Columbus Humane Cruelty Investigations Department – Major Case Unit

Columbus Humane’s Cruelty Investigations Department (CID) is responsible for investigating cases of animal cruelty, neglect and abandonment in Franklin County. Under the Ohio Revised Code, Chapter 1717.06, commissioned Humane Agents enforce all local and state laws pertaining to the care and treatment of animals.  This is in response to reports from members of the public, partner agencies including other law enforcement agencies, health departments, code enforcement and social service agencies. What is not know to many, is that CID is also responsible for investigating hoarding cases and large scale organized animal fighting.

 In the spring of 2016, in concert with the Columbus Division of Police Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU), the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Columbus Humane conducted the largest dogfighting investigation in our organization’s history. Warrants were served at five (5) different locations concurrently, concluding a two-year investigation of dogfighting in the Columbus and Detroit areas. Forty-five (45) dogs were impounded, and four individuals received federal indictments for dogfighting (all of which have since pleaded guilty).

Because of the in-depth nature of this investigation and focus needed to execute it successfully, the case inspired the creation of a new taskforce within CID – the Major Case Unit (MCU). The MCU was designed to model larger law enforcement agencies and how they investigate their most abhorrent crimes.

The MCU is responsible for complaints of animal fighting, beatings and torture, extreme hoarding situations, and other high-profile cruelty cases. The MCU consists of a few select humane agents, the CID court liaison, clerical support, and a media spokesperson. Personnel can change from case to case, and are chosen based on the type of case being investigated and the resources needed.

Since MCU’s inception in April 2016, fifteen cases have been filed. Eighteen individuals have been charged, and 940 animals of a variety of different species have been impounded.

Three of these cases involved animal fighting, while others concerned animal hoarding, a pet store, a backyard breeder, a wildlife control company, and the torture of a live mouse. Two were graphic cases of active abuse, and were filed as felonies under Goddard’s Law. Six of the cases are still pending, while the others resulted in guilty convictions.

Back in January of 2017, Columbus Humane executed a search warrant at a local Columbus pet store called Captive Born Reptiles. Two anacondas with severe physical injuries were seized, and the owner, Terry Wilkins, was charged criminally. After a long, drawn-out court process, MCU finally had the opportunity to see this case go to trial. In August of 2018, a resolution finally came – a jury of his peers found Wilkins guilty on all counts. He is currently awaiting sentencing. Working with the Ohio Department of Agriculture on this case was imperative to the investigation and successful conviction of Terry Wilkins. Their investigation of Wilkins (who also violated several ODA regulations) uncovered maltreatment and neglect of the animals in his care, which helped build the probable cause needed to obtain our own search warrant.

In August 2018, the MCU was involved the seizure of 617 birds from a small Clintonville home. The birds, including Cockatiels, Finches, Lovebirds, Parrots, and other more exotic types, were housed in unsanitary conditions without access to adequate food and water. Many birds were obese and suffering from fatty liver disease, while others were underweight and presented with varying medical conditions. The population density was far too high for one person to care for adequately. This case boasts the largest number of animals impounded in Columbus Humane’s history, and would not have been possible without the assistance of our colleagues at the ASPCA. The defendant in this case, Susan Stieve, quickly pled guilty less than a month after the animals were seized. As a condition of her plea agreement, the defendant was put on probation for 5 years and was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution to Columbus Humane. This sum may sound large, but it is dwarfed by the total cost Columbus Humane incurred for this operation, which neared $100,000.

Most recently, the MCU executed a dogfighting warrant in conjunction with a narcotics warrant executed by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio Department Agriculture. Twenty (20) dogs were rescued from a dogfighting operation and we were found to have probable cause against the defendant on April 10, 2019. The defendant was then charged with eight counts of dogfighting and fourteen counts of cruelty to companion animals.

The assistance Columbus Humane receives from other organizations and law enforcement agencies is critical to the success of these cases. This support is not limited to those acknowledged here. Furthermore, these exemplary cases highlight the chief goal of MCU – to efficiently and effectively investigate our community’s most serious and disturbing crimes against animals. The expectation for MCU is to facilitate better relationships between Columbus Humane, the community we serve, and other law enforcement and governmental agencies.