NOVEMBER 25, 2018. After a family vacation in Michigan, 21-year-old Christian Breuer returns home. Driving from the airport to the apartment he shares with his 19-year-old fiancee Andrea Kowalczyk and their 4-month-old kitten Storm, Christian’s car skids on ice and clips another vehicle’s fender. As if his day can’t get any worse, he arrives to a half-empty apartment.
The first thing he notices is Storm’s cat tree missing, then absent furniture. Andrea and Storm are nowhere to be found. He jumps to conclusions, fearing they’ve been kidnapped and the place robbed. It’s the only explanation he can fathom. Neither of his parents answer their phones. He frantically texts Andrea, but gets no response. Beyond distraught, he heads to his parents’ house. Uncertainty, anxiety and fear swirl into despair. Officers appear saying Andrea called them, concerned about Christian’s welfare. Back home, hours later, he discovers a note on the bathroom counter: I love you, Chris.
The next day, he learns he’s under investigation for animal cruelty.
ONE DAY PRIOR.
Corporal Vicky Cheney, a top investigator and 19-year veteran of the Animal Law Enforcement (ALE) division of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR), arrives at Christian and Andrea’s apartment at 3:07 p.m. She’s following up on a call Andrea made to ALE dispatch at 2:42 p.m. regarding “critical injuries” her kitten Storm sustained five days earlier. According to ALE dispatch notes, Andrea says the injuries occurred while she was out of the house and her fiancé Christian was home. She says the director at Powers Pet Emergency (PPER) “called her directly and instructed her to call ALE” because the injuries were severe and the director was concerned they were human-inflicted.
According to her field notes, Cheney contacts PPER before meeting with Andrea: “The PPER advised me that the veterinarian’s notes indicated that the trauma sustained to Storm could have ONLY been caused by a human. [All-caps are accurate to her report.] This prompted them to advise the owner to report the possible cruelty to animals concerns to ALE to investigate.”
Corporal Cheney makes contact with Andrea and her mother, Theresa, who, according to Cheney’s field notes “boarded a plane and came to her daughter’s home to help support her and find out what happened.” Andrea tells Cheney that Christian noticed injuries to Storm’s eye while bathing the kitten after she urinated on a blanket. He gave Andrea no specifics on how the injury occurred. We later learn in an interview with one of Cheney’s supervisors that Cheney was particularly suspicious of that bath. Often people bathe animals to cover up evidence.
Upon discovering Storm’s injuries, Andrea says she called her mother, who advised her to take the kitten to the emergency veterinarian clinic right away. Andrea says Christian told her he couldn’t drive her because he had a paper to write. Corporal Cheney’s field notes contain the observation: “This was unusual due to the fact that Mr. Breuer did not seek immediate veterinary treatment when he first discovered the injuries to the cat earlier in the day and he did not want to take his fiance to the veterinary hospital.” She makes extensive notes on Storm’s medical condition, including lethargy, also noting the kitten’s current medications and continued care.
Cheney, who formerly worked as part of this region’s multi-agency Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT), notes Theresa’s concern for her daughter’s welfare. Among all of her training, Cheney’s keenly aware of what’s commonly called “the link”: a high (and sometimes “mis-utilized,” according to Philip Tedeschi, Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection) correlation between animal abuse, domestic violence and child and/or at-risk adult abuse. If one is present, there’s a 70 percent chance another form of abuse is too, a domestic violence expert we speak with confirms.
“I questioned the owner about whether or not she had ever been physically or verbally abused by Mr. Breuer,” Cheney’s field notes read. “The owner denied ever being abused … The owner did advise me that Mr. Breuer is autistic and becomes very upset over financial concerns, yet the owner continued to deny any abuse directed toward her by her fiancé.” Despite repeated denials of abuse, Cheney’s field notes state, “I highly suggested she speak with TESSA and get a restraining order… I needed to know that Storm would be kept away from Mr. Breuer and living in a safe place from here on… Ms. Kowalczyk will be moving out of her apartment on 11/25/18 and not communicating with her fiancé anymore.”
