Who, age What Where When Last Known Address
Van E. Banks, 45 65 beagles seized

Gravette, AR

Benton County

April 8, 2005  
Type of Crime Other Crimes #/Type of animal(s) involved Case Status Next Court Date /Courthouse
Misdemeanor   65 beagles Dismissed

11/14/05; Benton County Circuit Court

Beagles seized April 8 from a Gravette residence will stay in area shelters until their owner goes through the court system, a judge ordered.

Benton County Sheriff's Office deputies seized 65 live beagles from Van E. Banks' home after receiving a tip about possible neglect. Veterinarians employed by area shelters said many of the dogs suffered from mange, mites and related infections.

Banks has a May 3 arraignment date for animal cruelty charges in Gentry at Benton County West District Court and could go to trial this summer. Animal cruelty is a misdemeanor.

     Photo's courtesy of KHBS/KHOG-TV News 40/29

Custody became an issue last week when Banks was set to reclaim the animals from the Bella Vista Animal Shelter and Rogers Humane Society. A circuit court judge turned the issue over to District Judge Jeff Conner, who will hear Banks' criminal case.

Conner heard arguments about whether the dogs fell into an evidence category allowing the state to keep the animals for now.

He set a special hearing for June 7.

Banks' attorney, Eldon Cripps, filed a motion asking the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney's Office to recuse Prosecuting Attorney Robin Green previously volunteered at the Humane Society of Benton County, according to the motion. The motion states Green has allowed her personal interests and relationships to influence discussion of this case.

Cripps asked for a special prosecutor, but Conner did not rule on the matter. The prosecutor's office has 10 days to respond.

Benton County prosecutors argued the dogs are evidence in their case of neglect and they shouldn't be returned to Banks until he is adjudicated.

"I don't believe the state will traipse 65 dogs through the court as evidence in three to four months," Cripps said.

He didn't want his client to end up being charged for the care of all the dogs if nothing was wrong with them, he said.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor Blythe Whitehead said any improvement made by the dogs in the next few months would be evidence of how neglected they were when seized.

Conner said, although state law doesn't specifically spell out what to do with the animals in such a situation, he believed it gave him the discretion for a decision. He did not want to return animals to an owner accused of neglect, he said.

"This one is a no-brainer," the judge said.  But the animals can't be adopted, or neutered or spayed while they remain in temporary custody at the shelters, Conner said.

Shelters can provide "common care," he said.

Several of the dogs came to court, but Conner didn't allow them inside. Shelter volunteers wanted the judge to see the condition of the animals.

Update 5/4/05:
Banks appeared before Judge Jeff Conner in Benton County West District Court with his attorney, Eldon Cripps. Banks plead not guilty to the misdemeanor animal cruelty charge.

Rogers attorney Doug Norwood was also there and announced he'll participate in Banks' defense.

Blythe Whitehead, chief deputy prosecutor, represented the state. A June 7 omnibus hearing was set.

Banks is free on a $2,000 bond. Cruelty to animals is punishable by up to one year in jail, or a $1,000 fine, or both.

Update 6/7/05:
Benton County West District Judge Jeff Connor who is hearing the animal cruelty case has been inundated with calls, letters and packages from people trying to influence his decisions.

Judge Connor said he's not reading the mail or taking the calls, which have come from as far away as California.  "I tell them it's extremely inappropriate; they have no business trying to contact this court".

Connor set a July 18 trial for the case against Banks, 45, of 10075 Noah Road in Gravette.

Banks was arrested April 11 and faces five counts of animal cruelty, each a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Some beagles were found with significant hair loss, sores, eye discharge and mange and their collars embedded under their skin. At least one was dehydrated, couldn't stand upright and had fecal matter encrusted on its coat.

The dogs are living at area shelters until the case is resolved.

Benton County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Van Stone said charges against Banks were limited to five counts because "we realize this court can't sentence Mr. Banks to 67 years in the county jail."

Defense attorney Doug Norwood responded that he wants "the dogs back that he's not charged on."

Stone answered the dogs are held as evidence of intent, motive, means and manner.

Norwood argued, "I'm not saying they were underfed. But, if they were underfed and they've already fattened them up -- they're not evidence anymore. Maybe a photo of the dog (beforehand would be)."

If Banks is found guilty of abusing the five dogs, what will happen to the remaining dogs, attorneys questioned.

