A family in Missouri has been living a nightmare for more than a year after local officials refused to spare the life of their dog despite evidence indicating the animal was innocent of any wrongdoing.
A year ago, officials in Salem, Mo., removed Phineas, a Labrador retriever, from its family. After a decree by the local mayor and a court hearing, the dog was ordered to be euthanized for allegedly biting 7-year-old Kendall Woolman when she was playing with family member Lexi Sanders, also 7, in the family’s backyard.
Kendall’s mother took her to the local emergency room where health providers, after declaring the injury to be from a dog bite, reported the incident to local law enforcement.
Later that evening, police officers showed up at the Sanders’ house to see if Phineas’ vaccination record was up to date. Due to the dog’s recent treatment for another health issue, the rabies shot was not current. The officers told the family Phineas would need to be quarantined for 10 days to ensure the animal did not have the disease.
While quarantined, Mayor Gary Brown asked Dr. J.J. Tune, a local veterinarian, to perform a behavioral evaluation to determine if Phineas was vicious. Tune advised the mayor that he saw no evidence the dog was vicious, and it has not displayed any signs of aggression while away from the family.
But Phineas was not returned to the Sanders family. After allegedly hearing about two other biting incidents involving the dog, the mayor appointed himself as head of a hearing to determine whether Phineas should be put down.
Disregarding Tune’s testimony, the mayor stunned many members of the community by declaring Phineas to be a “vicious dog” that should be killed.
In March, a judge held a hearing and issued a decision upholding Brown’s order. Phineas’ family is now in the process of appealing the case.
The family argues there’s evidence Phineas didn’t bite the 7-year-old girl. A photograph by hospital staff reveals an oval shaped injury, which is inconsistent with a dog bite. There is no indication of the canine teeth breaking the skin, and it more closely resembles a human bite or a wound from falling on something.
“If you look at Phineas’ mouth, this picture of the supposed bite makes no sense,” Joseph Simon, an attorney who is representing the family, told WND. “There are no puncture marks from his canine teeth like you would expect to see in a typical dog bite case. This makes one wonder if the injuries were from a dog bite at all.”
During the trial, the photographs presented to the judge were enhanced, which made the wound appear worse than it actually was.
The witnesses to the previous two bites changed their story and denied that the bites ever occurred. When the first witness was asked if Phineas had ever bitten her before, she responded with an emphatic “no.” Her older sister, who supposedly also was bitten by Phineas, testified that while Phineas put his mouth on her, it was more of a “nibble” than a bite and did not even “break the skin.” She also said the dog’s tail was wagging as if the animal was happy when he placed his mouth on her arm.
The mayor’s decision to kill the dog was based on the three “biting incidents,” and ultimately a judge agreed.
Brown has claimed in media interviews that he has no authority to vacate his original decision and his hands are tied in the matter. But in a recorded phone call, Brown told a local resident, Jackie Overby, that it was the family’s fault that Phineas has not been given back to them.
“When that happened, that took me completely out of the picture when it went to the court,” Brown explained.
Listen to Mayor Brown discuss Phineas’ fate:
However, Simon said the mayor is not being truthful with his claims that he has no power to release Phineas.
“Missouri law specifically says that ‘the mayor shall have power to … grant reprieves and pardons for offenses arising under ordinances of the city,'” Simon said. “So the mayor is lying to the public and the media when he says he wants to release Phineas but cannot. He could end this today if he wanted to.”
State investigators wade into dispute over Phineas:
WND attempted to reach Brown for comment. A spokesman for the mayor told WND he had spoken with him and he said he would be glad to talk. However, WND later was told the mayor was unavailable and staff members would pass a message along to him. A few hours later, WND was again assured that the mayor had received the message and would be calling “any time now.”
Ultimately, the mayor never responded to requests for an interview.
Simon said, however, he believes there is a “back story” surrounding the mayor’s determination to destroy Phineas.
“Kendall’s grandfather, Kevin Sybert, has quite a reputation in this town. During the city meetings on the issue, Sybert was the only one who was calling for Phineas to be put down,” Simon said. “Kendall’s mother has even issued a letter calling for Phineas to be released. The only reason we are all still here is because of Sybert.”
Simon said Sybert told him he wanted Phineas killed because of what he did to his granddaughter and the mayor would never release the dog because of information he had on city officials.