FIVE DAYS BEFORE ANDREA CALLS ALE.
Arriving home to their apartment from a 12.5-hour respiratory therapy shift at Memorial Hospital Central, Andrea finds Christian sitting on the couch with their kitten Storm. In a Voluntary Witness Statement, Andrea writes: “I noticed her eye was bloody and she was all wet. I asked Christian what happened …. but he said he wasn’t sure… I told Christian we needed to take her to the emergency room. I asked why he didn’t take her earlier and he said, ‘I don’t have money for that.’ I was hysterical and asked him to drive us to the emergency vet. However Christian just said, ‘I can’t. I have a paper due in four hours.’”
Andrea takes Storm to PPER. Dr. Christopher Korte examines the kitten and details head trauma, specifically bleeding from her right eye and nostril. The eyelid was closed and the eye socket was swelling. He notes no other concerning symptoms; she was eating and drinking normally. Korte recommends hospitalization, IV fluids, mannitol (a medication to decrease eye pressure) and oxygen therapy. Andrea opts to take Storm home.
To care for the kitten, Andrea cancels a trip to see her family. According to her witness statement, she asks Christian to stay and help instead of going on his family vacation. He leaves town the next day, on November 20, anyway.
Andrea returns to PPER that same night for recommended re-examination with Dr. Korte. He notes the eye as more open, but notices a new limp, discovering soft tissue damage in her right front limb. She returns again to PPER the following night, November 21. Dr. Arielle Aylor checks in on both ailments, listing a stable condition and “no concerns about prognosis at this time.” She even notes Storm is “bright and alert.”
According to her witness statement, sometime after that third ER visit, Andrea texts Christian his half of the total bill: $600. She writes: “he became furious saying that he would not pay that much. I reminded him that we made an obligation to care for this cat and he said, ‘I made no obligation.’ I said fine, and I assumed the costs. He texted me at a later date saying he would pay me back for his half a bit every month. However, I have yet to receive any payment.” (Andrea makes this witness statement on November 24, the same day she called ALE, one day prior to Christian returning home, and only a few days after she says she requests payment.)
On November 26, Andrea seeks a civil protection order. In her complaint, she checks boxes to indicate she’s the victim of both “domestic abuse” and “physical assault, threat, or other situation.” The form asks for specifics about “threats or acts of violence.” She provides no details of verbal or physical abuse, concluding by saying, “Understanding the cycle of violence, I fear that if he could so critically injure our kitten, that I could be the next one critically injured. I fear he may be trying to use the cat as a way to control and manipulate me. I fear greatly what could happen to me and my life if we continue to have contact.”
In addition to standard civil protection order requests (that the respondent refrain from contact, keep 100 feet of distance, etc.), she requests that the Court order Christian to continue to pay his half of costs associated with the apartment.
On November 28, Corporal Cheney contacts Christian about the case, and he asks her to communicate with his lawyer. Cheney also contacts Andrea, who says she had Storm seen by her regular veterinarian, Dr. Ricia Walker. According to Cheney’s field notes, Andrea tells her, “Dr. Walker also stated that the cat could only have sustained such injuries by a human, not an object.”
In the affidavit accompanying criminal charges filed on November 29, Corporal Cheney states she “spoke with the veterinarian’s [sic] who all confirmed that Storm sustained its’ [sic] injuries from trauma caused only by a human.”
Christian is charged with two counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty: neglect by not seeking necessary veterinary care and infliction of serious physical harm.
WHAT DOESN’T ADD UP.
“I had no reason to suspect that a human intentionally caused the injuries,” says Dr. Aylor in a sworn affidavit. “If I had suspected that, I would have reported it.”
In written questionnaires solicited by Corporal Cheney, Dr. Aylor writes: “It is possible that Storm’s wounds were caused by a human, however, I do not think this can be definitively proven and there are many other possibilities.” Dr. Korte writes: “Yes, could have been by human, an object or other cause. Unable to determine cause based on examination.”
