Julio Díaz dozens of pets tossed to their deaths from a bridge Barceloneta, Puerto Rico October 8, 2007
Roberto Rodríguez      
Lucas Montaño      

A Bayamón judge found probable cause to arrest the owner of Animal Control Solutions and two company employees on several counts of felony animal cruelty for allegedly tossing over a bridge in Toa Baja some 80 pets taken from three housing projects in Barceloneta.

Judge José Esteban Pérez Marrero, of the Bayamón Court's Investigative Unit, found cause to arrest the animal control firm's owner, Julio Díaz, on three counts each of animal cruelty . Company workers Lucas Montaño, 18, and Roberto Rodríguez, 28, were charged with three felony counts each for violating the Animal Protection Law.

Marrero set bail for $3,000 each against each defendant and declined a defense request to pay 10 percent of the bail in order to be released.  A preliminary hearing was set for Dec. 20.

The evidence at the hearing consisted of sworn statements from residents of the Barceloneta housing projects, who allegedly identified some of the animals found at the foot of the Paso del Indio bridge as their pets.

In a probable cause to arrest hearing, prosecutors only need a "scintilla" of evidence for a judge to order the arrest of the defendants.  A higher level of evidence is needed at a preliminary hearing to bring the case to trial.

The incident took place Oct. 8 when Barceloneta Mayor Sol Luis Fontanes hired Animal Control Solutions to seize animals from the municipality's three public housing projects, arguing that federal law prohibits residents from having pets.

Residents handed over their pets for fear they would be evicted from their homes.

Animal Control Solutions employees allegedly threw the pets from the Vega Baja bridge instead of taking them to an animal shelter and humanely euthanizing them.

Díaz has denied the allegations and insisted the animals were taken to a Caguas shelter so they could be properly disposed off. He said the animals that were found at the foot of the bridge were not the ones seized in Barceloneta.

In October, Fontanes told the House Housing Committee investigating the alleged pet massacre that he and dozens of other mayors who have taken over the management of public housing projects in their municipalities participated in a Housing seminar where they were told that pets were banned from housing projects.

Fontanes said he notified residents in writing on Oct. 2 that their pets would be taken away. None of the residents approached him to object to the decision, he said. "Most people gave their animals up. Those who kept the animals were told they would be picked up later, and if residents did not give them up, then we would start a process [of eviction]," he said. "There was no controversy [about it] until the news that the animals had been killed came out."

Following the hearing, Díaz reiterated that his company humanely handled the animals and that they were innocent of the charges.

"The determination was that cause was found, and we will prove we are not guilty," he said. "We have always been the scapegoat. I have always protected animals."

Two of Díaz's former employees told The Associated Press that both Animal Control Solutions and Pet Delivery Service, Díaz's previous company, allegedly carried out inhumane killings of cats and dogs on a routine basis.

The former employees, who declined to be named for publication, said that many animals picked up by these companies through municipal contracts have been buried, sometimes still alive or sedated, while other dead or sedated animals were left in remote places, landfills or buried on private properties.

Update 1/5/08:  The man who found the mass grave of dogs under the Indian Pass Bridge in Vega Baja testified during the preliminary hearing on animal cruelty charges of Animal Control Solutions president Julio Díaz and two employees.

José Manuel Rivera Rivera found the grave on Tuesday Oct. 9. Two of the dogs - Yolie and Scooby were found alive - while the other, Tutti, was found dead.

Rivera Rivera recounted how in the wee hours of that morning he went outside because he heard dogs howling and complaining, but found nothing until after sunrise when he ran into an open grave of some 25 dogs that apparently had been thrown off the bridge.

A Vega Baja municipal employee who came to view the scene told Rivera Rivera there were 50 dogs in the grave, including a pitbull.

"I took four [that were still alive] and another two went through the brush because they could walk,"Rivera Rivera told prosecutor Zulma Delgado.

He found one of the dogs that he took in, later identified as Yolie, hanging in the branches of a tree. "I cut the branches until I could get her down.   When I put her on the ground she tried to get up, but couldn't because she could not move her front legs and had a bump on her hip where she had been beaten,"Rivera Rivera said, adding he took the four dogs, including Scooby, into his home.

Rivera Rivera recounted how he filed a complaint with the municipality of Vega Baja and the Police Department regarding the stench of the decomposing dogs, and later opted to call a television news station because of public authorities' failure to attend to the situation.

