WESTFIELD, Mass. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS) – A former city woman escaped jail time Thursday after she was found guilty of a charge of cruelty to an animal brought by the city’s animal control officer.
Jennifer Gingras, 36, 275 Main St., #402, Holyoke, was found guilty of the felony by Judge Philip Contant after a long delayed bench trial and was sentenced to incarceration for a one year term in the house of correction, suspended, with probation for two years and a host of lesser sanctions,
The case began Jan. 24, 2014, after a city resident complained to police that his girlfriend had poured a bottle of bleach on his crated dog, Gigit, a 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier, and left the dog in the crate on his bleach-soaked bedding all day.
Westfield Police Officer Luis Morales had responded to the original call and referred the case to Ken Frazer, then the city’s director of animal control operations.
Frazer’s investigation found that Gingras and her then boyfriend, Jarrod Clark of Union Street, had “fought many times about the dog and that the dog had bitten Gingras.” He said “every chance she had, she kicked it or molested it in some way”.
Clark’s mother, Dianne Patitucci of New York gave a similar account shortly after Frazer filed a criminal complaint against Gingras alleging cruelty to an animal.
Patitucci said that shortly after Gingras moved in with her son the previous November she began “a quest to have my son ‘get rid’ of Gigit”.
She said that Gingras was abusive to Gigit but said that, in an attempt to mollify her, her son had agreed to keep Gigit in a crate when he was not at home.
Gingras had reported that the crated dog had bitten her and Patitucci said that the bite, which caused Gigit to be quarantined, occurred while the dog was in his crate and Gingras had stuck a finger inside after tormenting him.
Gingras was arraigned on the charge in Westfield District Court on June 25, 2014 and released on her personal recognizance. She exercised her option for a jury trial and, in September, a trial date was set for March 16, 2015, but she failed to appear, reporting through her lawyer that she was recovering from a case of pneumonia.
Gingras also failed to appear for a trial date on Aug. 19 but came to court on Nov. 17 when she changed her mind about a jury trial, choosing to have the case heard by a judge in a bench trial.
Her trial began that day, before Contant, but it was not completed that day and the case was again continued, twice, before the bench trial resumed on Thursday.
Then, Gingras vacillated and tendered a plea.
She was willing to acknowledge that a case could be presented sufficient to warrant a guilty finding for the crime if Contant would agree to continue the case without a finding with probation.
The finding is a frequent outcome for criminal cases which allows a defendant to escape a guilty finding and the criminal record which follows a conviction.
Gingras’ lawyer, Thomas D. Whitney of Amherst recounted his client’s many and serious medical issues which included two herniated discs, two miscarriages, possible cervical cancer and an anxiety disorder and said that the plea was tendered because of his client’s “inability” to testify on her own behalf due to her condition.
He asked that the case be continued without a finding with probation for two years. He also asked that the $90 victim/witness fee and the $50 monthly probation service fees be waived so that Gingras, with the assistance of her fiancee, could make payments on the $1,722.70 restitution the victims were due.
The Commonwealth, in the person of Assistant District Attorney Magali Montes, countered with a recommendation of a two year sentence in the house of correction with six months to be served direct and the balance suspended with probation for two years. Montes proposed that Gingras pay both the victim/witness and probation service fees and make the restitution asked for. In addition Montes asked that the judge prohibit her from abusing animals and order that she not work or volunteer for any organization involved in the care of animals. She also recommended that Gingras be required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and be ordered to comply with any recommended treatment.
The court’s Probation Department concurred with the Commonwealth’s proposal.
However Contant did not accept either proposal and said that, if he were to rule then, “I would be inclined to go with a guilty finding with a one year sentence to the house of correction with, 60 days direct and the balance suspended with one year (probation) and a $800 fine and a $200 surfine” as well as the victim/witness fee and the monthly probation service fee. “And I would adopt the conditions the Commonwealth had recommended” he said
Gingras elected to withdraw her tender of plea and the trial continued.
Dr. Renee E. Slowick testified that she had treated Gigit on the day of the incident and reported that the dog was in shock when she examined the 16.7 pound dog which reeked of bleach in her clinic at Montgomery Road Animal Hospital.
The veterinarian said that a morphine derivative painkiller was administered to control the dog’s “considerable pain” and he was washed with “copious amounts of saline (solution)” before he was stabilized.
Slowick said the dog received “severe chemical burns to all four feet, legs, the front part of his chest and his face.” She said both eyes were inflamed but right eye was obviously more seriously injured.