Contrary to Corporal Cheney’s field notes, no PPER notes say the trauma could have only been caused by a human, nor are there notes about encouraging Andrea to call Animal Law Enforcement. Outside veterinarians we interviewed said vets would not tell an owner to report suspicions; they’d do it themselves as mandatory reporters. Additionally, a radiologist subcontracted to perform PPER’s x-ray does not express any suspicions of human-caused injury.
As for the “director” Andrea says told her to call ALE, a veterinary assistant interviewed by a private investigator working with Christian’s attorney clarified that nobody at PPER holds the title of director. Several PPER employees interviewed say they never told Andrea the injuries were human caused, nor did they tell her (or her mother, who called twice) to contact ALE. “Any communication by anyone at PPER must be electronically documented,” says former PPER Practice Manager Toufic Diab. And no electronic documentation exists to indicate anyone at the vet clinic spoke to Corporal Cheney. Dr. Aylor and Dr. Korte communicated in writing only, returning questionnaires to Cheney after she filed her affidavit.
“I disagree wholeheartedly with the portion of Corporal Cheney’s affidavit that indicates that we veterinarians separately determined that Storm had suffered and sustained injuries by a human,” says Dr. Aylor in her sworn affidavit. “This is clearly not my opinion and it was not Dr. Korte’s opinion because we discussed the question with each other.”
HOW DO WE GET TO ‘ONLY’?
Dr. Walker, Storm’s regular vet, who doesn’t see the kitten until eight days after the injury occurs, on November 27, also denies ever speaking with Corporal Cheney. But Cheney’s field notes say Dr. Walker calls her on December 6 to say she hadn’t filled out the vet questionnaire and couldn’t attest to much concerning Storm. Those field notes say Walker “refuses to testify EVER again due to the fact she allegedly was treated unprofessionally and had a horrible experience with the courts when she appeared on the last cruelty case trial.”
In vet notes from the November 27 visit, Dr. Walker observes Storm walking normally, eating eagerly and displaying slightly decreased orbital swelling. But she is concerned as to whether Storm “ is visual in [right eye].” Her ultimate assessment: “Concur w/ER vet/animal control officer that constellation of kitten’s injuries are consistent w/blunt force impact - prob abuse by o’s boyfriend.”
Her willingness to say “prob[able] abuse” strikes us as odd because outside veterinarians we interviewed say they are trained to use language that “presents the medical findings in a non-biased fashion” rather than saying “Yes, this was cruelty” unless they have a reasonable degree of certainty. Because Storm was Dr. Walker’s client, PPER automatically sent the ER records to her, and no ER notes say “injuries are consistent w/blunt force impact.”
And how could Dr. Walker “concur” with either source? Dr. Walker’s receptionist Monique Brown says Dr. Walker never spoke with the ER vets about Storm’s injuries. Brown says she was the one who spoke with Corporal Cheney, not Dr. Walker. At best, Dr. Walker conveys “prob[able]” abuse, but even she doesn’t say Storm’s injuries were “only” human-caused, and Cheney doesn’t find that out until a full week after she charges Christian.
So that’s three out of three vets who don’t say “only,” along with PPER staff. It appears the first documented mention of Storm’s injuries as human-caused is from Andrea’s call to ALE dispatch (when dispatch notes that Andrea says PPER’s “director” instructed her to call, even though all PPER staff deny having told her to do so).
Andrea later tells the private investigator working with Christian’s attorney: “I don’t recall being directly contacted by the director. ” In fairness, that interview takes place in August 2020, nearly two years after the injury to Storm occurred. Though Andrea insists she has a sharp memory for certain details. “It was snowing quite hard that day,” she says, noting how Corporal Cheney came up to the apartment without a jacket, which she and her mom interpreted as evidence of Cheney’s concern about the situation — rushing out without bundling up. “You remember those kinds of things,” Andrea says. However, at 3:07 p.m., when Cheney’s field notes place her as arriving, it was actually 47 degrees and partly sunny according to weather history data, which notes light rain at 4:54 p.m. and light snow at 10:25 p.m.
