HAMPTON — The Virginia Attorney General’s Office dropped animal cruelty charges against a Hampton sheriff’s lieutenant and her husband — but the office says the case is still being investigated.
At a hearing Monday in General District Court, a lawyer for the Hampton City Attorney’s Office — working with the AG’s office on the case — asked that all charges be dropped under a provision that allows the charges to be brought back at a later date.
“I assume this is for good cause?” asked General District Court Judge Parker Council, a retired Smithfield jurist appointed to the case. When Hampton Senior Assistant City Attorney Olivia Alexander said yes, Council signed off on it.
After the hearing that lasted only about two minutes, Alexander referred a reporter to the Attorney General’s Office to answer a question on why prosecutors filed such a motion.
“Despite the hearing, the investigation remains ongoing,” Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said Monday afternoon.
Beyond that, she said, “I can’t comment on pending litigation.”
Michael A. Johnson Sr., 59, was charged in July with three felony counts of promoting or being engaged in “the fighting of animals for amusement, sport or gain.” The charges accused him of having “a device or substance” to enhance the dogs’ ability to fight or “inflict injury upon another animal.”
He also faced another 17 misdemeanor counts, including eight counts each of animal cruelty and failing to properly care for dogs and a lesser dogfighting charge.
His wife, Sheriff’s Lt. Carolyn W. Johnson, 58 — who was with the Hampton Sheriff’s Office for 24 years — was charged at the time with 16 misdemeanors: Eight counts each of animal cruelty and failing to properly care for dogs.
Carolyn Johnson held a high-ranking post as the agency’s executive secretary, working closely with Hampton Sheriff Karen Bowden. She retired Aug. 1, shortly after the charges were filed.
Michael and Carolyn Johnson declined to comment as they walked out of court. But Carolyn Johnson’s attorney, Ron Smith, said there’s “zero evidence” against her.
“It’s unfortunate that she had to retire from a job that she very much liked,” he said. “These charges were taken out prematurely.”
From the documents prosecutors have sent him under discovery, he said, “I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that Ms. Johnson committed any crime.”
Though prosecutors recently downloaded a copy of Carolyn Johnson’s phone, Smith predicted nothing would be found on the device.
“Her whole contribution is that when she goes to a grocery store, she buys the dog food,” Smith said.
Michael Johnson’s lawyer, Timothy Clancy, declined to characterize the prosecution’s evidence against his client.
“These are very serious charges, and it is clear based on today’s motion that the Commonwealth is not prepared to go forward at this time,” Clancy said. “I don’t know whether they’re going to ever bring these charges back.”
Eight pit bulls were found in July behind the couple’s home in Phoebus.
Hampton Animal Control Officer Samantha Denney and another officer went to the home on Ireland Street July 24 after a neighbor reported “hearing dogs screaming and whining” behind the house, a search warrant affidavit says.
Michael Johnson declined to let the officers onto the premises, but allowed them onto the property the next day after the officers got the warrants.
The eight pit bulls included four puppies, many with fur loss and some with open and untreated wounds, according to the affidavit. The dogs had no water despite hot outdoor temperatures, with one having no shelter. The dogs all suffered from significant flea infestation.
They were taken to the Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter.
Investigators also confiscated a device that’s used to “harness dogs and force breeding,” according to the documents. Such devices are used to constrain female dogs and keep them from biting or defending themselves against a male dog during breeding.
Smith noted, however, that a breeding stand is actually designed “to stop them from fighting” and “to keep the male from getting torn up.”
Animal Control also found a treadmill and bottles of multivitamins, the affidavit said. They also found cell phones, a dog muzzle, a bite stick, “supplements and first aid supplies,” needle syringes with empty vaccine bottles, and “multiple folders” of vet documents and pictures.
After Monday’s hearing, three animal rights supporters on hand to watch the hearing were upset the charges weren’t going forward.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Antoinette Weathers, 63. “I can’t imagine the suffering the animals had to endure. I hope eventually that we will find justice, because we didn’t find it in the courtroom today.”
Emotions were heated after the hearing, when Weathers and another woman got close to the Johnsons and their relatives in the courtroom hallway.
An animal activist shouted at the Johnsons about how they didn’t care for animals, with one of the Johnsons’ relatives shouting back with an expletive and raising a cane toward one of them.
Weathers called for a sheriff’s deputy who declined to stop the Johnsons and their group from leaving the courthouse. But he told Weathers they could go to the Hampton magistrate’s office to file a complaint.
They were later seen walking to the magistrate’s office to do that.
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, firstname.lastname@example.org