Crime - Sacto 911

Sacramento DA puts animal abusers on notice – Animal Cruelty Unit is coming for them

She made a career out of putting away batterers and child molesters, stalkers and fraudsters.

But all the while, Hilary Bagley-Franzoia was quietly chipping away at another brand of criminal with a lower profile, one often overlooked by the legal system. The case files she pored over, often late at night, contained photos of dogs, cats and other animals that had been beaten, burned, shot and starved to death. Bagley-Franzoia, a deputy Sacramento County district attorney, wanted to make animal abusers pay dearly for their crimes.

“These cases, they are horrific,” she said, holding a photograph of a pit bull terrier named Buddy whose owner strung up the dog with a chain and beat it “like a piñata” in his backyard. The dog survived, and now lives the good life in the Bay Area. His former owner is in prison.

Bagley-Franzoia has successfully prosecuted dozens of such cases in recent years. The public has demanded it, as law enforcement and psychologists have documented a clear link between animal cruelty and other crimes, including domestic violence and child abuse. But investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty cases remains difficult, with victims that cannot speak for themselves and evidence that too often is never gathered or gets lost or pushed aside.

All of that is about to change in the Sacramento area, the veteran prosecutor said, with the formation of the DA’s first Animal Cruelty Unit, which will work with a special task force to investigate and prosecute abuse cases in the region.

Bagley-Franzoia will lead the unit, working closely with police, sheriff’s deputies, animal control officers, shelter operators and other members of the task force. The panel’s two dozen members are receiving training about cruelty laws and criminal investigation techniques to document animal abuse cases for prosecution.

During the past several years, the Sacramento County DA’s Office has taken on more than three dozen felony animal abuse and cruelty cases, many of which resulted in lengthy prison sentences for defendants with previous criminal histories. Convictions included a man who used an explosive device to kill a stray cat, a defendant who drowned a neighbor’s dog in a washing machine, and someone who fatally burned a puppy inside a plastic crate.

“I think we will be bulging at the seams” with cases, Bagley-Franzoia said. “I want all of them.”

“I’ve always cared about these cases,” the prosecutor said, speaking from an office decorated with images of pit bulls, a maligned breed that Bagley-Franzoia has embraced. She and her husband, Mark Franzoia, have three rescued pit bull mixes at home. “But I felt like we were only getting the tip of the iceberg. Now, we have a special unit specific to animals. It’s something I’ve been wanting for 28 years.”

One of her current cases centers on a small Yorkie mix named Tucker whose owner has been charged with scalding the dog in a shower, causing severe and ultimately fatal burns. The owner, Ignatius Chavarria, has been charged with felony animal cruelty and is scheduled to begin trial next month.

Animal advocates have highlighted the case on social media, demanded harsh punishment and crowded the court during Chavarria’s appearances.

Cases like Chavarria’s illustrate the “depravity” of people who abuse animals, said Gina Knepp, manager of the city of Sacramento’s Front Street Shelter and a member of the new task force.

“We are not talking about people who forgot to feed their dogs, or left them out in the cold,” Knepp said. “We’re talking about monsters.”

Numerous studies have documented a link between animal abuse and crimes against people. A recent study by the National District Attorneys Association found that as many as 59 percent of women who suffer domestic abuse delay seeking shelter because they fear their abusers will harm their animals. Another study, by the Chicago Police Department, found that 65 percent of people arrested for abuse against animals had previously been arrested for battery against a human. Animal cruelty committed by children is considered to be a key warning sign of future violent behavior, according to the American Psychological Association.

Last year, a local man, David Billoups, was sentenced to five years in jail for kicking his girlfriend’s dog to death following a history of domestic violence between the couple.

“Quite a few of our cruelty cases are linked to child abuse or domestic violence,” said Jace Huggins, the city’s chief animal control officer. “We are never surprised to see it in the person’s background.”

But in Sacramento and across the region, too many cruelty cases never receive the attention they deserve, Huggins said. Overworked animal control officers often are trying to manage hundreds of calls for service, from picking up a dead dog to looking into a report of animal neglect or abuse. Sometimes officers simply do not have the time or background to document evidence, he said.

The new task force and prosecution unit “is going to make a huge difference,” Huggins said, as agencies across the region train staffs, streamline field practices, share information and push for more resources.

“I think all of us feel a much greater sense of responsibility now to make sure we don’t let anything get away from us,” he said. “And having Hilary on the other end at the DA’s office, waiting to hit the courtroom, is a blessing.”

Bagley-Franzoia is more than ready.

A Sacramento native, Bagley-Franzoia grew up in a household where pets were considered family. Her parents “had a very strong affinity” for animals, she said, and were “disgusted” by abuse and neglect.

Bagley-Franzoia began her career in the DA’s office prosecuting misdemeanors, followed by assignments in vehicle theft, insurance fraud, domestic violence, child abuse and homicide. She also volunteered to be assigned to animal cruelty and abuse cases.

Her first such case came in 1990 and involved a man who shot a neighbor’s dog through the eye. Back then, judges were more lenient toward animal cases, she said. The man was able to plead to a misdemeanor and got a minimal sentence. “Today, this would be a felony,” and depending on prior criminal history the abuser likely would do serious jail or prison time, Bagley-Franzoia said.

As she prepares to move to downtown for her new job, Bagley-Franzoia said she is putting animal abusers on notice.

“These cases are out there, everywhere, and the public is fed up,” said Bagley-Franzoia. “People must be held accountable for these awful crimes, and I’m going to make sure that they are.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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