JEFFERSON — A Marion County grand jury last week found “insufficient evidence” to charge the former director and workers at the county’s Humane Society with animal cruelty and abuse charges after a Jefferson resident uncovered deplorable living conditions of about 70 malnourished dogs on the property last fall, as well as freezers full of dead dogs and one dead dog inside the director’s home.
Marion County District Angela Smoak said in a news release Thursday that on June 14, “a Marion County grand jury spent all day listening to the testimony of 13 witnesses, including those who faced potential criminal charges relating to the operation and eventual closure of the Dixie Humane Society (legally known as the Humane Society of Marion County).”
Smoak said after the review of the unidentified 13 witnesses’ testimony, “and additional evidence,” the grand jury found “insufficient evidence” to charge Caroline Wedding and her fellow workers at the nonprofit shelter with a single animal cruelty, neglect or abuse charge in relation to the mistreatment of more than 70 dogs and death of several others.
Smoak on Friday did not respond to questions from the News Messenger about which witnesses were interviewed, what evidence was presented, when the investigation into Dixie Humane Society began and concluded and what the current status is of the shelter.
Volunteers who jumped into action to save the remaining dogs last fall, once the inhumane conditions at Dixie Humane Society were revealed, expressed shock and outrage on Thursday upon learning of the grand jury’s decision.
“Our (Jefferson) Police Chief Gary Amburn, District Attorney Smoak, Dixie board members, including Brooke Bradley LaFleur and veterinarian Bruce Bradley, are all close friends with Caroline Wedding,” rescue volunteer Kim Chapman Shaw said Thursday. “There were numerous conflicts of interests that neither the police chief nor the DA seemed to be concerned with during this flawed investigation.”
Shaw and fellow rescue volunteer Christie Freeman Woodson said none of the case’s investigators ever questioned volunteers about the conditions of the dogs they rescued from Dixie Humane Society, the freezers full of dead dogs they found, including an allegedly stabbed to death puppy inside Wedding’s home, nor the conditions of the property’s other building and dog kennels.
“None of us were ever interviewed,” Shaw said. “Amburn is personal friends with Wedding and refused to even allow the original whistleblower (Barbara Gayle Robinson) to press charges when she came forward about the conditions she found at Dixie Humane Society in November.”
Shaw and Woodson said once the conditions at the shelter were revealed by Robinson, who went to the local media in December with photo and video evidence, shelter board members began sending out calls for help and funding to save the remaining dogs.
“Desperate calls for volunteers were then turned into accusations of trespassing in a blatant display of harassment,” Shaw said of board members and law enforcement officials. “The focus of this so-called investigation has always been attacking the volunteers and whistleblowers who stepped up during this horrific crisis to assist the dogs suffering at Dixie.”
Smoak said on Thursday that the grand jury was presented evidence of potential charges against volunteers for tampering with evidence at the Dixie Humane Society property during the rescue of the dogs, but the grand jury did not bring forth charges against any of the volunteers.
Threats of tampering charges came forth after law enforcement officials realized volunteers discovered freezers full of dead dogs in additional buildings on the property while searching for any remaining dogs in need.
Some of the many volunteers said they documented the conditions discovered at the shelter out of fear of local law enforcement failing to investigate properly.
“Amburn has been documented in the press from the beginning stating no crime was committed,” Shaw pointed out.
Amburn also stated during a city council meeting in the middle of the police’s investigation into Dixie that he could not yet charge or arrest Wedding for any potential crimes, despite the neglected and dead dogs found throughout her property, because he did not know her “mental state.”
While serving as the nonprofit’s director, Wedding took possession of dogs that Jefferson police and Marion County Sheriff’s deputies had taken from other owners faced with charges of neglect or abuse. Wedding also received city funds to help operate her facility.
Shaw’s husband, Steve Shaw, who was present outside the Marion County Courthouse while the grand jury met, said no animal abuse experts were ever called to testify and no witnesses from Marshall Animal Hospital were called to testify.
Marshall Animal Hospital took in the surviving dogs rescued from Dixie Humane Society and nursed them back to health before hosting adoption events to find them new homes.
“The DA had obviously structured the ‘dog and pony show’ so that she could later state that the grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to indict,” Steve Shaw said Friday. “As I sat outside the grand jury room, never did I see anyone from the Marshall Animal Hospital show up to testify as to the abusive conditions of the dogs they treated, no local vet testified whether he authorized the euthanasia of killing of the freezers full of dead dogs, no expert witnesses testified on the level of contaminants present at the facility and so on.”