Gigit returned for further treatment “at least five or six times for the issue of the right eye” she said. “I believe the right eye took the brunt of the bleach and I was not able to save that eye.”
Montes referenced the investigation by the city’s Animal Control department and presented a scenario in which Gingras was at odds with her boyfriend over the dog and wanted to have it removed from the household.
Animal Control Officer Kerri Francis testified that she went to the couple’s apartment to inform them of the terms of quarantine after Gingras was bitten by the crated dog. She testified that the woman was surprised and dismayed when she realized that Gigit was not going to be removed but was instead going to be quarantined in the couple’s home.
When Montes asked Francis what Gingras’ demeanor had been when she realized that the ACO was not going to remove the dog from the household Francis replied “Pissed off – can I say that?”
Francis was willing to accept “upset” when Montes suggested it as a suitable synonym and said “she kinda got upset and turned to Jarrod and said ‘It’s either me or the dog’.”
Whitney attempted to present as a defense a scenario in which Gingras, after preparing to clean the dog’s crate, left an open bottle of bleach on the blanket which covered the wire cage in which Gigit was confined.
His questions of the witnesses, and his remarks to the bench, were aimed at highlighting the possibility that the open bottle of bleach that Gingras said she left atop Gigit’s crate was accidentally overturned when the crate was jostled by the dog moving inside.
Despite Whitney’s earlier claim that Gingras was incapable, due to her medical concerns, of testifying in her defense she took the stand.
Under Whitney’s questioning she testified that, although she did not feed the dog or otherwise care for him (“That was his job”) she had decided that morning to clean the dog’s cage before she was interrupted by a phone call summoning her to an unscheduled shift at her workplace.
Although she was asked, she did not explain how she was going to physically remove the dog – which she had previously said had bitten her – so she could clean the crate but said that she had left the opened bottle of bleach atop the dog’s crate when she left after being unexpectedly called in to work.
In her closing statement Montes rejected the possibility that the dog’s injuries were accidental.
Montes suggested instead that the assault on Gigit was the final act of Gingras’ campaign to have Gigit removed. “She just didn’t want the dog, they had fought about the dog, she believed that the dog was going to be taken and it didn’t happen so she took the matter into her own hands” Montes said.
“She left the dog for dead, covered in bleach, soaked” she said.
Whitney’s defense that the dog’s injuries were accidental did not succeed with Contant either who said “The Commonwealth has proven the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In response to Contant’s offer to hear from the parties regarding his disposition of the case Montes reiterated her earlier recommendation which included six months jail time for the defendant.
Whitney said, “If the court intends to impose a suspended sentence we’d have no objection to that but actual jail time is rather pointless.”
He cited her record pointing out that she had previously only been charged with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol but did acknowledge that she is currently the defendant of an unresolved charge unrelated to the bleach incident.
He said she has a “a series of medical things that are going to occur and once she gets those out of the way she’ll be able to work and pay the restitution on this thing.”
“I think it’s a burden on society to put her in jail for any period of time” Whitney said.
After hearing from both attorneys Contant said “I’m going to sentence the defendant to one year in the house of correction” and did not falter when Gingras’ fiance, seated in the front row, said audibly “You’re (obscene gerund deleted) kidding me”. As court officers spoke with the man, Contant went on to say that he was suspending the jail term.
He said that, while Gingras would not necessarily serve time in jail, the one year sentence “would be hanging over her head” while she was on probation for two years.
He also imposed an $800 fine, a $200 surfine, the victim/witness fee, the probation service fee and ordered her to pay $1,722.70 in restitution.
In addition he adopted the conditions recommended by the Commonwealth regarding her contact with animals and her mental health.
Contant also ordered Gingras to refrain from any threats or violence toward Clark or Gigit.
However, Clark said that Gigit, who would have been 17-years-old in June, had passed away recently, apparently due to complications of his advanced age.
Although the case is finally resolved, Gingras has not concluded her business in the district court.
Her absence from a hearing in December was due to complications arising from her arrest by Agawam police on a charge of larceny of property valued more than $250.
In that case, Gingras is accused of repeatedly stealing a debit card belonging to her step grandfather and using it 15 times totaling about $1,200 at local merchants including a day spa, a Chinese restaurant and a grocery store as well as for online services at iTunes, Netflix and Amazon.
She was arraigned Feb. 17 and released on her personal recognizance pending a June 10 court appearance.
However, since the alleged crimes occurred before she was placed on probation on Thursday, a conviction in that case will not constitute a probation violation.