WHAT’S THE ‘BIG DEAL’?
The court denies Andrea’s request for a protective order, saying “Here, there is no allegation that there’s any harm done to you… All I have is that there’s this possible connection between a pet that you have and some possible risk to you, and without more I cannot conclude that there’s an imminent danger to you.” In an August 2020 interview with the private investigator and Christian’s attorney, Andrea says, “I will not accuse him of ever being physically abusive towards me,” echoing the repeated denials she gave Corporal Cheney. “He wasn’t treating me well emotionally. But I will not say that he ever physically abused me.”
Then why did Andrea check the “domestic violence” box and say she feared for her life on her civil protection order request? And why did Corporal Cheney “highly” suggest Andrea seek a protective order when, according to Cheney’s field notes, Andrea made no mention of being in imminent danger from Christian?
In an early February 2021 interview with us, Cheney says Andrea “already mentioned to me, along with her mother, that she was wanting to get a restraining order… that prompted me to have a conversation with her.” (Again, in fairness to the passage of two years, everything she tells us is to the best of her recollection.) She also tells us she shared with Andrea her own story about seeking a restraining order against somebody she was in an intimate relationship with in the past.
“My main intention with her was to say ‘this is what I’ve experienced’ and I just referred her to TESSA,” says Cheney. “I never thought it was that big of a deal.”
In December 2019, we interviewed Assistant Director for Animal Law Enforcement at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region Lindsey Vigna, one of Corporal Cheney’s superiors at the time. We asked her about Cheney’s “extremely strong encouragement” that Andrea move out of her apartment (in Andrea’s words from her Victim Impact Statement).
“I would never encourage one of the officers to step into that kind of counseling role,” Vigna says “It’s a slippery slope when you’re out in the field, because some people just want somebody to talk to.”
Cheney, who shares she’s a disabled Army veteran and mother to an incarcerated son who has mental health issues, is transparent about the difficulty of navigating that slope, saying “you can become emotionally involved… it’s almost like having PTSD. Compassion fatigue is a real thing… after 21 and a half years of dealing with people who literally beat their animals to death, or nearly to death — it really affects you… I can’t even follow up on my cases. I don’t want to know what happens… I consider animals family members. They’re not human, but they’re pretty damn close.”
Her reaction to being dragged into a meeting (triggered by our inquiry) regarding discrepancies between her affidavit and statements by the vets highlights her passion for animal welfare. Cheney says she was insulted: “Why am I being called in here by all my supervisory staff? If it’s in my report, and I was told that by a veterinarian, I’m not just going to frivolously pull that out of a hat... It’s my word against the veterinarian. Who is somebody going to believe? Probably the veterinarian, but what they don’t know is that this particular veterinarian [Dr. Walker] was adamant that they absolutely did not ever want to go to court again... Somebody did something horrific to this cat and you don’t want to stand up for justice for that? You don’t want to back up your statement that you told me?”
But Dr. Walker’s denial of speaking with Corporal Cheney isn’t the only discrepancy in the affidavit; there are the other vet notes and answers to written questionnaires as well.
“In the court of law, those discrepancies can be brought forward, which is the beauty of our justice system,” Vigna says in response to our probe.
The burden of bringing forward those discrepancies, however, falls on Christian, now compelled into the legal system — one which locally lacks any special considerations or processes for persons with autism. It requires his lawyer to either convince the prosecutor that the discrepancies are problematic enough to drop the charges outright or go to trial and cross-examine Corporal Cheney. But trial means facing conviction on both counts; bloody animal photos might stir emotion and non-neurotypical behaviors could be interpreted as signs of guilt. That’s a big risk when there’s a plea deal with a guaranteed dismissal on the table.
THE AFTERMATH: After four years together, Andrea and Christian, without knowing it, had seen each other for the last time on November 20. Christian would never see Storm again either. Before he returned from his family trip, Andrea took Storm and moved out of their apartment, staying first with a friend, then relocating to the East Coast, where she moved in with her parents for a time while seeking a new job and eventually married.
