Phineas, the yellow lab sentenced to death after biting a young girl, will remain embroiled in litigation for up to six months, according to Wm. Camm Seay, Salem city attorney.
The existing court judgment, entered by Judge Scott Bernstein of the 42nd district circuit court April 10, upheld Mayor Gary Brown’s decision declaring the dog vicious, and ordering him to be put down, according to court documents.
“We have an existing court order, the court ratified the mayor’s decision, and we have to abide by that,” said Seay.
Joe Simon of St. Louis, the attorney for Patrick and Amber Sanders, Phineas’ owner, says that is not so. According to Simon, if an agreement is reached as to the fate of the dog, the litigation stops.
“They can vacate the order,” Simon said.
City Ordinance 5-58 would allow the dog to be kept in the city limits with certain safety restrictions, and with the owner paying a $250 yearly fee. The city ordinance does not require the dog be put down, even if declared vicious, but Brown stated the reason he opted to have the dog destroyed was the information that there had been two previous bites to the children. Simon has not argued for this alternative sentencing option.
Brown told The Salem News May 13 that he would be “tickled” if the dog was released. In an interview May 23 Brown said that if he had information that there had not been previous bites by the dog, he would reconsider the dog’s sentencing.
In an email to Simon supplied to The Salem News, Wayna Woolman, mother of the biting victim, stated she may have misinterpreted previous marks left on her children by Phineas.
“I am aware that there was only technically one bite that occurred, that’s why I was even surprised with the ruling that they gave,” she wrote. “The other two incidents were witnessed by Patrick or Amber and they disciplined him, so I didn’t even think twice about them. Dogs jump and play and some do it harder than others.”
Woolman also stated that she did not attend a council meeting held May 6 because of threats that had been made against her and her family. The Woolman family also issued an official letter dated April 24 asking that Phineas be moved out of the city, given proper veterinarian care, vaccinations, and be neutered, instead of being euthanized.
“Had (the Sanders and the Woolmans) come to me for this conversation before the attorneys compounded things, this might have gone differently,” Brown said when advised of the Woolmans’ stance.
Bernstein’s ruling has been appealed to the Southern District Appellate court by Simon. Action has not yet been taken by that court. Seay says it is this appeal that prevents the city from vacating the order to have the dog euthanized, or finding alternative sentencing.
“The appeals process has circumvented the option for an agreement (about the fate of the dog),” said Seay.
Seay said the cause in appellate court would be handled by the assistant city attorney. The assistant city attorney is Scott Killen, according to city clerk Mary Happel.
As Phineas works his way through the court system a support group, comprised mostly of people from out of state, have rallied around his cause. In a letter to the Salem Chamber of Commerce from the group Friends of Phineas, his supporters state that they will be instituting a “boycott Salem, MO” campaign.
Alternatively, city administrator Clayton Lucas says the city has fielded phone calls threatening the life of the dog. Lucas says that is one reason that after the dog was stolen from and then returned to the Dent County Animal Welfare Society shelter, Phineas was moved to an undisclosed location. Lucas said that since the city was liable for the dog, they did not want anything to happen to it.
According to Salem resident Jackie Overby, who stated she is a friend of the Sanders and chosen to speak on their behalf at the initial hearing in 2012, she was approached by Lucas at her place of business on May 14 and told that Phineas was going to be moved back to the DCAWS shelter.
“He looked at me, smiled, and said ‘whatever happens, happens,’ ” Overby stated.
Overby then called Brown and recorded his conversation, during which he said he was ok if the dog went missing. Never during the tape does the mayor confirm that the dog would be at the shelter, or confirm there was a plan to have Overby take Phineas.
“I never conspired to have the dog stolen. If he was stolen, though, we would not pursue the issue any farther,” Brown said.
Lucas, who is acting as the dog’s custodian, said there was discussion on what would happen if the dog went back to the shelter, but no plan or conspiracy.
“Jackie asked that the dog be moved out to the shelter, and that it could just disappear and it would be done,” Lucas said. “I told her we cannot and will not do that. I jokingly told the mayor about it, but we would be liable if something happened to that dog. I told her that was not going to happen.”
Overby denied that she asked that the dog be moved to the shelter.
During the Department of Agriculture’s inspection of Phineas’ kennel on May 13, plans were made to move the dog to a veterinarian’s office as soon as possible. Code Officer Jarred Brown stated that same day that he had already confirmed that Dr. J.J. Tune, DVM, would board Phineas if needed.
“The only reason he didn’t get moved (to Dr. Tune’s) that day is that we had to get bids and choose the lowest cost option,” said Lucas.
At this time Phineas is being kept at the offices of Dr. Tune. As a private business, visitors can be restricted. The Sanders have been to visit Phineas. The Sanders and their attorney are on the agenda to speak at the board of aldermen meeting 7 p.m. today (Tuesday).