Local animal cruelty investigations continue amid community outcry, legislative action

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The search continues for suspects in two separate animal cruelty investigations in Northeast Tennessee.

Investigators with the Johnson City Police Department are currently going through security footage frame by frame, hoping to find who is responsible for a dead cat with stab wounds found in the parking lot of a local funeral home over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office is still working to find who is responsible for the January incident of a dog being dragged behind a car in the parking lot of a Kingsport church.

While both investigations continue in Northeast Tennessee, a bill moving through the state legislature this session seeks to make it easier to prosecute people who commit acts of aggravated cruelty against animals.

Johnson City Police investigate cat killing

A cat was found dead in the parking lot of Appalachian Funeral Home on Sunday. The animal’s paws were bound with duct tape and it had multiple stab wounds. Authorities said the cat also suffered head trauma. A screwdriver was found nearby.

Credit: Washington County, TN Animal Shelter

“On the scene of Appalachian Funeral Home, there were some tire tracks that had gone through the animal’s blood and made an imprint on the pavement. There was also a screwdriver close by with blood on it. We have no idea if any of those are connected or not,” said Lt. Don Shepard of the JCPD.

Investigators are reviewing security footage from Appalachian Funeral Home and a neighboring residence.

“The initial observations from the animal control officer didn’t dictate any puncture wounds or anything that would indicate the screwdriver was used,” said Shepard. “However a necropsy’s been ordered for the animal, hopefully will take place next week, that will shed some light on this case and also show us what the cause of death is for the cat.”

JCPD asks anyone with information to come forward by calling Crime Stoppers at 423-434-6158 or by texting the code 423 JCPD along with the tip to the number 847411 (TIP411).

Tammy Davis, director of the Washington County and Johnson City Animal Shelter, said they see cases of animal cruelty on a weekly basis. However, these are often cases of neglect and not necessarily cases of aggravated cruelty.

“This was definitely intentional. It was just a horrific thing that was done on purpose to a helpless animal,” Davis said of the cat incident.

Davis said the shelter has been contacted by several individuals wanting to offer up a reward for information leading to the arrest of who is responsible. She said the reward will be announced Wednesday.

Church’s recovery continues

In Sullivan County, the Sherriff’s Office says leads are still coming in for another animal cruelty investigation, but there are no suspects at this time. Surveillance footage from January showed a dog being tied and dragged behind a white four-door sedan in the parking lot of Gospel Mission Church in Kingsport. The footage showed at least two people involved in the crime.

On Tuesday, Andes-Straley Veterinary Hospital confirmed to News Channel 11 the dog, “Church” is still in their care, and doing well in his recovery.

Church recovering at Andes-Straley Veterinary Hospital in March 2021

“The investigation is still ongoing. Leads continue to come in and the investigator that is assigned to the case is aggressively following up on those leads,” Captain Andy Seabolt with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office said in an email.

Updating aggravated animal cruelty laws

An animal cruelty-related bill sponsored by a local lawmaker is moving through the Tennessee legislature. SB0166 aims to make prosecution easier against those who commit aggravated cruelty against animals.

For offenses against animals, current state law defines aggravated cruelty as “conduct which is done or carried out in a depraved and sadistic manner and which tortures or maims an animal, including the failure to provide food and water to a companion animal resulting in a substantial risk of death or death.”

The bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) would take out the ‘depraved and sadistic manner’ language. He says this will eliminate the need for psychological analysis in court cases and lessen the burden of proof for prosecutors.

“In a court of law, to prove someone was depraved or sadistic in an act they carried out, requires a much more difficult burden for those prosecutors. When we take that out, say if your actions led to drowning an animal. And you purposely intended to drown the animal, to burn an animal, to crush an animal, deprive them of food or water, that is aggravated animal cruelty,” said Lundberg.

The bill has already passed unanimously in the Senate and was discussed by the Criminal Justice subcommittee in the House on Tuesday. If the bill passes through the House and is signed by the governor, the law would take effect in July.

“The goal is to cut down on animal cruelty, especially aggravated cruelty. It’s horrific and we as a legislative body, I think we all understand it’s an issue we need to be able to correct, ” said Lundberg.

Aggravated cruelty to animals is a Class E felony in Tennessee, punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

If passed, Davis believes the legislation will make it easier to bring justice for animals who are hurt.

“That would definitely work in the favor of the police department and in favor of animal control. It will make it a little bit easier, hopefully, to be able to convict people of aggravated animal cruelty instead of just animal cruelty in these types of cases,” she said.

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