Between November 20 and 23, Andrea and Christian continue a lengthy text exchange, which we’ve read via discovery turned over by the prosecution as well as looking at Christian’s phone. They discuss Storm’s condition, veterinary bills and argue over financial matters.
Andrea texts Christian on the morning of November 24 hinting at something important they need to talk about, but says she can’t tell him over text. Christian says this creates anxiety for him and repeatedly asks her to tell him what it is. “It sounds like your [sic] leaving me or something,” he texts... “No, it’s not about me leaving you,” she replies... “Storms [sic] not dying is she?”... “No,” she says. A few hours later she calls ALE.
On November 25, Christian frantically texts Andrea several times after returning home to find her gone. She doesn’t respond, but she does call authorities later in the day to report Christian’s suicide threat. (Andrea later tells Christian’s PI and attorney she found his suicide threats emotionally manipulative).
By the 26th, Christian’s aware of the cruelty charges. And on the 27th, Andrea finally texts him to request the return of a package that was delivered for her the day prior, saying CSPD advised her to contact him over the matter. On December 2, Andrea calls ALE to report Christian had gotten a new cat. (He later tells us he was scared law enforcement would take that new cat, Charlie, away.)
A week later, on December 9, Andrea resumes texting with Christian telling him, she’s “had no real control over the events that have happened... I was told by law enforcement to leave and they were going to take Stormi if I didn’t.” He replies: “That’s insane. I can’t believe that’s why this happened. They just let you keep Storm even though they thought she showed signs of abuse?” She replies: “I’m not going to get into any of that legal stuff because that has nothing to do with me and I don’t want you to start thinking I’ve got any influence over what happens with that.”
By January, on a messaging app, she says “almost all of my money is gone from vet bills” and that she “decided to listen to the professionals because I didn’t know what else to do.” So she called HSPPR “because I found out it was suspected abuse and I called to openly offer to speak to an official and have you speak to somebody when you got back so we could have the suspicion off of us, but that’s not what happened. The law enforcement came and spoke to me but kind of took over and I didn’t have a say in what happened next legally. I figured it would be best to be proactive if we both didn’t do anything wrong. I figured officials would see that and it would be best to have that documented.”
But nobody suspected anything until she called ALE herself.
Christian and Andrea maintain ongoing communication for the next several months, in part to discuss continued veterinary care for Storm, who ultimately has her right eye removed. They also have lengthy conversations processing their relationship and discussing getting back together.
The exchanges cease around June 4, 2019, the date the District Attorney’s office notes contacting Andrea about “new information in the case.” Christian finally reveals what he says happened to Storm on November 19, 2018, when he was alone with the kitten while Andrea was at work.
“Storm fell off the balcony,” he messages. “I was scared to tell you because I thought you would react harshly, which is not far off.”
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
Up to this point in the story, we’ve heard from Andrea and Christian mostly through documents and interviews, what others say they said, and through their text exchanges. It’s time we hear from them directly.
We reach out to both of them by phone in mid February 2021. Andrea declines to be interviewed for this story. Christian wants to talk.
We ask him what happened to Storm. He says he went out for a smoke on their third-floor balcony with the kitten in his arms. He discovered a Hi-Chew candy wrapper in the kitten’s mouth, and when he tried to extract it, the cat pushed off him suddenly and went over the rail, falling three stories. (Too short of a distance for the cat to naturally parachute; we’ve found articles detailing cats that have survived falls as high as 32 stories.) Christian only had time to rush down and retrieve Storm, look up some treatment info on the internet, and wipe blood from Storm’s face before Andrea arrived, approximately 15 minutes later, or less, he says, noting he was “completely panicking.”
He says he googled “cat eye bleeding internally” and when the eye responded to light, he ruled out a retinal detachment, assuming it was retinal hemorrhaging; the site recommended monitoring and to seek care if it got worse, he says. In his mind, he didn’t fail to seek care, he’d found evidence sufficient to suggest a wait-and-watch approach. According to Christian, Andrea arrived a short time later, and she too sought info from another source, her mom, who advised her to rush to the ER.
