Broken system fails abused animals in Dallas

- A FOX 4 Investigation has uncovered the City of Dallas’s system to investigate animal abuse and neglect is so badly broken, no one group is tracking all animal cruelty cases from start to finish.

The illegal dumping of dead animals is a well-documented problem along Dowdy Ferry Road in South Dallas. Animal rescuers who spoke with FOX 4 say the area is a hotbed for evidence of animal cruelty.

Stephanie Timko is one of them and has been tracking their findings since last summer. Her records show, they have found more than 100 dead animals since last August. They estimate about one in six show signs of possible abuse.

The discoveries can be gruesome. We witnessed the group finding animal remains inside plastic bags and dog food bags on one of their searches earlier this year.

“We see strangulation, gunshot wounds, dying of bullet wounds, cropped ears to the head, tossed over bridges, highways from cars, starvation,” Timko said.

Her mission is to save these dogs before they are dumped.

“Once you know about it, you can’t ‘unknow’ it and you have an obligation to do something about it,” Timko said.

But when Timko brought her case to Dallas city leaders, she says, she was met with an information black hole.

“I would describe Dallas' animal cruelty system as non-existent,” she said. “There are a few patchwork places here and there where people may or may not catch an abused dog, but even those are broken and incomplete.”

What we uncovered

FOX 4 spent three months digging into Dallas police and animal services records and interviewing key players in the system to find out how seriously Dallas takes citizen reports of animal cruelty. What we found is almost as troubling as the crimes themselves.

It begins when a citizen calls 911 or 311 to report cruelty. According to a FOX 4 analysis of city records, Dallas received close to 4,000 such calls last year.

311 complaints are sent to Dallas Animal Services, or DAS. That’s where the system starts to break down.  
DAS doesn’t have a case management system to track those complaints, and even if they could, animal control officers have no law enforcement authority.

This means, it’s up to DAS to hand over cases to the Dallas Police Department to investigate.

When we asked how many cases DAS handed over to DPD in the past year, DAS manager Jody Jones said she did not have that number.

Jones did say the city installed hidden cameras in the Dowdy Ferry area last year to try and catch illegal dumping.

She said the cameras have “absolutely” helped.

“We’ve made arrests,” Jones said. “We’ve got leads. It’s gotten the public’s attention, put them on notice.”

Last October, police said cameras helped them arrest Andrew Ortiz who claimed he dumped a Great Pyrenees dog as a favor for someone else after the dog died.

Deputy Chief of Police Paul Stokes oversees the Southeast Patrol Division, which includes Dowdy Ferry. He echoed Jones’ message.

“We have made arrests because of those cameras out there,” he said.

In that same interview, we asked Stokes for details on those other arrests he mentioned, but he wouldn’t give dates, names or case numbers.

In fact, this was his response: "You're an investigative reporter right? You should be able to get what you need for that request."

So, we filed an open records request for every 911 call for animal cruelty and what DPD did to investigate.

Weeks later, we got some files, but they didn’t paint a complete picture.

Hundreds of entries showed no names, no addresses and no indication of how the cases were investigated.

We asked Stokes to clarify. He said cases are tracked by each of DPD’s seven divisions and detectives assigned to the cases. DPD also tracks cases they sent to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.

None of that was reflected in the files we received.

“If we don’t report and we don't track, we won't ever know. And if we don't know, we can't get resources to deal with the problem,” rescuer Stephanie Timko said, when we shared our findings.

We did find one number from the District Attorney’s office.

Their records show, in 2015, Dallas police brought 11 cases to the District Attorney’s Animal Cruelty Unit for prosecution.

Eleven cases… out of nearly 4,000 calls from the public.

Carmen White is the Administrative Chief Prosecutor. She oversees the District Attorney’s Animal Cruelty Unit.

She explains why the DA decided to form a specialized unit to prosecute these types of crimes.

“One of the reasons we have formed a unit is because we realize the public is not educated on what animal cruelty is,” White said. “Even if they recognize it they don't know what to do, they don't know who to call. Once people understand that it is criminal, police will get more calls. They'll have more cases to investigate."

Houston and Austin have dedicated animal cruelty units within their police departments.

Rescuer Timko believes Dallas needs one too, because right now, DPD officers are forced to prioritize crimes against animals among crimes against people.

