Jurors deliberated under 15 minutes Monday before finding a Shirley Township man guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals in Huntingdon County’s first application of the charge created under Libre’s Law.
James Tippett, 25, resident of the Valley View Trailer Court just south of the Mount Union Borough line on Route 747, was accused of killing his 8-month-old beagle, “Ranger,” by the throwing the dog against a wall May 6, 2018.
Tippett’s attorney, Greg Jackson, argued Ranger’s death was an accident as well as a source of grief and deep regret for his client. Jackson said he counts his own dog among his best friends and that Tippett hoped to cultivate a similar relationship with Ranger.
“Jim wanted to have that kind of friendship,” Jackson said. “He regrets terribly what happened and is worried this accident is going to ruin his life and his young family’s life.”
Aggravated cruelty to animals, a felony 3 offense, is established by three elements: abuse, intent and death or serous bodily injury. The charge went on the books in 2017 as part of major overhaul to the state’s animal cruelty laws. The effort was named after Libre, a Boston Terrier puppy rescued from a Lancaster County farm where he’d been left for dead, covered in maggots and mange.
While Jackson argued Ranger’s death was an accident and therefore, not a crime, Huntingdon County District Attorney David Smith said evidence and eye-witness accounts prove otherwise.
“This was a course of conduct,” Smith said, calling the dog’s death “vicious and unjustified.”
Smith asked jurors to consider the physical force necessary to throw a 10-to-20-lb. dog 15 feet across a room and yield fatal injuries.
Commonwealth testimony began with Sue Hess, Tippett’s neighbor who dog-sat for the defendant overnight May 5-6, 2018. Hess, who lives several doors down from the Tippett home, described Ranger as a lively, playful and healthy young pup.
Hess said she was concerned by both Tippett’s and Ranger’s behavior when the defendant collected the dog along with Ranger’s food, toys and cage. She said Tippett seemed irritable and that Ranger appeared frightened of his owner.
“Ranger cowed down and was shaking,” Hess said, adding Tippett had to pull the dog along to get it to follow him home.
“The puppy was very hesitant to go with him and kept looking back at me,” Hess said. “I felt so bad — I couldn’t watch anymore and when back inside.”
A second neighbor, Lynsey Uttley, who lives next door to Tippett, testified that she watched Tippett and Ranger make their way home, and observed Tippett kick Ranger, throw the wire cage at him and grab him by the scruff of the neck.
At the time, Uttley was standing in her doorway live-streaming a painting project. Her video, which was admitted into evidence, shows the defendant walking past her front door, followed by the sounds of a dog yelping.
Concerned by what she saw, Uttley said she called police.
“It was apparent the dog’s life was in danger,” she said.
While waiting for police to arrive, Uttley said she saw Tippett and his wife exit their home with a cardboard box; the couple, she said, returned a short time later without the box.
State police Trooper Addison Lovett said he was working 3-11 p.m. May 6 and responded to Uttley’s call at the start of his shift. After speaking with Uttley and Hess, Lovett said he interviewed Tippett and advised him of the allegations.
Lovett said Tippett’s demeanor changed when he asked to see the puppy to ensure it was safe.
“The defendant began to cry and said he’d been frustrated with the puppy and threw it against the kitchen wall,” Lovett said.
The following day, May 7, 2018, Lovett said he returned to Valley View Trailer Court with Trooper Eugene Jenkins; together, they took Tippett into custody and asked the defendant to guide them to the dog’s burial site. Both officers testified they exhumed the dog, which was interred in a field just south of the trailer court, then re-buried him. The officers’ photos from the burial site, but excluding images of the deceased puppy, were provided to jurors.
Tippett, the last person to take the stand, described May 6 as a frustrating day; he and his wife were married that weekend but their honeymoon plans had fallen through, leaving him disappointed. Already frustrated, Tippett testified he was further vexed by Ranger’s behavior which including slipping out of his collar, biting and scratching.
Tippett said as he was taking Ranger inside, the dog scratched his arm; in response, Tippett said he threw the dog inside the house, then returned to the yard to retrieve the wire cage.
Tippett said he was unaware the dog was injured until he when back inside and found Ranger laying on the floor.
“He was breathing heavily. I tried to rescusitate him, I prayed, I did everything I could,” Tippett said. “He died right there in my lap.”
He said he decided to bury Ranger in the field where he’d taken him for scent training.
“It seemed the only fitting place,” he said.
Tippett refuted Uttley’s testimony, claiming he never kicked Ranger and only threw his cage at the ground, not at the dog. He also clarified that Ranger struck the breakfast bar in the home, not a wall.
In his closing argument, Jackson stressed that his client takes responsibility for Ranger’s death.
“He knows this is his fault,” Jackson said. “He knows the dog is dead because of him.”
Jackson stressed the death “was a mistaken, not a crime.”
Smith said he believes TIppett is only grieved for getting caught.
“His words are hollow, he emotions contrived,” Smith said, asking jurors to look at the whole of Tippett’s conduct from the time he left Hess’s home until he arrived at his own.
“Actions are louder than words,” Smith said.
Jurors began deliberations at 1:30 p.m. and handed their guilty verdict to Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic at 1:45 p.m. In addition to the jury’s verdict, Zanic found Tippett guilty of a summary cruelty to animals charge.
Zanic scheduled Tippett for sentencing July 23 and ordered the Huntingdon County Probation Department to conduct a pre-sentence investigation. The sheriff’s department took Tippett into custody after Zanic increase bail to $25,000 cash.
Jackson objected to the bail increase, noting his client is gainfully employed and is the sole support for his wife, 2-year-old daughter and newborn son.
Smith said Libre’s Law strengthened the state’s animal cruelty laws and while Tippett’s case was a first for Huntingdon County, statewide prosecutors are making use of the law’s new teeth to fight animal abuse.
In addition to creating the aggravated cruelty charge, the overhaul added laws governing tethering for outdoor dogs and winter weather protection for animals, plus increased fines and penalties for existing charges.
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