“I didn’t think that it was a big deal because I was reading online that this was something you can just wait out and it would be fine,” he says. “But still, we both decided we should err on the side of caution anyway and take her to the vet.”
Storm arrived at the vet’s office within two hours after the injury to the best of our ability to discern the timeline. But Corporal Cheney perceived the fact that Christian didn’t immediately take Storm himself or accompany Andrea as suspicious.
“[Andrea] really wanted me to go, and I had other things to do, so I figured that would be okay if I didn’t go with her,” Christian says. “I wish I did because it would have changed the trajectory of this whole thing.”
Not canceling his trip to stay with Storm and Andrea may appear callous too, but Christian says the Thanksgiving trip was especially significant because his entire family of eight — two parents and six kids — was meeting Christian’s biological grandfather for the first time. He wanted to stay; it was important to his dad that he go.
As for why he opted to lie to Andrea about this accident, he says he knew she’d be mad at him for smoking, a habit she despised, and for him taking Storm out on the balcony to begin with. He didn’t want to fight, and his tendency is to go silent and withdraw, he says. Christian’s parents say it’s quite common for him to be extremely guarded and self-protecting and he’s quick to jump to conclusions; it’s just one way being on the autism spectrum manifests for him.
Disregarding legal advice, he finally opened up to Andrea some seven months later because “It was killing me inside thinking that she just thought I was some horrible monster,” he says. “It made me regularly sick to my stomach. I couldn’t sleep… It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life... the feeling of being branded as something that awful… like, if you looked up my name, it would say ‘animal abuser’ next to it. It was really hard knowing that I was just going to be labeled as something regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to it.”
WAS JUSTICE SERVED?
According to Vigna, HSPPR officers are taught, “You are not judge and jury. Our job is to recognize ‘is there probable cause to believe this happened?’… It’s the prosecutor’s job to say, ‘I can prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.’ If they can’t, then they have to make those amended charges or dismiss the case.”
Regardless of whether there is probable cause or the possibility of a prosecutor convincing a judge or jury there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, inconsistencies in the charging document raise questions about whether Christian should have been charged at all, and what charges were actually merited.
On three different occasions between December 2019 and January 2021, when approached with questions about discrepancies between Corporal Cheney’s affidavit and the vet statements, HSPPR representatives stood by Corporal Cheney having probable cause and they pointed to Christian’s plea as evidence the allegations in the affidavit were justified.
When we approached the District Attorney’s office in July, 2020, then-Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Lindsey said things are spoken between officers and doctors (in this case, vets) that don’t always make it into the notes — that they “hedge a little bit.” He noted the DA’s office would have prosecuted this case regardless of a vet statement. “He didn’t get treatment for the cat, even if you believe his story, which is pretty sketchy... I don’t believe how the injury occurred is material to the prosecution, because the charge was failure to get care.”
Failure to seek care wasn’t the sole charge, though. Christian was also charged with infliction of serious harm. Paraphrasing from when we spoke with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection’s Philip Tedeschi, failure to seek care cases typically aren’t considered “link” cases (raising the concern of the 70 percent likelihood some other form of abuse is occurring). In the affidavit, Corporal Cheney asserted she spoke with three veterinarians who separately determined the cause of injuries to Storm could only be caused by a human, and Christian was the only human around at the time. However, all three of those vets say they never spoke to Corporal Cheney and that they never determined Storm’s injuries could only have been caused by a human. The additional charge of inflicting serious injury made the case appear more severe than a failure to seek care case, which, in turn, impacted Christian’s assessment of the risks of going to trial. Therefore, those inconsistencies are relevant to an examination of how the case played out.
Christian was facing six to 18 months in County jail and/or up to a $500 to $5,000 fine if convicted. The longer the legal process dragged out, the more despondent he became, according to his parents, and he expressed just wanting to “make it stop.” So he entered a plea, the terms of which he has now completed, and the charges have been dismissed.
