In our pet-loving society, animal control officers (ACOs) provide vital services such as 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 call.
ACOs also have law enforcement authority. While some only enforce municipal ordinances or county resolutions regarding pets and domestic animals, ACOs commissioned by the Colorado Bureau of Animal Protection (BAP) have the power to issue summonses and complaints enforcing the state animal cruelty statute. 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 and the Colorado General Assembly passed Senate Bill 20-217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act. But BAP-commissioned ACOs remain untouched by either of these accountability measures. They also aren’t subject to the same oversight and training as other law enforcement officers.
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies are all certified by Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training. Law enforcement agencies employing POST-certified officers are required to investigate allegations of untruthfulness against their personnel. 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,” says Libby Henits, BAP 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 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.
You would think that with the power to conduct criminal investigations, ACOs would need training on par with that of other law enforcement professionals. But HSPPR’s ALE investigating officers complete just over 350 hours of training, while new hires at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office receive over 700 hours, and Colorado Springs Police Department officers get more than 1,000 hours. And, unlike CSPD and EPCSO, there is no Internal Affairs Unit to investigate potential errors and wrongdoing by ALEs, which are handled at HSPPR by the supervisory staff, director, human resources, and/or the CEO.
“We need to increase the consistency and make it a higher level investigation,” says 4th Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen in relation to the law enforcement training piece of his newly created animal cruelty unit. (See “Protection, prevention, specialization,” 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.”
Because as evidenced by the story below, a single run-in with an ALE officer can lead to far more than the animal welfare equivalent of a parking ticket. Even a misdemeanor charge can dramatically change many lives.
Cpl. Vicky Cheney, a top HSPPR investigator and 19-year ALE veteran, arrives at the apartment of 21-year-old Christian Breuer and 19-year-old Andrea Kowalczyk at 3:07 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2018. She’s following up on a call Andrea made to ALE dispatch at 2:42 p.m. regarding “critical injuries” her kitten Storm suffered five days earlier. According to 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 Powers Pet Emergency 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. This prompted them to advise the owner to report the possible cruelty to animals concerns to ALE to investigate.”
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. We later learn in an interview with one of Cheney’s supervisors that Cheney was 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 vet immediately. Andrea says Christian told her he couldn’t drive her because he had a paper to write. “This was unusual,“ Cheney writes. “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.”
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. Cheney would surely have been aware of what’s commonly called “the link,” the high 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 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 this, Cheney’s field notes state, “I highly suggested she speak with TESSA and get a restraining order… Ms. Kowalczyk will be moving out of her apartment on 11/25/18 and not communicating with her fiancé anymore.”
On Nov. 28, Cpl. Cheney contacts Christian, but is unable to get his side of the story because he refers her to his lawyer. Cheney also contacts Andrea, who says she had Storm seen by her regular veterinarian, Dr. Ricia Walker. Andrea tells her, “Dr. Walker also stated that the cat could only have sustained such injuries by a human, not an object.”
On Nov. 29, Cheney files charges. In the accompanying affidavit she 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. He faces six to 18 months in county jail and/or a $500 to $5,000 fine if convicted.
Several Powers Pet Emergency employees interviewed by a private investigator working with Christian’s lawyer say they never told Andrea the injuries were human caused, nor did they tell her (or her mother, who called twice) to contact ALE. Outside veterinarians confirm vets would not tell an owner to report suspicions; they’d do it themselves as mandatory reporters.
As for the “director” Andrea says told her to call ALE, a veterinary assistant clarified that nobody at PPER holds that title.
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 Storm was injured. Though Andrea insists she has a sharp memory for certain details. “It was snowing quite hard that day,” she says, noting how Cpl. Cheney came up to the apartment without a jacket, which she and her mom interpreted as evidence of Cheney’s concern about the situation. “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.
“Any communication by anyone at PPER must be electronically documented,” says former PPER Practice Manager Toufic Diab. No electronic documentation exists to indicate anyone at the vet clinic spoke to Cheney about this case either. Contrary to Cheney’s affidavit, both PPER vets who treated Storm, Christopher Korte and Arielle Aylor, told the private investigator they never spoke with Cheney.
In written questionnaires received by Cheney after filing charges, Korte writes: “Yes, could have been by human, an object or other cause. Unable to determine cause based on examination.” 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.”