“He told me that Salem was his sandbox and that he knew where all the bones were buried and then went on to mention all the people involved in Phineas’ case and point out that he knew the mayor and city attorney,” Simon said. “He has made it plain that throughout this entire case he wants Phineas to pay for what he supposedly did to his granddaughter. He is the one forcing the issue right now.”
Overby explained that Sybert is used to getting his way in Salem.
“During a town meeting on the subject, where many supporters of Phineas showed up, his wife was out in the parking lot writing down license plates for those who were there at the meeting,” she explained. “He owns a well drilling company and is known as a ruthless businessman. It is because of his insistence that Phineas is still at the pound.”
Amazingly, Sybert seems to be one of the few people who want Phineas to die. Wayna Woolman, Kendall’s mother, said she realizes Phineas is not vicious and believes Phineas should be allowed to return home to his family.
There could also be another reason for the mayor’s initial order to put Phineas down that had nothing to do with the other biting incidents.
Lee Filer, a resident of Palm Coast, Fla., signed an affidavit claiming the mayor told her both he and his sister had been bitten by dogs when they were young children. Following the biting incident, his uncle immediately took the dog “out back” and killed it. Filer said Brown repeatedly told her how his sister was extremely traumatized following the biting incident and that she continues to have a fear of dogs to this day.
“Knowing this, the mayor should have recused himself from hearing Phineas’ case,” Simon said. “The mayor could have appointed anybody he wanted to the inquiry into Phineas. Why did he name himself, knowing how a similar incident changed his family’s life?”
If the sum of circumstances was not yet bizarre enough, Phineas was being held at the Dent County Animal Welfare Society. However, following the court hearing, officials began moving Phineas to a series of undisclosed locations in an apparent attempt to keep people from knowing where he was.
Following a town meeting in May, it was revealed by Austin Denton, a local volunteer firefighter with the Denton County Fire Protection District, that Phineas was being held in the windowless basement of the firehouse and was sleeping on a wooden pallet.
Following Denton’s revelation, Overby went to the firehouse to confirm if Phineas was there or not.
“I heard a dog barking and asked the fire chief it that was Phineas I was hearing,” Overby told WND. “The fire chief then lied to me and told me the dog I was hearing was not Phineas. When I went back the next day the city attorney was there talking with the fire chief, who sheepishly looked at me and said ‘I know I lied to you.'”
Shortly thereafter, once it became obvious to city officials that Phineas’ location was known, he was moved yet again, this time to a pump house at the city’s water tower where he remained until he eventually ended up back at Dent County Veterinary Clinic, where he was able to remain in Tune’s care.
While these moves were happening, Overby shared a conversation she said she had with the city administrator, Clayton Lucas.
“Lucas came to me and said he wanted me to know Phineas would be back in the animal shelter, and he told me, ‘Once he does, whatever happens happens,'” Overby said. “I told him I didn’t want to get in any trouble, but I was still going to get that dog because I wanted him to be safe. He then told me he would make sure the city police did not patrol that area at the time I was getting Phineas.
“I then asked him, ‘What about the mayor?,’ and he said ‘the chief is on board’ with it and he would call me after an emergency meeting of the city council and give me the rest of the details. My husband then told me that something was not right.”
She then called Brown and recorded the conversation. During the call, the mayor can be plainly heard telling her he wants the dog to “disappear.”
“He [Lucas] told me they were going to put the dog back in the pound today and that if it goes missing it just goes missing and that was my clue that it just needs to be gone and he said he talked with you and you OK’d that,” Oberby said.
“We are OK with that,” Brown said.
Overby then explains that she wants to make sure she will not be arrested for breaking and entering or charged if something is damaged while she is getting Phineas out of the pound.
“That’s just not happening,” Brown said.
Overby said the mayor was getting tired of all the local media attention, and while he did not want to return Phineas to his family, he wanted the problem to go away.
“The mayor fully understood that he wanted the problem gone. He said during one of his many rants that he was tired of talking about Phineas. He knew that I would keep the dog safe.”
Overby said ultimately the only reason officials refuse to release Phineas is they are too proud to admit they made a mistake.
“The bad thing is this is not even about Phineas anymore; it’s about pride. Our town is so corrupt, most residents are used to it and we just go about our business.”