The man who used a rifle to knock out his dog's teeth said in court Tuesday he never meant for things to turn out as they did and was sorry for what happened.
A crowd of a couple dozen animal lovers packed the small courtroom in the Anchorage jail for Robert McGowan's sentencing. Most clutched little pictures of Harley, a Rottweiler mix, taken soon after he was injured, his face cut and bloody.
"The community of Anchorage is watching what happens today," assistant District Attorney Joan Wilson told the judge.
She argued for the maximum sentence on the misdemeanor animal cruelty charge: a year in jail, a $10,000 fine, a 10-year ban on owning an animal. Wilson, who choked up during the hour-plus hearing, said beforehand she's a dog lover too -- she owns four and rescues others.
In the courtroom, McGowan, 50, shielded his face with a file folder held up with shackled hands. He has suffered from mental illness since he was a teen, defense lawyer Keri Brady said, and he was having trouble with his medication in the days leading up to the Feb. 11 attack on his dog. She said 30 days in jail would be a reasonable sentence.
"I am very sorry for what has happened here. I apologize to the community. I apologize to the state of Alaska, all the people therein," McGowan told District Judge Richard Postma. He claimed Harley bit him and his girlfriend repeatedly and that Anchorage Animal Care and Control should have a better system to screen dogs for adoption.
"He's been a nuisance ever since I had him," McGowan said.
But officials said that Harley cleared behavior tests before being adopted by McGowan and that he has not been aggressive in his new home.
THE VALUE OF DOGS
The debate over McGowan's crime and punishment stretched into a discourse on how society views dogs, who should get to adopt them, and the proper penalty for, as Wilson put it, "horrific treatment of an animal." Are dogs property -- or something more?
"First, let me dispel any argument that this is just a dog," Wilson told the judge. "It's just a dog, just as it's just a sunrise, just as it's just a promise, just as it's just a friend."
Defense lawyer Brady urged Postma not to decide the case on emotion. She suggested animal control shared the blame for allowing McGowan, a man with an extensive criminal record, to adopt any animal.
McGowan had 29 previous convictions, including assault, drunk driving and eluding police, according to prosecutors. But he had never been convicted of animal cruelty before. Under current city code, that's the only crime that excludes pet adoption.
Some animal advocates who came to the hearing want the Anchorage Assembly to tighten the rules. "Under our current title, we have no capability to deny adoption based on a charge of domestic violence, assault, robbery, murder, you name it," Myra Wilson, a veterinarian and director of Animal Control, said after the hearing.
Domestic violence in particular should be a factor, she said, because of evidence that people who beat their partners often hurt their pets.
Some, including Anchorage police detective Jackie Conn, who handles animal abuse cases, also want state law changed so a single serious animal abuse instance earns a felony charge.
THE ATTACK ON HARLEY
When McGowan adopted Harley in January 2008, he had two other dogs, a Great Dane and a pit bull. He was trying to be a tough guy, terrorizing the neighbors, prosecutor Wilson said in court.
The Great Dane was killed by a car. The pit bull was ill and had to be euthanized, she said.
Before the February attack, animal control had gotten numerous reports about McGowan, Wilson said. He was accused of hitting Harley with a 2-by-4. Beating him with a hose. Forcing water into his face. Chasing him with a weed whacker.
But officers couldn't make a case. Neighbors were too afraid to testify, and dogs don't get visible bruises, the prosecutor said.
On Feb. 10, McGowan was celebrating a court victory in another case. A charge of assault had been reduced to disorderly conduct, and a second charge was dismissed, Wilson said.
He went to a bar, drank for hours, and came home early the next morning drunk, Wilson said, though in court McGowan denied being intoxicated. Cooped up all night, Harley had pooped on the bedroom carpet. He then dashed out the still-open front door, barking at a passerby. McGowan became enraged, Wilson said.
McGowan grabbed a rifle, took Harley into the bathroom, and stabbed him repeatedly with a sharp edge on the gun, smashing the barrel into the dog's mouth, according to police.
"Now in this case, did he lose it? He sure did," Brady said. "There's really not an excuse for losing it except for this lengthy mental health history that needs to be taken into context."
Harley went through two surgeries. All of the teeth on one side of his mouth had to be pulled. He eats moistened kibble.
The dog is now about 3 years old and being rehabilitated with a foster family. He's not an aggressive dog, Michele Girault, of Friends of Pets, said in court. He loves to play, to snuggle in the lap of a woman or a child. But he's scared of most men. It's not yet clear who will adopt him, she said.
A HEAVY SENTENCE
On Tuesday, McGowan pleaded no contest to a charge of animal cruelty.
Postma, saying the sentence reflected community condemnation, ordered him to serve 300 days in jail and 10 years of probation during which he won't be able to have a pet or drink alcohol. He also must perform 160 hours of community service and pay restitution for Harley's treatment and care, estimated at between $5,000 and $10,000, according to the Anchorage District Attorney's Office, which called it a "heavy sentence."
McGowan has been jailed since February so he already has served most of his sentence. But he still faces felony charges alleging he tampered with a witness and evidence in the dog cruelty case.
Brady said he'll fight those charges.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER
Alaska Dispatch Publishing