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Deal reached in animal abuse case

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ll charges dropped against Bobby Phillips, Rebecca Phillips takes Alford Plea on six charges that were not dropped, gets 25 dogs back

By Zac Oakes

 

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The animal cruelty case against local business owners Bobby and Rebecca Phillips came to an end last week via a mediation agreement, and many local residents are upset, angry, and frustrated at the result. 

Via the agreement, all 164 charges against Bobby Phillips were dismissed. He had faced 82 counts of cruelty to animals second degree and 82 counts of failure to vaccinate against rabies. 

Rebecca Phillips faced the same counts. Via an agreement reached between special prosecutor Lisa Nally-Martin and Lebanon attorney Jim Avritt, the attorney for the Phillipses, 76 of the cruelty to animals charges as well as 76 of the failure to vaccinate charges were dismissed. 

Rebecca Phillips took an Alford Plea on the remaining six charges of cruelty to animals and failure to vaccinate. According to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, an Alford Plea “registers a formal claim neither of guilt nor innocence toward charges brought against a defendant in criminal court… an Alford plea arrests the full process of criminal trial because the defendant — typically, only with the court's permission — accepts all the ramifications of a guilty verdict (i.e. punishment) without first attesting to having committed the crime.” 

Rebecca Phillips received a 12-month diversion, meaning if she is not legally accused of any further criminal violations or does not violate the agreement during that time span, then the charges against her will be dismissed as well. 

Via the agreement, 25 of the dogs seized from the Phillipses’ property in February and March will be returned back to Rebecca Phillips, and she will get to choose which 25 dogs she receives. The agreement also states that two border collies will be returned to Bobby and Rebecca’s son, Rod, and four dogs will be returned to their daughter, Rikki Moss. 

All the remaining dogs are to be forfeited to the Taylor County Animal Shelter, per the agreement. 

If the agreement is violated, the commonwealth recommends a jail sentence of six months, according to legal documents. 

Rebecca Phillips, per the agreement, agreed to not administer any rabies vaccinations without obtaining proper certification from the state of Kentucky. There is also a clause in the agreement that Taylor County Animal Control officer Rick Benningfield reserves the right to monitor Rebecca’s dog kennels “by providing the defendant with a minimum of four hours notice prior to any inspection.” 

Additionally, the Phillipses will not be required to provide any financial support to the county or the animal shelter for housing the dogs since February/March. The cost of housing the dogs, plus veterinarian bills, dog food, and additional employee costs is estimated to exceed $100,000. 

Jim Avritt, the attorney for the Phillipses, said nobody is totally happy with the deal, but said that is simply the way mediation works. 

“Nobody is totally happy with the way it was settled,” Avritt said. “My folks aren’t happy because all the charges weren’t dismissed. The government isn’t happy because they didn’t get everything they wanted. That’s just the nature of mediation or a compromise or agreement. Nobody walks away completely happy.” 

Avritt said there were several problematic issues from the standpoint of the prosecution, and he firmly believes that if the case had gone to trial, his clients would have been found not guilty on all counts. 

Avritt said the primary complaints were that the dog kennels were not clean enough and the dogs had poor dental health. He said he has worked several animal cruelty cases, and nearly all of them involve animals that have been malnourished and physically emaciated or have been subjected to physical torture. 

“That is not this case,” Avritt told the CKNJ in a phone interview on Friday. “I’m not aware of a single case anywhere where someone has been prosecuted because they didn’t clean their animals’ teeth or because the animals were kept in an enclosure that wasn’t clean enough.” 

The agreement was reached last Wednesday evening, three weeks before the Phillipses were set to stand trial in Taylor County District Court, and since then, many members of the community have expressed their outrage, frustration and anger about the ending to the case. 

Several of those individuals, approximately 20, gathered at the Taylor County Judicial Center Friday morning and afternoon to express their anger and frustration. 

