Madison County’s Animal Control Board voted 3-2 last month to return temporary custody of a male pit bull dog to his owner, a man who was the first person in the state arrested under Georgia’s new felony dogfighting law, which took effect July 1, 2008. The animal control board released the dog to Johnny Stewart Johnson, 28, of Danielsville, per his request, until his court date, which is tentatively scheduled for next May. The custody of six other dogs seized at the time of his arrest were not under consideration.

In return, Johnson agreed to provide adequate care for the dog and to allow animal control officers to conduct regular visits to his home in order to ensure that adequate care is provided, according to the animal control board minutes.

The decision was made during an animal control hearing on Nov. 12, where members of the animal control board heard testimony from assistant district attorney Jimmy Webb, animal control officer Andy McLendon and Johnson.

“The purpose of the hearing was not to determine innocence or guilt related to dog fighting but whether it was in the dog’s best interest to be held by the state, or returned to the dog owner while the trial was pending,” hearing minutes stated.

The board heard information from Webb regarding the dogfighting arrest; from McLendon, who spoke of his experience with dogs and answered questions from the board; and from Johnson, who maintained that the dog in question, as well as the other dogs, were kept for personal enjoyment and not for fighting.

“A question of whether the animal should be neutered prior to release to the owner was discussed, however the motion/second was unaltered and a vote followed,” according to hearing minutes.

Board members Barbara Freeman, Decator Dunugan and Nina Grass voted to return the dog to Johnson under monitored foster care until his trial. Chairman Greg Bleakley and board secretary Phil Munro voted “no.”

CASE HISTORY

The Madison County Sheriff’s Office, acting on intelligence provided to them by the Humane Society of the United States, arrested Johnson at his Hwy. 98 home on July 3, charging him with eight felony counts of dogfighting, one for each of the dogs seized during the raid and one for the seizure of alleged dog fighting paraphernalia. He was released on a $26,450 bond the following day.

Johnson was reportedly the owner of “Shakedown Kennels.”

At the time of his arrest, law enforcement officers, Humane Society officials and a forensic veterinarian from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reportedly found barrels scattered around Johnson’s backyard, logging chains attached to stakes in the ground near each barrel, along with other evidence. Each dog was attached to a chain by a heavy collar.

The sheriff’s office said in a press release at the time that information regarding Shake Down Kennels was first provided to the HSUS via their tip line earlier in the year. An investigation was launched at that time, but authorities waited to make an arrest until after the new law took effect July 1.

The animal fighting tip line was established as a pro-bono venture by the Atlanta-based security firm, Norred and Associates, in the wake of the Michael Vick case so that Georgia residents can easily report illegal animal fighting to authorities, officials said. The HSUS offers up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in animal fighting.

The new law makes it a felony to own, possess, train, transport or sell a dog for the purpose of dogfighting.

If convicted, Johnson could serve up to five years in prison, a minimum fine of $5,000, or both, according to the sheriff’s office.

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