Retrial of Nikiski couple begins in animal cruelty case

Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2003

ANACONDA, Mont. - A Nikiski couple moving their kennel of collies to Arizona arrived at the Canada-Montana border with a trailer full of wet, hungry and cold animals and no dog food, a prosecutor told a jury here Tuesday.

"They were driving a beat-up, run-down 1982 Peterbilt truck, dragging a 45-foot trailer stuffed with animals," prosecuting attorney John Coble told the jury of three men and three women.

The jurors are hearing the retrial of Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman on 181 counts of animal cruelty.

The Harmans' attorney, Scott Albers, said his clients were victims of circumstances that got out of control.

The Harmans told U.S. customs inspectors at the Port of Sweet Grass on Oct. 31 that they were moving their operation from Nikiski, Alaska, to Woodruff, Ariz.

Coble said the couple resisted the border inspector's requests to check the trailer that night because "the dogs will think it's time to come out," they said.

"What they saw when they opened the doors was a mess, quite frankly," Coble said. "The smell and the stench from the animals and the feces almost overwhelmed them."

U.S. Customs Service Inspector Russell Hancock testified that he called in a Department of Agriculture veterinarian to inspect the dogs and cats.

"My impression was that they needed some immediate help," Hancock said.

The animals were seized and the Harmans were arrested the next day.

The dogs were cared for at "Camp Collie" at a fairgrounds near Shelby for more than five months. They recently were moved to Great Falls, Mont.

Albers said the couple was in a hurry because they wanted to get to Wal-Mart in Great Falls to restock their supplies.

The dogs and cats represent the "heart and soul" of his clients and they did not intentionally hurt the animals, the lawyer said.

"These animals are everything to my clients," he told the court. "Our claim in this case is this is not negligence. It is not criminal.

"It's something that could happen to anybody with this kind of undertaking," he said. "This is not a situation where they are trying to hurt animals.

"Negligent, no. Cruel, never. Those will be the facts of this case," Albers said.

The first trial against the Harmans in Shelby ended with a hung jury. The retrial was moved to Anaconda because of extensive news coverage in the Shelby area.

Copeland told jurors the trial would likely take four or five days.

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