Animal cruelty charges against Whidbey woman may be amended

Island County prosecutors may seek to prove aggravating circumstances in an animal cruelty case.

New documents filed in an animal cruelty case against a North Whidbey woman indicate that even after two of her horses starved to death and her other animals were seized by law enforcement, she urged a friend to lie for her so that she could secretly keep at least one of the horses, according to court documents.

Island County prosecutors also provided notice to 58-year-old Kristi L. Finch that they may seek to prove aggravating circumstances which could lead to a sentence beyond the standard range for the crimes. The alleged aggravating factors, however, may delve into an unsettled area of state law, which involves the question of whether an animal can ever be considered a crime victim.

Prosecutors originally charged Finch in Island County Superior Court with five counts of felony animal cruelty in the first degree and two counts of animal cruelty in the second degree, which is a gross misdemeanor. She pleaded not guilty to the charges.

On Feb. 9, the Island County Prosecutor’s Office filed a motion to amend the charges, which came with a supplemental certification of probable cause that includes additional details about the case. The proposed amendment would modify the charges against Finch to two counts of animal cruelty in the first degree, five counts of animal cruelty in the second degree and one count of witness tampering.

The standard sentencing range for animal cruelty in the first degree, a class C felony, is zero to 364 days in jail, no matter how many counts are charged.

The notice in the proposed amendment states that the aggravating circumstances relate to the two first-degree animal cruelty charges. The alleged circumstances are that the victims were “particularly vulnerable or incapable of resistance.” A finding of an aggravating circumstance could lead to a sentence beyond the standard range or even consecutive sentences.

The problem for the prosecution is that the state Sentencing Reform Act defined “victim” as “any person who has sustained emotional, psychological, physical, or financial injury to person or property as a direct result of the crime charged.”

A year ago, the state Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision in State v. Charmarke Abdi-Issa, holding that animal cruelty can be designated as a crime of domestic violence, with the animal’s guardian considered the victim of the crime. Animal Legal Defense Fund filed an amicus brief in the case. While the organization urges the legislature to amend the law to clearly state that animals are considered victims in animal cruelty cases, it also pointed out that federal and state courts have already recognized individual animals as crime victims for sentencing purposes.

“These decisions mean, in effect, that those who commit criminal cruelty against animals no longer receive an ‘abuse one, get the rest free’ sentence, where all their victims would be consolidated,” the group stated on its website.

Deputy Prosecutor Tamara Fundrella said in an email that the prosecution will likely need to ask the court to weigh in on the issue, which is why the proposal for now is simply a notice that the prosecution may seek a finding of an aggravating circumstance.

The supplemental narrative filed this week includes new details about the case. In the report, Lt. Sean Warwick with the Island County Sheriff’s Office noted the complexity of the case given the number of live and deceased animals, as well as other factors like the weather and the physical state of the property.

“It is also difficult to ‘hear’ from the victim animals as they cannot tell us verbally what occurred so we have to rely on our observations of their physical condition and the conditions they were living in,” he wrote. “The impounded animals have begun to recover with food and necessary medical attention. The impounded animals with body condition scores of one to two may have also succumbed to starvation if there had not been an intervention.”

As has been widely reported, the sheriff’s office started investigating and seized animals on Finch’s Hastie Lake Road property after the discovery on Dec. 24 of two horses that starved to death on Finch’s property, as well as many other emaciated, unhealthy and neglected animals. Court documents indicate that at least 11 horses, 24 dogs, 31 cats, two pigs, four chinchillas and some rabbits from Finch’s property were seized, surrendered or given away.

The report states that Finch, who identified herself as a hobby breeder of horses, dogs and cats, said that she had asked for help with the animals, but that nobody was willing to provide assistance until the police were involved. She told investigators that she thought there was nothing she could do and she felt defeated.

The report states that initially 15 horses were living in the muddy pasture riddled with baling wire and foreign objects. Trees in the pasture had bark peeled off by hungry equines. Most of the horses had overgrown hooves and suffered hoof rot. Many were emaciated, with two having body condition scores indicating “extremely emaciated.”

Warwick wrote that 18 miniature Australian shepherds were living in chain link kennels inside a converted, unheated pig barn. The deputy noted that it did not appear that the dogs were taken out for exercise and six of them had scarring around their muzzles from sticking their noses through the chain link fence. Four other dogs were inside the house, with a Dalmatian found inside a 2-foot-by-2.5-foot bird cage, Warwick wrote.

Seven cats, the report states, were inside the pig barn, ten were in a bedroom of the house, ten were in outdoor “catios” and other cats were inside a birdcage structure. A deputy found two decomposing cats in the outside area, according to the report.

The report also describes text message exchanges between Finch and another resident in which Finch allegedly tries to get the woman to lie about her ownership of one horse and then return it to Finch after court proceedings. “I’d sign him over to you but really, he would still be mine,” Finch allegedly wrote. She also wrote that the police “aren’t being honest and are strong arming everyone.”

The report also describes a 2009 Skagit County case in which 41 dogs, five horses, several sheep, rabbits, cats, reptiles and guinea pigs were discovered on Finch’s property. She was charged with several counts of animal cruelty but pleaded guilty to two counts of transporting or confining animals in an unsafe manner.

Finch is scheduled to be in court Monday. Fundrella said the hearing may be continued to a later date if the defense objects to the amendment.