On our second approach to the DA’s office under new District Attorney Michael Allen, in January, 2021, we presented the further data we’d obtained, seeking an updated comment via PIO Howard Black. All Black was able to say by press time is “The totality of the information we’ve received from you is under active review.”
RELATED CONTENT: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN ALE OFFICER
Equipped with catch poles, a metal baton, a ZAP light and pepper spray, Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR) Animal Law Enforcement (ALE) officers work solo, 10-hour shifts. They also take turns providing after-hours emergency services, meaning somebody’s on duty 365 days a year. Though the majority of their job is animal control, ALE officers conduct animal cruelty investigations too.
Officers receive training during a two-phase program that HSPPR Assistant Director for Animal Law Enforcement Lindsey Vigna calls “really robust” and “molded from a basic police academy.” Subjects covered include animal handling (for a wide array of species), use-of-force, verbal Judo, Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rules, crime scene photography, evidence collection and report writing.
“We’ve tried to push the education side more than enforcement,” says Vigna. “We feel that, if we can educate whenever possible, hopefully we can prevent situations from reoccurring.”
ALE officers also receive resilience training and instruction on compassion fatigue. Moment to moment, “Your emotions are like a rollercoaster,” says Vigna. “We’ve had people that go all the way through the academy, and then they leave their first day or two out on the road, because you really have to question, ‘emotionally am I going to be able to handle this?’”
To better understand the rollercoaster, we spent five hours on a ride-along with officer Nicole Michon one weekday morning in 2020. At the time, she’d been an ALE officer for two years. With long hair pulled back into a high ponytail and standing at 5’3”, she’s not an imposing physical presence, but she is a badass. Michon’s meticulous in her work, passionate, fearless and even-handed, balancing the emotional burdens of the job with a keen sense of humor.
“I will fight someone for a hoarder house,” she jokes. “Dispatch knows to send me there. Catching cats all day is fun. I’d come in on an off day to do a hoarder house... [But] I’m terrified of chickens. Absolutely terrified.”
While there’s much entertainment to be had in her calling chickens “land sharks,” most of the ride-along proves mundane. We travel all over town from call to call, searching for dogs reported off-leash in a city park (and don’t find them); hunting for stray dogs spotted near a burned-out apartment unit (and don’t find them); hitting a trailer park to attempt a welfare check on an emaciated dog (and don’t find it or the owner, who appears to be ghosting Michon).
She follows up on a barking dog complaint (finally, we meet a dog!) where Michon patiently explains the dog owner’s rights as she delivers a court summons with clear compassion. The dog owner literally remarks “you’re so nice.” The owner’s neighbor who made the complaint was anything but nice, as evidenced by an exhaustively nasty letter. (That nasty letter is tame, though, compared to a 2019 investigation Michon worked involving a person who murdered his neighbor for reporting him to the HSPPR for having an aggressive animal.)
Before Michon can drop us off and head to court to testify for a previous case, a “beating in progress” priority-one call comes in over her walkie-talkie and we rush to the northeast edge of town. A customer at a pet shop alleges a groomer was abusing a Schnauzer, and there’s blood around its neck. But after a thorough investigation (that will include a return to watch security footage), Michon learns the blood came from a seeping mole, and that the groomer has worked with the dog for six years, using a collar restraint to prevent biting.
“I understand how it looks from out there if they don’t understand what’s going on in here,” the groomer says. “I have nothing to hide.” Still, we drive out to talk with the owner and examine the dog, who is outwardly aggressive. “Okay, buddy,” Michon says cheerfully. “I know you don’t like me, but I need to see if you’re okay.”
RELATED CONTENT: WHO HOLDS ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICERS ACCOUNTABLE?
In our pet-loving society, animal control officers (ACOs) provide vital services such as promoting responsible pet ownership, responding to nuisance complaints and attending to vicious, stray or injured animals. Imagine the strain on police departments if officers had to respond to every dog bite or barking call.