Eldon Cripps, another defense attorney, agreed that two beagles should be treated for cancerous tumors, but said Banks prefers those animals not be spayed or neutered as prosecutors have suggested -- unless a veterinarian recommends the procedure.

The judge ruled against a defense request that Benton County Prosecutor Robin Green step down from prosecuting the case.

Green used to volunteer extensively at the Rogers Humane Society and "set a precedent in recusing from these types of cases (several years ago)," Cripps said. "She won't give anybody any authority to deal with this case but herself."

The judge also declined a prosecutor's request to have the case switched to circuit court, where another set of charges was filed.

Stone said the state prefers circuit court because Norwood announced he'd be filing motions challenging the constitutionality of the animal cruelty statute.

The judge answered that the case must be heard quickly, since live animals are involved.

"I have no intention to dismiss this case from this court. I don't want to see this dragged out any more than it needs to," Connor said.

Update 7/15/05:
An animal cruelty case will be heard in Benton County Circuit Court rather than in a Gentry District Court, a judge has decided

The change will significantly delay the case, as a jury trial was to begin July 18th in district court.

Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Keith signed an order June 17 telling Jeff Connor, Benton County West District judge, to dismiss five misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty against Banks, 45, of 10075 Noah Road in Gravette.

Prosecutors asked Keith for the change, saying they'd rather pursue charges in circuit court. A second set of identical charges was filed there in early June.

Banks was first charged in district court, but defense attorneys later announced they will challenge the constitutionality of the cruelty to animals statute.

That makes circuit court more appropriate, since the state couldn't appeal an adverse ruling in district court, wrote deputy prosecutor Mikelle DeVillier in a petition.

Keith's ruling overrides his decision, and a hearing is now set for August 25th.

Defense attorney Doug Norwood had argued in his response that all misdemeanor cases are filed in city or district courts, and if a defendant is found guilty he can appeal to circuit court. With this change, the defendant loses his right for two chances, Norwood wrote.

Connor said in June that many calls and letters were coming in from animal-rights advocates as far away as California.

Update 7/26/05:
Banks entered a not guilty plea in Benton County Circuit Court.

Banks was not present but entered a not-guilty plea through his attorneys to five counts of animal cruelty , each a Class A misdemeanor.

Circuit Judge Tom Keith set a Sept. 19 omnibus hearing.

Update 9/20/05:
Defense attorneys Eldon Cripps and Doug Norwood requested a suppression hearing, which was set for November 14th before Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Keith.

Update 11/15/05:
A Gravette man accused of animal cruelty is free from charges and will get 30 beagles of his choosing back after his attorneys found a blunder in search warrant procedures when his 67 dogs were seized in April.

Benton County Prosecutor Robin Green dropped all five animal cruelty charges against Banks.

In court defense attorneys Doug Norwood and Eldon Cripps said they discovered that, when a warrant was obtained April 8 from Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott to seize the dogs, a written record of the request wasn't created.

Some type of written record must be made of a warrant request, either a handwritten statement from a police officer or a probable-cause affidavit -- or a judge's court reporter can record testimony from a witness, according to Arkansas Rules of Criminal Procedure.

When Circuit Judge Tom Keith learned of the problem, he said he'd have to suppress all evidence seized that day -- including photos of the dogs' conditions and expert testimony from veterinarians about the dogs' health. "It was a fatal flaw," Norwood said. "It's just very unusual that (the record) didn't happen."

An agreement was made between attorneys that Banks will get his choice of 30 dogs back. The rest -- including 12 puppies born since -- will be turned over to Benton County, Norwood said.

Banks also will bear no responsibility for costs of housing, feeding and providing medical care for the dogs since they were seized.

Barbara Phillips, president of the Humane Society, said she was disappointed in the case's outcome but praised prosecutors, who went "beyond anything we could've expected to save these dogs."

The Rogers shelter has 42 of the original dogs, plus puppies, and "we'll start finding homes for them now."

None of the dogs were spayed and neutered but "you can rest assured they will immediately be done," Phillips said.

When the dogs first arrived, an assembly line was set up to dip them, clip nails, check ears and so forth, she remembered. "We had grown men asking to see them and they would come back through with red eyes."

One particularly ill dog named "Pretty Girl" was "just pitiful, but she has all her hair back -- they all do," Phillips said. "We dipped them week after week."

References:  Morning News of Northwest Arkansas