IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — After months on ‘death row,’ an Ionia County judge has exonerated a veteran’s dogs accused of killing three goats and a cat last summer.
Late Monday night, Ionia County District Court Judge Raymond Voet decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the two dogs killed the other animals in July 2016.
The dogs were released around 9 a.m. Tuesday to the veteran’s father-in-law, Byron Vamvakias, and mother-in-law, Susan Vamvakias. The dogs’ owner, U.S. Army veteran Allen Hustin, lives in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, so it’s not yet known when he will be reunited with them.
“Relief. Relief,” Susan Vamvakias said as she described how she felt upon hearing the ruling. “I just want to get the boys home for him. I’m grateful for Judge Voet for listening and … doing the right thing.”
The dogs, pit bull mixed-breeds named Mario and Luigi, were in the Ionia area last summer with Hustin while his family visited Vamvakias. The dogs were seized after being found in a pen with the dead goats. At an initial hearing, Voet ruled common sense dictated they were probably responsible and said they should be put down. But the family kept fighting and finally had some success when a Detroit attorney and animal activist became aware of the case and took it on pro bono. Voet granted a new hearing in March.
That hearing ran more than 10 hours on Monday — it started at 1 p.m. and closing arguments didn’t wrap up until around 10:45 p.m. Voet issued his ruling around 11:15 p.m.
During the proceedings, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources official called by the prosecution testified that he believed it was likely the dogs killed the goats.
But when the defense presented its case, it called three animal experts who disagreed. They said the lack of evidence — specifically the absence of blood on the dogs — indicated they could not have killed the goats and cat. That was what led the judge to side with the defense in the end.
“Where’s the blood?” Voet wondered as he handed down his ruling, adding that the case was a “head scratcher.”
“No blood is direct evidence that these dogs did not do it. How do you get beyond that?” Celeste Dunn, the Detroit defense attorney who took the case, said after the ruling.
Defense experts also argued that the wounds sustained by the goats were more likely to have come from coyotes than dogs. Authorities did warn residents in April 2016 that coyotes were killing pets in Ionia and Kent counties.
Ionia County Animal Control officers also took the stand to say they didn’t believe the dogs are responsible for the attack and that they should be freed.
The woman who was taking care of the dogs also testified about how important they are to Allen Hustin. Hustin served two tours of duty in Iraq and was awarded the Purple Heart. When he returned home, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, so he got the dogs as a therapy.
Vamvakias, Hustin’s mother-in-law, told 24 Hour News 8 after the hearing that having his dogs back will give him “a settled mind.”
“Peace of heart. Home will be full again. It will again,” she continued.
The dogs are registered with the U.S. Army.
After Voet issued his ruling, the prosecution asked that the costs for housing the dogs all these months be paid by the defense. The judge said he would take it under advisement, but said he didn’t know if he could order that.
It’s unclear if the prosecution will appeal Monday’s decision.
“I’ve thought all along that I wasn’t quite understanding why they would pursue this,” Dunn said.
A third dog named Major, owned by Hustin’s mother-in-law, was with Mario and Luigi when they were found in the goat’s pen and was also seized. At some point after that, he vanished from the Ionia County Animal Shelter and no one seems to know where he is.
–24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean and Leon Hendrix contributed to this report.