For much of Friday, the testimony in a fourth-floor Sacramento Superior Courtroom was brutal and graphic about the death of Zelda, a 12-year-old border collie found floating in the American River last June.
She was discovered near River Park with a bowling ball bag tied to the leash attached to her collar; inside it was a 12.1 pound river rock, a 12.3 pound bowling ball and a shoe. The dog, district attorney investigator Steve Wharton said, was found with river water and leaf debris in her mouth and trachea, and a veterinarian who examined Zelda concluded she likely died of water inhalation.
By the end of the preliminary hearing, the man suspected of dumping his girlfriend’s dog in the river appeared so drained that he stumbled when Judge Steve White ordered him to face trial in the case and asked for his plea.
William Meek had so much trouble getting his answer out that White had to ask again: Did he say “not guilty”?
Finally, the 47-year-old Citrus Heights man enunciated clearly – not guilty – and White set his trial for April 15 in what is one in a series of animal cruelty cases that have shocked animal lovers in the region.
As testimony wore on Friday, a handful of spectators watched from the audience, including at least three volunteers from the county’s Bradshaw Road animal shelter.
“Any kind of cruelty, especially with an animal, has to be taken as seriously as with people, because they have no voice and completely trust and depend on us to do what’s right by them,” said Debra Dixon, a shelter volunteer who watched the hearing with colleagues Galen Hazelhofer and Lynda Turpin.
Since Zelda was found floating last June, the case has spawned a broad following, with one online petition encouraging Meek’s prosecution showing it had 120,468 supporters by Friday afternoon, when White declared there was enough evidence to have Meek face trial on a felony count of maliciously and intentionally killing an animal.
Meek is accused of killing Zelda after the dog had bitten a friend and then her owner, Mollie Wasemiller, who was then Meek’s girlfriend. According to testimony, Wasemiller asked Meek to take the dog to an animal shelter after she was bitten, in hopes that Zelda could be quarantined and then returned to her.
Wasemiller said she had raised Zelda from a puppy, and the dog had survived being run over by a car and, later, a severely broken leg. Despite her injuries, Zelda was an “alpha dog” full of spirit who ignored the cast on her leg and insisted on chasing squirrels as a younger dog, Wasemiller said.
But her injuries left her sensitive, and anytime someone tried to pet her head or touch her leg, she could bite. Wasemiller testified that Zelda may have bitten as many as five people over the course of her life, including her owner.
The last two bites came in June, when Zelda bit a friend and then, a day later, bit Wasemiller, she testified.
That led the couple to try to find a shelter to take the dog, and at one point Meek tried to surrender her in Citrus Heights but was told he could not because the couple did not live in that jurisdiction.
Finally, Wasemiller said, she got Meek and a friend to go pick up Zelda at another friend’s home and take her to the Front Street Animal Shelter on June 11. Wasemiller said she was so traumatized by the idea of sending the dog to the shelter that she got into the shower rather than see it happen.
“I asked him if he could please take her there,” Wasemiller testified under questioning from Deputy District Attorney Hilary Bagley-Franzoia. “I didn’t have it in me to do it.”
A short time later, Wasemiller said, Meek returned without the dog.
“He came in and he had a sad look on his face,” she said, adding that Meek said everything had gone fine, that he had left the dog at the shelter’s front counter.
As she testified, Meek, dressed in orange jail garb, held back tears and occasionally wiped his eyes or nervously rolled a tiny pencil between his thumb and index fingers.
Authorities say there was never any record of Meek surrendering a dog on Front Street, and a few days after he supposedly had done so, a River Park homeowner called animal control to report seeing a dog floating in the river near there.
After Zelda was recovered, she was identified through a microchip implant, and Sacramento animal control Officer John Sorrels testified that the dog was found to have a total of 31.6 pounds of materials tied to the 45-inch leash attached to her collar.
Sorrels and other officials began investigating and eventually went to confront Wasemiller and Meek.
Wasemiller, who testified Friday under a grant of immunity because she had previously given false statements during the probe, recounted her reaction when she was told that Zelda had not been handed over to the shelter.
“He said, ‘Look, your boyfriend killed your dog,’” she said. “I said, ‘There’s no way he did that. No way.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Did you do this to Zelda?’”
Meek denied it, she said, and told her he had given the dog to a friend.
The investigation continued for several weeks, and authorities finally planned to arrest Meek at a court hearing on a separate case in September, but he failed to appear.
Meek, a construction worker with a history of charges ranging from burglary to drug possession, was arrested in November at a Reno hotel by cops acting on a tip. He is being held in the Sacramento County jail without bail because of another pending drug case and a separate felony case in Yolo County.
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.