Sandra Benton was one of those individuals. Benton operates a local animal rescue, Jaida’s Paws Animal Rescue 

“As a rescue, I’m mad as hell, as a lot of people are,” Benton said. “It’s not right. To me, it’s like the county saying it’s OK to do what they are doing and continue doing what they are doing because they are getting the dogs back. It’s like a slap on the hand.”

Benton said she feels like if these allegations, coupled with the hundreds of photos taken after the dogs were seized from the property, were levied against her rescue, the outcome would be much different. 

“If that had been me or my rescue, I would be in jail,” she said. “I would be fined. It would definitely not be the same.” 

Benton said the group of “animal lovers” gathered at the courthouse, as well as many others who could not be there, have a duty to speak up for the dogs. It is a fight Benton said she and many others have been fighting for several years. 

“We have got to be their voice,” she said. “If we don’t speak up for them, who will?” 

She added that due to the fact that the dogs were not spayed or neutered, she believes the same situation will arise again, and feels that those involved in the agreement are complicit in letting the same situation continue to occur.

“They will do this again,” she said. “To me, it feels like they are saying its OK to run a puppy mill in Taylor County, and it is not OK as far as we are concerned.” 

Also among the individuals at the Taylor County Judicial Center Friday afternoon was Ramon Hollins, a local pastor. Hollins said he loves animals and was frustrated at how the case ended. He said it is his duty and that of others to speak up on behalf of the animals.

“It’s just wrong,” Hollins said. “... That kind of abuse… I love dogs. I mean, I don’t want my rights taken before an animal, but I think we need to stand up for the majority of those that cannot speak for themselves. People may not want to hear this, but to me, it is kind of like abortion. Who is standing up for those babies? We should, because they can’t speak. It’s the same way for the animals. They can’t speak; all they can do is show us what has been done to them.” 

Hollins said in his opinion, the community is owed an explanation as to why the agreement was made. 

“Judge [Michael] Loy (from the Adair/Casey Judicial District, who presided over the case), the prosecuting attorney, they need to stand up on these courthouse steps and address the citizens of Campbellsville on the decisions that they have made,” Hollins said. “It was not fair and justice was not equally done.”

Hollins said he has viewed many of the photos that were released on Facebook after the agreement was signed, and was disgusted at what he saw. 

“I had no words,” he said. “You get so many emotions going through your mind and you just wonder how this could go on for so long… to let animals sit in those cages, in their own feces and their own urine, malnourished, it’s awful.”

Hollins agreed with Benton, saying he believed if it were him that was facing those charges with the evidence against him, he would be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” He added that he doesn’t believe justice was done with this agreement.

“I think I would be put in jail,” Hollins said. “In the court system, everyone should be treated the same and treated fairly, and I don’t think that happened here.”

The CKNJ attempted to reach out to Taylor County Animal Control Officer Rick Benningfield, but he did not return multiple phone calls. In a television interview with WHAS-11 in Louisville, Benningfield said the deal that was reached was not the same deal that he initially agreed to, but he did not elaborate on how the deals differed. 

The CKNJ also attempted to speak with Bobby Phillips about the agreement, but he declined to speak with the newspaper, despite giving an interview to WAVE-3 TV in Louisville. 

In that interview, he told reporter Natalia Martinez that he had no knowledge of what was happening at the breeding operation located on his property. 

"They are on my, my wife's property, yes ma'am, but I don't have nothing to do with the dogs," he said in that interview.

Bobby Phillips has denied knowledge of the conditions at the facility since the dogs were seized in March. He told the CKNJ then that the whole case was a “political campaign.” 

“Actually, if you want to know for sure, it is a political campaign,” Phillips stated in a story in the CKNJ published March 22. When asked to clarify, Phillips said, “Oh, from the judge here in town, yes.” He declined to elaborate any further on those comments.

Phillips is an independent candidate for Taylor County judge-executive, but had not officially filed for office at the time of the charges being filed.

The CKNJ attempted to reach out to Nally-Martin’s office multiple times but did not receive a return call.