“I had no reason to suspect that a human intentionally caused the injuries,” says Dr. Aylor in a sworn affidavit. “I disagree wholeheartedly with the portion of Cheney’s affidavit that indicates that we veterinarians separately determined that Storm had suffered and sustained injuries by a human. This is clearly not my opinion and it was not Dr. Korte’s opinion because we discussed the question with each other.”
Dr. Walker, who doesn’t see Storm until eight days after the injury, on Nov. 27, also denies ever speaking with Cheney. But Cheney’s field notes say Dr. Walker calls her on Dec. 6 to say she couldn’t attest to much concerning the kitten. 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 Nov. 27 visit, Dr. Walker writes: “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.”
How could Dr. Walker “concur” with either source? Dr. Walker’s receptionist Monique Brown says Walker never spoke with the ER vets about Storm’s injuries. Brown says she was the one who spoke with Cheney. Regardless, the most Dr. Walker conveys is “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.”
“You can become emotionally involved,” Cpl. Cheney tells us in a February 2021 interview, “… 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. “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 backup your statement that you told me?”
But Dr. Walker denying she talked with Cheney isn’t the only discrepancy in the affidavit; there are the other vet notes and answers to written questionnaires as well.
In December 2019, we interviewed Lindsey Vigna, assistant director for Animal Law Enforcement at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, one of Cheney’s superiors at the time, about the contradictions between the vet statements and the affidavit.
“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 Cheney. But trial means facing conviction on both counts; bloody animal photos might stir emotion and Christian’s 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.
After four years together, Andrea and Christian, without knowing it, had seen each other for the last time on Nov. 20, the day following Storm’s injury. Christian would never see the kitten again either. While he was away on a family trip, Andrea took Storm and vacated their apartment. He returned home on Nov. 25 to find them gone. He also found a note: “I love you, Chris.” The next day, he learned he was under investigation for animal cruelty.
“I have had no real control over the events that have happened,” Andrea later tells Chris by text on Dec. 9. “I was told by law enforcement to leave and they were going to take Stormi if I didn’t.”
He replies: “I can’t believe that’s why this happened. They just let you keep Storm even though they thought she showed signs of abuse?”
By January, on a messaging app, Andrea tells Christian she called HSPPR “because I found out it was suspected abuse and I called … 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.”
We reach out to Christian and Andrea by phone in mid-February 2021. Andrea declines to comment. 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. 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 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.
“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.
Andrea too sought info from another source, her mom, who advised her to rush to the ER.
“We both decided we should err on the side of caution anyway and take her to the vet,” Christian says.
Storm arrived at the vet’s office within two hours after the injury, to the best of our ability to discern the time line. But Cpl. Cheney perceived the fact that Christian didn’t immediately take Storm himself or accompany Andrea as suspicious. Christian says he wishes he’d gone with Andrea “because it would have changed the trajectory of this whole thing.”
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, and one of the many ways it complicated this case.
Disregarding legal advice, he finally opened up to Andrea some seven months later: “Storm fell off the balcony. I was scared to tell you because I thought you would react harshly, which is not far off.”
“It was killing me inside thinking that she just thought I was some horrible monster,” Christian tells us. “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.”
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.”
Since ALE oversight resides solely with HSPPR — an agency that received $1.65 million in 2020 from the city of Colorado Springs, $574,194 from El Paso County that same year, and $4.1 million in contributions and grants in 2019 — we reached out to the organization directly with concerns about possible untruthfulness in Cpl. Cheney’s affidavit. 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 was never convicted. In fact, he entered a plea, the terms of which he has now completed, and the charges have been dismissed.
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.)
When we approached the District Attorney’s office in July 2020, then-Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Lindsey said something similar: “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 based on Cheney’s assertions that three veterinarians all concluded Storm’s injury could only be human-caused. That additional charge 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.
We also contacted the HSPPR CEO and board chair for comment, and received no response. We reached out to the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office again in January 2021 to inquire about the process for holding an HSPPR ALE officer accountable for inconsistencies in an affidavit that formed the basis for prosecutorial action. The information we provided remains “under active review” according to Public Information Officer Howard Black.
“We protect pets from people and people from pets,” we were told by Vigna, by way of defining her agency’s work.
Which leaves us wondering: Who protects people from HSPPR?
Read the full-length, expanded version of this story, which includes details of Schniper and Hug’s ride along with an HSPPR ALE officer.
The authors’ reporting continues at patreon.com/insensed.