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County seeks $ from defendant to pay for dogs’ care

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | July 9, 2024 7:00 AM

Lincoln County authorities are attempting to recoup costs it has incurred while taking care of 11 dogs that were taken from a man facing felony animal cruelty charges.

Steven David Aver, 63, was charged on Jan. 26, 2024, with 10 felony and one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty following an investigation of a residence at 1652 Old U.S. Highway 2, located near the Idaho border.

Aver was in district court on Monday, July 1, for arraignment on the charges. There was also testimony about the costs of caring for the 11 dogs. According to court documents, the Tobacco Valley Animal Shelter has cared for the 11 dogs since Jan. 22, at a cost of $110 per day. As of May 9, the dogs were in the shelter for 109 days. The county has paid $858 in vet bills while flea treatments cost $598.50.

Aver’s hearing lasted nearly two hours as he argued various matters while also complimenting 5th Judicial District Judge Luke Berger on the appearance of his beard.

Berger took over the case after Lincoln County District Judge Matt Cuffe recused himself on June 10. Aver’s hearing on the cost of animal care wasn’t completed on July 1 and will continue on July 17.

Aver, who is representing himself in the animal cruelty case, said he loved Berger’s beard.

“I love your beard. You could be one of the ZZ Top guys.”

Aver was referring to the beards of hard rock band ZZ Top members Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons. Berger replied that he was going to speak to Aver’s attorney, Ben Kolter, Aver replied that he was the one doing the talking and the one who’d filed motions in the case.

Berger and Aver bantered about the status of standby counsel.

“If Mr. Kolter comes off of standby status, he’s off that permanently,” Berger said.

Berger then read the counts against Aver in the animal cruelty cases and then sought pleas from the defendant.

“I can’t enter pleas on a document that is incorrect,” Aver said.

Berger then entered not guilty pleas.

"I’m entering not guilty pleas on your behalf because you refused to do so,” Berger said. 

Aver had several dates for arraignment on the animal cruelty charges rescheduled, including Feb. 5, Feb. 12 and June 17.

Julianne Hinchey was appointed by the state public defender’s office to represent Aver, but she made a motion to withdraw from the case. On March 29, Cuffe granted the motion and ordered the state to appoint a new attorney to represent Aver.

In his order, Cuffe wrote that he found, “irreconcilable conflict and a complete breakdown in communication” between the parties.

At that point, Boris sought revocation of Aver’s permission to visit his animals because he was disruptive and abusive during scheduled visits.

Cuffe granted permission to Aver on Feb. 1 to see his dogs at the county animal shelter, which was being run by the Tobacco Valley Animal Shelter at the time. Shelter officials cancelled the contract with the county because it was costing them more than the $50,000 they received from the county.

Aver also had dates for other hearings on the court calendar for Feb. 26, March 18, which weren’t held because an arraignment was not held.

At the April 15 arraignment, Kolter moved to continue, saying Aver felt there were many issues to be dealt with. Boris opposed the delay.

“This is the second continuance and I can’t think of a reason to not go forward,” Boris said.

Aver was also scheduled to appear June 17 for arraignment, but that was continued to July 1

According to court documents, on June 6, Boris filed a petition for cost of care in an effort to have Aver post a renewable bond in an amount to cover the cost for the care of the 11 dogs for 30 days. It would require Aver to deposit the same amount of money every 30 days until the final disposition of the animal cruelty case.

Aver argued that the question of cost and care for the dogs shouldn’t be part of the criminal case, but rather a civil matter.

On May 31, Cuffe denied Aver’s motion to dismiss the charges.

Aver argued the statutes in the animal cruelty case were, “unconstitutionally vague.”

Cuffe wrote in his order that, “Aver’s analysis fails to read the statutes as a whole or apply common usage.”

Cuffe also indicated Aver’s claims of due process violations for animal seizure are improperly pleaded. Cuffe wrote that a motion to suppress should have been filed.

In the court filing alleging animal cruelty, county animal control officer Andrew Smith reported that he and Sgt. Rebecca Guerra served a search warrant Nov. 16, 2023, at a residence on Old Highway 2 North. He said they needed to wear special suits and respirators while inside the home allegedly littered with dog feces and urine.

Smith reported finding five dogs in the front room of the house. One dog had extensive hair loss while others had moderate hair loss. Smith reported that one dog was trying to scratch its back on the door.

In a June 6 court filing seeking to have Aver pay for the dogs’ care and treatment, Smith described the condition of the dogs after they were examined by Dr. Chad Burt and as of April 1. 

Two dogs had hair loss and toenails that needed trimmed, including one with long, curling front nails. The vet could see fleas on the bodies of three other dogs. 

Smith said following exams of the dogs on April 1 by Dr. Fred Conkle, 10 dogs had better body composition scores while one was the same.

In the original charging document, Smith determined that due to the discomfort and pain the dogs were feeling from what he believed was either mange or a flea infestation that they should be removed immediately.

When the officers went back inside, Smith believed there was dog urine and feces on the floor of the front room and throughout the kitchen. The dogs appeared to have been walking through the urine and feces while tracking it throughout the area.

Smith reported when he continued his walk through the home he found four more dogs which had access to the outside through a dog door.

A check of the basement revealed a dog confined in a room used as an office space. The room allegedly had urine puddles and multiple piles of dog feces.

On Jan. 20, Dr. Chad Burt, a veterinarian from Bonners Ferry, Idaho came to the animal shelter where the animals are being kept. His exam determined a serious flea infestation appeared to have caused the hair loss and skin irritation, according to Smith. Burt said all 11 dogs had fleas while four were neglected appropriate care.

At the July 1 hearing, Aver looked at a record of treatment the dogs received. He argued the flea meds, bought at Homesteader’s, were highly toxic and could overdose the dogs.

A conviction for felony animal cruelty may result in a 2-year term in the Montana State Prison while a conviction for misdemeanor animal cruelty could result in a county jail term of one year.



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