All charges against two men accused of running a dogfighting ring in southwestern Ontario have been tossed due to an unreasonable delay in court proceedings.
The animal cruelty and weapons charges — 67 in total — against John Jacob Robert and Michel Conrad Paul Gagnon were stayed last week after the pair’s lawyer brought forth an application alleging a breach of their charter rights to a trial within a reasonable time frame.
The judge agreed with lawyer Ken Marley.
“The offences before this court are serious. Public interest in this community for a trial on the merits is palpable…this is a close call,” Justice Bruce Thomas wrote in his decision.
The judge deemed the time the charges were laid on Oct. 9, 2015 to the scheduled end of the trial this coming May to be 30 months and 28 days. The Supreme Court has ruled that cases in Superior Court should be heard within 30 months.
The case began in the fall of 2015 after Chatham-Kent police officers and inspectors with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raided a compound in Tilbury, Ont.
They seized 31 pit bulls, dogfighting paraphernalia including “rape stands” that are used in breeding, fighting records, 15 guns, four knives, ammunition and about a kilogram of marijuana, according to court documents.
During that raid, officials came across a grim scene in a building at the back of the property, behind a sign reading “Dirty White Boy Kennels,” as described by an OSPCA affidavit filed with the court.
Inspectors seized more than 200 items that day, documents said, including medical kits with injectable solutions and vitamin supplements, suture and skin staple kits, syringes and surgical tools, lists of names of dogs, training and weight schedules, a training kit with weights, muzzles and sticks, and harnesses “used for weight training.”
All of the dogs were found attached to chains that were tied to metal stakes in the ground. Inspectors also found anabolic steroids on site, according to court documents, and dogfighting contracts.
An inspector noted “that the majority of the adult dogs had severe scarring consistent with dog fighting. These scars were primarily located on the head, neck and forelimbs of the dogs.”
Three dogs were euthanized for medical reasons, while the other dogs underwent behavioural assessments.
The case came to prominence after the OSPCA applied for the court’s approval to destroy 21 dogs for behavioural reasons, saying they were a menace to society and could not be rehabilitated.
That prompted a public outcry to save the dogs, including harsh words from hockey commentator Don Cherry and outrage from animal activists.
Several animal rights groups tried to intervene in the case to represent the dogs’ interests, an application the judge would eventually reject. One of those organizations, Dog Tales, continued the fight outside court by launching a publicity campaign, called #savethe21, which featured celebrity endorsements from British billionaire Richard Branson, pop star Enrique Iglesias and hotel heiress and socialite Paris Hilton, pleading for the dogs to be saved.
After much negotiation, and a second behavioural evaluation, all parties agreed to a compromise: Dog Tales drove 18 dogs down to a facility in Florida to be rehabilitated, one dog was deemed dangerous and the court ordered it to be euthanized while two other dogs died while in OSPCA custody.
Meanwhile, the criminal case chugged along slowly in the Superior Court of Justice, growing in scope when the Crown added animal cruelty charges against another man, Robert Tomlin. He later pleaded guilty to one charge and received a conditional four-month sentence last August.
At one point, there were six accused facing more than 300 charges. There were also scores of charges under the provincial Dog Owners’ Liability Act that prohibits owning pit bulls. All charges were dropped against three of the accused, and Robert and Gagnon were set to go to trial this year until their charges were stayed.
The judge said the late addition of Tomlin’s charges to the case created significant delays.
It took a full year for Tomlin and his lawyer to receive disclosure from the Crown, the judge wrote. The Crown said there was a large amount of data seized — about 17,000 pages of documents — from one of the computers that “the OSPCA did not have the means to analyze.”
“I have found the Crown’s response to be inadequate and ill-advised when confronted with a case that was clearly plodding through the system,” the judge said.