Despite a direct court order demanding animal rights activists to surrender Brutus, there was no dog produced at Wednesday’s hearing. There was also no contempt charge taken despite the fact the judge believes the defendants are in contempt. And now, there’s no judge to hear the case or lawyer for the plaintiff as they have both withdrawn from the case leaving the lawsuit of Joe D. Curtis versus Clay and Tammy Lerch back at the starting gate more than four months after it began.
“I’m never going to see my dog again,” Curtis said soberly after General Sessions Judge Bill Locke disqualified himself from the civil case in which Curtis is suing the Lerchs for return of his 10-year-old Boxer named Brutus.
The dog disappeared early this year and somehow turned up in the hands of Clay Lerch who has refused to return the dog despite orders by Locke to surrender the Boxer to the court.
Curtis originally filed theft charges against Lerch but they were thrown out by Locke who said the case was not criminal but could be brought as a private lawsuit. Curtis then filed the present lawsuit against the Lerchs, both of whom are agents for the Warren County Humane Society.
“I put down an order to bring that dog to Warren County but everybody seems to disregard that and don’t seem to care what I said,” Locke declared during Wednesday’s hearing. Mr. Lerch was not present at the hearing due to medical issues.
Locke said he had not decided if he would return the dog to Curtis even though he admitted that “it was pretty obvious” that it was Curtis’ dog given certain physical issues such as a mass that was on the dog’s private parts. Instead, he wanted the dog back in Warren County so an investigation could be conducted on whether the dog had been abused. A veterinarian testified in one of the earlier hearings in the lawsuit that there were signs of abuse and perhaps even the remnants of a round where the dog had been shot in the past.
“My purpose was to have Animal Control take a look at the dog,” Locke said. “Before I was going to award the dog to anyone, I was going to find out if there was any abuse. But, evidently, common sense doesn’t play around here.”
Following his statement in which he said the defendants may be in contempt for their failure to produce the dog, Locke said he would have to withdraw from hearing the case because of a last-minute motion filed by the defense. The motion noted that Locke had made the statement that he thought the dog belonged to Curtis just before he dismissed theft charges against Mr. Lerch this March. The defense believes that indicated a predisposition by the judge in the civil case.
Locke said that in the interest of transparency and to ensure everyone gets a fair trial, he should remove himself from the case. However, before stepping down he advised his replacement, whomever that will be, to look at opening a contempt case against the Lerchs. Locke said he expects to be called as a witness in that contempt hearing.
In the meantime, a lawyer who was never actually hired in the case, Frank Farrar, told Curtis he could not represent him due to conflicts after appearing on his behalf Wednesday. This case is now back to square-one as Locke will ask the Administrative Office of the Court to appoint a new judge. That process could take weeks or months.
This isn’t Lerch’s first defiance of a court order. In 2011, then-Judge Larry Ross threatened Lerch and an animal rights group known as Dames for Danes with contempt of court if they did not return two dogs Lerch reportedly took from someone’s property claiming they were being mistreated. It is not contended; however, that Lerch took Brutus from Curtis’ property in the present suit. It is only contended that the Lerchs have had possession of the dog and are withholding Curtis’ property.
In that 2011 case, Lerch accused the couple who owned the dogs of abusing them, and brought charges in General Sessions Court. Those charges were dismissed and Judge Ross ordered Lerch to return the dogs. When Lerch did not comply two weeks later, he was hauled into court and claimed he had been told by Dames for Danes the dogs had run away. Both dogs were eventually returned at separate times.
Mr. Lerch maintains he didn’t even know who Curtis was when they took the dog, which was found many miles away from Curtis’ farm, for veterinary care.
“I counted 108 bullet wounds,” Lerch said of x-rays he saw of the dog. “It had a mangled leg and a growth on its (private part).”
Lerch said Curtis “flat out lied” to get a warrant against him for theft. Lerch also said he plans to prosecute Curtis for making false statements against him to get the warrant once the civil case is done.
As for the civil case itself, Lerch maintains the lawsuit has been wrongly brought since he cannot be sued in a role as a volunteer for the Warren County Humane Society. Lerch noted the agency has powers most people don’t realize.
“We can make arrests on our own,” Mr. Lerch said. “We don’t have to have a sheriff’s deputy with us.”