“As soon as they get called off to do something else, it's all going to fall apart because it isn't anyone's responsibility to take care of this,” Timko said. “This is about building a safety net for our animals that isn't here today.”

We asked Stokes if he thinks DPD needs an animal cruelty unit.

“At this time, we do not believe we need that,” he said. “Like I said, we have seven patrol divisions and each patrol division has their own detective that does investigate these offenses.”

Assistant District Attorney Felicia Kerney prosecutes animal cruelty in Dallas County. She disagrees with DPD.

“I think it's important to have a dedicated unit that is focused on investigating animal cruelty,” Kerney said. “It allows an agency to dedicate all their time to the investigation, because investigating animal cruelty is unique, and requires a level of expertise."

Looking ahead

The City of Dallas confirmed to FOX 4 Thursday, some changes are on the way for DAS and DPD after the deadly mauling of a woman in South Dallas by a pack of loose dogs on May 2. The changes are expected to impact how the two agencies operate and communicate on all cases, include animal cruelty.

In a statement, a city spokesperson wrote:

[DPD] Deputy Chief Robert Sherwin will be embedded in DAS to implement actions that will address gaps and opportunities identified from the review of this case. For example, we have identified the need to integrate dispatch systems to improve coordination by DAS and follow-up investigations by DPD. He will help to strengthen enforcement against habitually ireesponsible animal owners and further integrate DPD processes into the DAS approach.

Chief Sherwin will also be responsible for identifying additional gaps and opportunities to strengthen the relationship between DPD and DAS.

In April, the City of Dallas announced a new working group formed to discuss how animal cruelty is investigated. It includes DPD, DAS, prosecutors and rescuers.

Timko attended the working group’s first meeting on May 13.  She believes it is a step in the right direction, but said it could be six months before any concrete changes are made.

In the meantime, Dallas Animal Services said the agency has started manually tracking cases sent to Dallas police. That new process began in March, the same month we put in our request for the records that led to this story.

On January 1 of this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began collecting detailed data from participating law enforcement agencies across the country on acts animal cruelty.

Those acts include gross neglect, torture, organized abuse, and sexual abuse of animals.

The FBI will track this data alongside felony crimes like arson, burglary, assault, and homicide in its National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

It is a voluntary reporting system.

The Dallas Police Department told FOX 4 is not currently tracking animal cruelty in its own category, nor is it reporting this data separately to the FBI. DPD also could not say when they would begin doing so.

Until a more permanent solution is created, Timko and her fellow rescuers vowed to continue searching along Dowdy Ferry Road and documenting possible victims of animal abuse.

Khaleesi's story

It didn’t happen in Dowdy Ferry, but another possible case of animal abuse caught our attention, because of the way it was handled by the city.

In January, firefighters responded to a suspected arson at a home in the Red Bird area of southwest Dallas.

They found a dog outside, malnourished and critically wounded, with a large slit across her throat. They rushed her to a veterinarian who was able to save her life.

The firefighters named her Khaleesi after a character in the popular drama Game of Thrones. Like the Queen of Dragons, Khaleesi the dog is known for her courage and spirit.

Foster mom Amanda Deaton said Khaleesi loves people, despite her hard past. 

“Everyone who meets her, they're like, ‘Why would anyone want to hurt her?’” Deaton said. “She's just so sweet. I can't imagine.”

One month after the fire, investigators arrested and charged 37-year-old William Demond Mathonican with felony arson. That case is pending in court.

Dallas Police Department records show, Khaleesi’s injury was noted in a supplementary document to the arson case, but investigators never looked into who slit Khaleesi’s throat.

Khaleesi is available for adoption through DFW Rescue Me.

What to do if you suspect or witness animal cruelty

In an emergency, always dial 9-1-1.

Report a concern by phone by dialing 3-1-1 or 214-670-3111.

Report a concern online via the 311 website.

Download the free 311 app and report loose dogs and deceased pets.

The SPCA of Texas is a non-profit organization that runs its own animal cruelty investigations. In an emergency, call 9-1-1 first, then report animal cruelty to the SPCA of Texas online by using this form.

You can reach the FOX 4 Investigative Team by e-mailing iteam@foxtv.com.

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