By Shar Porier/wick communications
Published: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 10:36 AM CST

BISBEE - The seizure of a number of dogs from an Elfrida breeder in April 2008 by a county animal control officer has led to a tort complaint being filed against the county, the sheriff's office and members of an anti-puppy mill/animal rescue group.

Barbara and Bob Ratliff are suing the county, People Assisting Kindred Spirits (PAKS), Pencin Veterinary Clinic, Pantano Veterinary Clinic and various people accused of taking 29 dogs from their property based on a complaint of neglect that was several months old.

When the matter came before Judge David Morales on June 13, 2008, he tossed the warrant on the grounds of "staleness" and then stated that the dogs were to be returned to the owners.

The county appealed the decision by Morales, but Superior Court Judge Wallace Hoggatt upheld the decision Dec. 16, 2008.

On Feb. 9, 2009, Morales mandated the dogs be returned. The county failed to comply.

The Ratliffs' attorney Perry Hicks states in the tort claim, "It is obvious from the records attached to this claim there was never any intent to return the dogs to the Ratliffs, despite valid, lawful court orders. ... The dogs were farmed out and adopted off with the full knowledge and consent of (county animal control officer Crystal) Callahan, despite the dogs were in the custody and care of the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, were evidence in a criminal case and were subject to being returned to the Ratliffs if they prevailed. ... The loss of Barbara Ratliff's dogs is the direct result of the illegal search and seizure of the dogs and negligent acts of Cochise County, Officer Callahan, the sheriff's office and animal control, as well as the intentional acts of PAKS and members of PAKS."

The Ratliffs are now seeking damages from the county, the sheriff's department, the animal control division and Callahan. The Ratliffs allege unlawful search and seizure, wrongful taking of property, violation of the right to privacy, negligent entrustment and negligence as stated in the complaint filed Dec. 31 in Superior Court.

Also named in the suit are PAKS, Pencin Veterinary Clinic, Pantano Animal Clinic, Mary Pencin, Tipling, Donna Dunham, Karen Radcliff, Darlene Burnett, Mary Hinton, Sherry Hoard, Jenelle Rodenberg and associated people involved in allegations of civil conspiracy, malicious prosecution, and aiding and abetting tortious conduct.

Problems for the Ratliffs began in April 2008 with a search warrant. According to documents provided by Hicks, the warrant was based on a 4-month-old complaint made by Marjorie "Heidi" Tipling, a technician at the Pencin Veterinary Clinic in Willcox and a member of PAKS. Tipling stated in her complaint on March 31, 2008, to Callahan that the dogs were not being cared for, had no clean water, were infested with ticks, had eye and limb injuries, and had no food available to eat at the time of her "surprise shopper" visit in December 2007.

With the warrant in hand, Callahan took possession of four adult dogs and eight puppies on April 16, 2008, and transported the dogs to Pencin Veterinary Clinic in Willcox for evaluations. Callahan stated the dogs were suffering from "gum disease, eye problems, tick scabs, hernias and pale mucous membranes."

Callahan later returned and collected 17 more dogs from the Ratliffs on the grounds their medical health could not be determined without a "complete medical examination," documents show.

The Ratliffs requested the dogs be taken to their veterinarian in Bisbee, Dr. Charles Behney, until the matter could be resolved. Deputies told them the dogs would go to Pencin and transportation to Behney's could be arranged. But that didn't happen. Instead, six dogs were transported to Pantano veterinary clinic in Tucson and several were adopted out to other people involved with PAKS.

In an April 16, 2008, letter to the county, veterinarian Mary Pencin stated, "Today the Cochise County Animal Officer from Sierra Vista, Laurie, (no last name given), brought to the clinic and turned over to PAKS for treatment and adoption twelve dogs."

According to PAKS adoption agreements, adopters agree to "provide a foster animal with proper and routine veterinary care, including wellness exams, current required and recommended vaccinations and urgent emergency care as needed." The agreement also acknowledges that the owner of the animal has the "right to access the animal."

Copies of 10 foster care agreements from PAKS were provided to Hicks, but no other information was given about the whereabouts of the remaining 19 dogs.

In May 2008, the county filed a motion in Justice Court to have the Ratliffs forfeit the dogs.

But in June, Hicks filed a motion for dismissal of charges due to a "stale" search warrant. Tipling allegedly shopped Ratliff on December 20, 2007, yet waited until March 2008 to make a formal complaint. Then it took three more weeks for the animal control officer to act on the complaint.

Justice David Morales tossed the evidence found under the "stale" search warrant. He then dismissed the charges. He also ordered the county to transport the dogs to Behney's office at Ratliff's expense for examination and care.

The date of the transport of the dogs was set for June 27. However, Callahan stated in an affidavit that the dogs couldn't be transported because she didn't know where the dogs were.

The county appealed the decision by Morales and refused to return the dogs until the appeal had been heard. Superior Court Judge Wallace Hoggatt upheld the ruling by Morales in favor of the Ratliffs on Dec. 22, 2008.

Charges were dismissed with prejudice by the county attorney's office on Jan. 22, 2009.

The same day, Donna Dunham with PAKS wrote to Callahan stating, "All the dogs have expired." She stated that instructions were given not to provide "extraordinary care."

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