But ACOs also have law enforcement authority. While some can only enforce municipal ordinances or county resolutions regarding pets and domestic animals, ACOs commissioned by the Bureau of Animal Protection (BAP) have the power to issues summons and complaints enforcing the state animal cruelty statute. A run-in with this type of ACO can lead to far more than the animal welfare equivalent of a parking ticket. They can file criminal charges for everything from failing to properly feed a pet to mutilating an animal.
Law enforcement accountability continues to command headlines. Last summer, Colorado Springs City Council created the Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission (LETAC) to improve relationships between the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) and the public. The Colorado General Assembly passed Senate Bill 217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, requiring, among other things, all local law enforcement agencies to issue body-worn cameras to their officers starting July 2023.
But BAP-commissioned ACOs remain untouched by either of these accountability measures. Nor are they subject to the same oversight as other law enforcement officers.
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies are all certified by Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) and subject to its oversight. Law enforcement agencies employing POST-certified officers are required by law to investigate allegations of untruthfulness. In December 2020, for example, POST revoked the certification of a former El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy for knowingly making untruthful statements while conducting his official duties. A spokesperson from the Office of the Colorado Attorney General confirmed ACOs are not POST-certified and don’t fall under its jurisdiction.
“BAP agents are supervised by their employer (not BAP),” says Libby Henits, Bureau of Animal Protection Program Manager. “Their employer would be responsible for addressing any complaints regarding the officer’s conduct.”
In El Paso County, the Animal Law Enforcement (ALE) division of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR) employs ACOs. The animal welfare nonprofit runs an open-admission shelter that treats injured animals, reunites owners with pets, provides adoption services — and the ALE division investigates animal cruelty. In 2020, ALE fielded 41,275 calls of which about 20 percent resulted in a cruelty investigation response, says an HSPPR spokesperson.
A BAP commission requires a minimum of 40 hours training and one year experience in regulatory or code enforcement, animal care and control or animal cruelty investigations. HSPPR’s ALE investigating officers complete a total of just over 350 hours training. POST-certified officers have to hit at least 556 hours. While new hires at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office receive over 700 hours training and CSPD officers fulfill more than 1,000 hours.
“We need to increase the consistency and make it a higher level investigation,” says Fourth Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen in relation to the law enforcement training piece of his newly created animal cruelty unit. (See “Protection, prevention, specialization,” News, Feb.3) “[The Sheriff’s Office does] a fantastic job investigating those cases… the animal officers at the Humane Society is really where we want to make sure we are dedicating the vast majority of our efforts.”
Since ALE oversight resides solely with HSPPR — an agency that received $1.65M in 2020 from The City of Colorado Springs, $574,194 from El Paso County that same year, and $4.1M in contributions and grants in 2019 — we reached out to the organization directly with concerns about possible untruthfulness in an affidavit written by one of its officers. Then-interim CEO (now Vice President) Leslie Yoder said she would follow up internally, but also pointed, inaccurately, to the outcome of the case saying, “Ultimately, [Christian] was convicted of a misdemeanor cruelty to animals charge for neglect.” (Christian had not been convicted of a crime. He pled to a single misdemeanor charge.)
Months later, after sharing additional information supporting our concerns, an HSPPR spokesperson responded: “Our officer had probable cause that this individual committed an act of cruelty by failing to get reasonable/timely medical treatment for the cat. The individual ultimately pled guilty and was found guilty of failing to get the cat medical treatment, not of injuring the cat.” (They were wrong again about a “conviction” in this case. And pointing to “probable cause” overlooks the seriousness of potential untruthfulness by one of their ACOs.)
We also contacted the HSPPR CEO and Board Chair for comment, and received no response. Lastly, we reached out to the District Attorney’s Office, the entity responsible for prosecuting allegations contained in ALE criminal complaints, as the final possibility for oversight over HSPPR ACOs. The information we provided remains “under active review” according to PIO Howard Black.
“We protect pets from people and people from pets,” we were told by HSPPR Assistant Director for Animal Law Enforcement Lindsey Vigna, by way of defining the agency’s work.
Which leaves us wondering: Who protects people from HSPPR?
In our pet-loving society, animal control officers (ACOs) provide vital services such as responding to nuisance complaints and attending to vi…