a good possibility you used one of the feral programs in our area that provide rabies shots along with spay/neuter. What vetting did you provide? Did you ever give any of these animals any vaccinations for wellness? I would suspect that you didn't if you didn't vaccinate for rabies. And what vet did you use that would send an animal out there that doesn't adhere to the letter of the law and give rabies shots? I know my vet wouldn't send our pets out without required rabies shots unless they were far too sick to receive the injection. Were ALL your pets except the two ferals too sick for rabies?

    As has been shared elsewhere in an article it's been a string of excuses on your part since the beginning of this thing. I still have those excuses saved from our very first conversation on your facebook wall. This is the last conversation I'll have with you Samantha. I am just very grateful at the results of this trial and I am proud to be in a community that takes the side of the animals and children.

    Mr Kirby, you still haven't replied on what your connection to the Lee's is. Are you a local resident? I saw you in another article here as well and you seem to feel you have first hand knowledge on this.

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