TEXAS CITY — The seizure of 200 cats, including 27 that died in squalor, led to the conviction Saturday of a feline sanctuary owner on four felony counts of cruelty to animals.
The verdict against Wydell Lorraine Dixon, 57, came at noon following two days of deliberation and a bomb threat phoned to the Galveston hotel where the jury was sequestered overnight.
Authorities accused Dixon, owner of Whiskerville Animal Sanctuary Inc. in Texas City, and her former employee, Kimberly Jane Paskert, 49, of abandoning the cats for about a week.
Judge Lonnie Cox, of Galveston County’s 56th District Court in Galveston, will impose punishment and was expected to set a sentencing date for Dixon on Tuesday. She faces a maximum of two years in jail on each of the four state jail felony counts of animal cruelty.
“We are obviously disappointed by the jury’s decision,” Dixon’s defense attorney R. Scott Shearer said. “It was not totally unexpected, though, given the way the state butchered the indictments and created a jury charge that virtually guaranteed a guilty verdict.”
Shearer said Dixon would appeal.
Dixon’s trial began with jury selection Monday followed by four days of testimony. The jury started deliberating the cruelty charges at 11:10 a.m. Friday.
The jury remained deadlocked Friday night and the panel was sequestered at a hotel until deliberations could resume Saturday morning.
At 1:50 a.m. Saturday, someone phoned a bomb threat to the Galveston hotel, forcing the jurors and other guests to evacuate Candlewood Suites, 808 61st St., testimony revealed. Deputies in charge of the jury were unable to find acceptable lodging all on the same floor of a different hotel and made the decision to return the panel to the jury deliberation room at 3:15 a.m., where the members said they would feel safe.
One of the deputies in charge of the jury testified the panel learned of the hoax by overhearing conversations of other evacuated guests, but those guests didn’t talk to the jury. There was no information on who might have phoned the hoax to the hotel, and testimony didn’t reveal whether the bomb threat was meant to tamper with the jury.
Galveston police Lt. Michael Gray declined to say whether police had a suspect in the hoax call, which remained under investigation. He reported no arrest.
Cox denied Shearer’s motion for a mistrial, saying the jury had been successfully sequestered from the public and that there was no proof anyone tampered with the panel.
Condition of cats
Authorities accused Dixon of operating the sanctuary in a reckless manner, which led to the seizure of 200 cats, including 27 that were found dead.
When authorities entered the building Jan. 3, 2012, they had to wear breathing apparatuses to withstand the stench from rooms covered with feces and urine.
Surviving cats cannibalized the dead ones and were so dehydrated that they fought over water bowls given to them by firefighters, testimony revealed.
Paskert testified that she was responsible, because the woman she hired to fill in for her didn’t show for work. Texas City police were unable to find that woman by the name or telephone number Paskert provided them.
Prosecutors gave Paskert immunity for her testimony, which can’t be used against her when her case goes to trial.
Shearer blamed Paskert, saying she even collected a paycheck while telling Dixon that the cats were fine. Shearer called the prosecution absurd, and asked the jury in his closing arguments whether it should hold Dixon responsible for taking time off even though she’d made reasonable arrangements for the cats’ care.
‘They reached the right verdict’
Galveston County Criminal District Attorney Jack Roady said he was grateful for the hard work and thorough investigation by the agencies involved and for the long hours of deliberation by the jury.
“They reached the right verdict,” Roady said.
Authorities seized the surviving cats, and in May, a civil jury awarded custody of the felines to the county. County animal services, however, couldn’t care for all the cats and enlisted the help of other public and private animal benevolence agencies.
In May, a civil court jury awarded $231,884 in restitution to be paid by Dixon to those agencies that cared for the animals. The civil court jury’s decision remains on appeal.