After the television station aired a televised report on the dogs, both living and dead, on the evening news Thursday Oct. 11, a group of about 40 people including the dogs' owners came to his house the following day to reclaim their pets, Rivera Rivera said, adding these residents told him Díaz was also coming.

"When they learned [Díaz] was coming they called the police because they didn't want any problems. That's when I met Julio Díaz,"Rivera Rivera said.

Rivera Rivera said there was a confrontation between pet owners and Díaz and that after Barceloneta residents had left, he asked Díaz what he was going to do about the open grave.

"[Díaz] said he was not responsible [for the dead dogs] but that he would pay [to have them buried]," Rivera Rivera told Delgado. "He told me you deal with any machine.  Whatever it costs I will pay for it because I want to get out of this."

At a House hearing on the matter in November, Díaz testified he spent about $2,000 to bury the dogs.

Prosecutor Delgado already had raised this question as to why Díaz would pay thousands of dollars for a machine to bury the dogs, if he was not responsible for their deaths in the first preliminary hearing Dec. 20 when Police Agent Angel Losada Sostre gave similar testimony.

During cross-examination, Rivera Rivera said that since he did not see who threw the dogs off the bridge, he was "not accusing [Díaz] or anyone."

Díaz's defense team - attorneys José Arzola and Manuel Reyes - argued during their cross examination that the dogs that Rivera Rivera found were strays because they were skinny, showing they had gone many days without food.

"Did you ask the alleged owners why the dogs were so skinny?" Arzola asked.

"I didn't have to ask them that. I filed a complaint [about the stench] and look where I am now,"Rivera Rivera said.

Bayamón Superior Court Nelson Canabal Pérez slated the continuation of the preliminary hearings for Feb. 5.

Prosecutor Delgado announced she would be presenting eight more witnesses, including the alleged owners of Yolie, Scooby and Tutti - Carmen Agosto, José Rodríguez and Angel Sierra - three dogs found alive beneath the bridge.

Update 2/7/08:  A superior court judge found cause against the owner and two employees of an animal control company on animal cruelty charges.

After several days of preliminary hearings, Judge Nelson Canabal ruled there is enough evidence against Julio Díaz, owner of Animal Control Solutions, for the death of dozens of animals that were allegedly hurled over the Paso del Indio bridge after being removed from public housing projects in Barceloneta.

Díaz's attorney, Manuel Reyes, said he would appeal the ruling.

Following the hearing, Díaz said the Barceloneta municipal government was responsible for capturing the animals and reiterated he did not know who allegedly threw the animals off the bridge.

"I will not handle any more business related to animals in Puerto Rico.   We are the only ones who have been blamed. We are innocent," he said.

On Dec.5, a judge found cause to arrest Díaz and two of his employees on several counts of felony animal cruelty .

Update 5/15/08: The criminal case against Animal Control Solutions owner Julio Díaz and two co-defendants remained on track after a Bayamón Superior Court Judge tossed a defense motion to dismiss the charges based on a lack of evidence linking the trio to allegations that dozens of pets seized by the company at Barceloneta public housing projects were tossed to their deaths from a bridge in Vega Baja last year.

The ACS owner and company employees Roberto Rodríguez Ceballo and Lucas Montano Rivera had faced a deadline to inform the court whether they wanted a bench trial or a trial by jury on animal cruelty counts.

The motion to dismiss was handled by Bayamón Superior Court Jesús Pelullera while Bayamón Superior Court Judge Miguel Fabre has been assigned to handle the still pending trial.

Díaz indicated at the Bayamón Judicial Center he did not think he could get a fair trial by a jury in a case that has garnered worldwide media attention.  "It is not possible to get an impartial jury," Díaz told the Associated Press.

However, Fabre gave the defendants another 20 days to decide what kind of trial they want.

He postponed the trial proceedings until Aug. 18 at the request of defense attorneys who said they would go to a commonwealth appeals court to challenge Pelullera's denial of their motion to dismiss.

The court developments add another chapter in a case that has drawn months of media scrutiny, a public outcry and posturing by government officials.

In the motion to dismiss, Díaz's defense attorney Manuel Reyes Dávila argued there is no evidence that scattered animal remains found under the Paso del Indio Bridge in Vega Baja were in fact the same dogs and cats that were seized in Barceloneta in October 2007.

