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Guilty verdict reached in neglect, animal cruelty case

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.