Serving the High Plains

Tucumcari man avoids animal cruelty conviction

A Tucumcari man avoided a conviction on a felony animal-abuse charge after a Quay County jury deadlocked and failed to reach a verdict Wednesday during a trial in 10th District Court in Tucumcari.

The jury of nine women and three men deadlocked 9-3 after more than four hours of deliberation. It wasn't known whether a majority of jurors favored conviction or acquittal because District Judge Albert Mitchell Jr. didn't poll them individually. But when quizzed by Mitchell on whether the prosecutor met a burden of proof of a felony or misdemeanor charge of animal abuse, the jurors all confirmed he had not.

Ralph Fletcher, 29, of Tucumcari, was accused by a Tucumcari police officer in January of choking and injuring a pitbull puppy. He was charged with extreme cruelty to animals, a fourth-degree felony that could have meant 18 months in prison or a $5,000 fine. Because the case ended in a hung jury, Fletcher cannot be retried on that charge.

Prosecutor Ozy Adams said he would recommend filing a motion by Dec. 30 that would give the district attorney an option to refile misdemeanor cruelty-to-animals charge against Fletcher. The district attorney's office also could reopen the possibility of a plea deal in the case.

"It was a difficult case, kind of a hot-button issue," Adams said after court adjourned Wednesday night. "But there's a reason we take difficult cases to trial - so the community can weigh in and tell us what they think is appropriate or inappropriate."

Fletcher's attorney, Brett Phelps of Las Vegas, said he'd gladly take a hung jury over a conviction.

"We would have liked to have seen a full acquittal, but this absolutely was a huge relief," he said.

The charge against Fletcher stemmed from when two Tucumcari officers were called the evening of Jan. 17 to the 500 block of East Aber Street to check on a report of a dog being beaten.

Patrolman Justin Garcia testified Wednesday as he approached the home, he heard what sounded like a man screaming and a dog whining. As he went around the side of a house, Garcia said he saw Fletcher with both hands around a puppy's neck. The officer testified the dog gasped for air, whimpered and couldn't stand on its own. Feces and blood from the dog's anus were found on the patio, and Garcia said Fletcher was sweaty and upset.

The officer said Fletcher told him was disciplining the puppy to "make him learn" after it ran down an alleyway to the end of a block.

Adams showed video from Garcia's body cam to the jury. Footage did not show Fletcher with his hands around the puppy's neck. Fletcher apologized several times for disciplining the dog. Fletcher never admitted on camera to choking the animal.

Patrolman Tim Gladu, Garcia's partner at the time, testified he did not see Fletcher's hands on the animal's neck but acknowledged he might not have seen it because rugs hanging on a fence near the house might have obscured his vision.

Gladu said the puppy seemed "out of it" and was unable to stand without assistance, even at a veterinarian's exam table some time after the initial investigation.

Phelps noted of one of Garcia's photos from the scene showed the dog appearing to stand.

"The dog was standing because I was holding it up," Gladu said. "As soon as I let it go, it sat down again."

Longtime Tucumcari veterinarian Jean Corey, who treated the puppy after officers confiscated it, testified the animal's prolapsed anus was hemorrhoids that might have occurred because of diarrhea or firm stools.

Based on what she saw from X-rays, the dog was favoring its left rear leg because of an older injury.

Corey noted bruising caused by choking would be difficult to detect in dogs because their hair wouldn't make it visible.

Fletcher testified he acquired the puppy when it was 10 weeks old and named it Clyde. Phelps showed jurors of a photograph of Fletcher holding the puppy and his records of its inoculations and microchipping.

Fletcher said Clyde "had a little limp to him" when he first acquired the animal.

On the night Fletcher was arrested, he raced to retrieve Clyde when he ran away from the house down an alley. At the end of the block, Fletcher testified he found Clyde "scooting" his hindquarters on the ground, with blood and feces on the sidewalk.

Fletcher testified Clyde was "skittish and scared" when he retrieved him and the animal yelped while examining him in the backyard. He told the courtroom he yelled at the dog: "Stop! You gotta listen to me; I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with you."

Fletcher said the dog's collar also became twisted around one of his fingers, causing the animal to yelp and back away.

In closing arguments, Adams said "I don't doubt that Mr. Fletcher cares for that puppy," but a police officer on the scene saw him choking it.

Phelps responded by saying Corey's testimony didn't confirm the injuries were caused by Fletcher.

"It doesn't add up he acted in the way the state alleges," Phelps said. "The evidence isn't there."

Kathi McClelland, president of Paws and Claws Animal Rescue of Quay County, said it fostered the puppy for several months after Fletcher relinquished custody. The shelter renamed the puppy Phoenix, and someone from Santa Fe adopted the animal this summer.

McClelland said the alleged choking by Fletcher broke blood vessels in Phoenix's eyes, which was evident during a Paws and Claws dog-walking event at Tucumcari's Dunn Park in April. She said Phoenix also had a limp in his hind leg, plus the prolapsed anus that Cory fixed.

McClelland said Phoenix was a good-natured dog while in the shelter's care.

"He had every reason to be a bad dog, and he wasn't," she said. "He was an awesome dog, and he went to an awesome home."