Pelullera dismissed the dismissal motion and the charges against the trio were left standing.

"This court rules that we are not facing a case of total lack of evidence so the motions are overruled and the case will continue to trial," said Pelullera, adding he carefully examined the motions by the defense and the state, the 11 sworn statements, the documentary evidence and photographs.

Díaz, a longtime animal rights advocate, was not surprised the dismissal motion fell short."  It is what we expected. The process will continue. We are calm," Díaz told reporters at the Bayamón Judicial Center.

"Authorities should say what have they done for stray animals and to improve the animals' quality of life," he added.

The three defendants and the company face three counts each for Law 67 violations.

The defendants face six months to three years in prison if convicted. The charges do allow for suspended sentences.

Dozens of animals were picked up at the housing complexes with the assistance of municipal police.

Housing Secretary Carlos Laboy subsequently said there is no law barring public housing residents from keeping domestic pets.

No eyewitnesses Reyes Dávila also argued that none of the witnesses in the preliminary proceedings saw Díaz or the two ACS employees mishandling animals. Díaz, in fact, was not present during the collection of the animals in Barceloneta or at the Vega Baja bridge, his lawyer argued.

Prosecutor Zulma Delgado countered that Law 67, the island's animal protection statute, defines as owners all those who have control and custody of an animal - in this case Díaz and his now-defunct company ACS.

Delgado said the statute does not require assault or serious damage to an animal to constitute abuse, it is enough to expose the animal to unnecessary suffering.

Díaz is also a defendant in a $20 million federal lawsuit filed in October by 14 families who allegedly lost their pets. The suit also names Fontanes and Laboy as co-defendants.

ACS has since gone out of business.

Update 8/19/08:  Animal Control Systems owner Julio Díaz and his two co-defendants opted for a bench trial in the animal cruelty case against them.

Defense attorney Manuel Reyes said his clients opted for a bench trial because of concerns they could not get an impartial jury seated in a case that has garnered much media attention in Puerto Rico and beyond.

"It seemed the most prudent strategy for the defense. This is a case that has received a lot of negative publicity and the public at large from which to draw a jury is already contaminated," Reyes said during a recess in the first day of trial at the Bayamón Judicial Center.

The case is being heard by Bayamón Superior Court Judge Miguel Fabre.

The prosecution plans to call 21 witnesses, while the defense has yet to determine how many people it will put on the stand.

Animal Control Systems, which has since gone out of business, faces the same three counts as a company.

Animal Control Systems was contracted by Barceloneta Mayor Sol Luis Fontanes to pick up the town's stray dogs and cats, including pets the municipal government said were being kept illegally at its three public housing projects.

Dozens of animals were picked up at the housing complexes with the assistance of municipal police and other town employees.

Housing Secretary Carlos Laboy subsequently said there is no law barring public housing residents from keeping domestic pets.

Prosecutor Zulma Delgado has countered that Law 67, the island's animal protection statute, defines as owners all those who have control and custody of an animal - in this case Díaz and his now-defunct company Animal Control Systems.

Delgado said the statute does not require assault or serious damage to an animal to constitute abuse, it is enough to expose the animal to unnecessary suffering.

Update 9/10/08:  A Puerto Rican judge on Wednesday found a contractor and two of his workers not guilty of animal cruelty in a highly publicized massacre of dogs and cats seized from a housing project and hurled off a bridge last year.

Following weeks of testimony, Superior Court Judge Miguel Fabre ruled prosecutors did not show sufficient evidence to make a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, telling the court that investigators had no witnesses linking the trio to the pets' deaths in October.

A visibly relieved Julio Diaz, owner of Animal Control Solutions, and workers Lucas Montano Rivera and Roberto Rodriguez Ceballo shook hands with supporters outside the courtroom.

"This process has been a disgrace and justice was achieved. The only thing I have done is protect animals," said Diaz, who had repeatedly denied responsibility for the pets' deaths in press and court statements.

The three had faced animal-cruelty charges that carry maximum prison terms of nine years.

The killings of roughly 80 pets seized from a housing project in Barceloneta, a town along Puerto Rico's north-central coast, brought revulsion around the world and triggered calls for tourist boycotts of the tropical U.S. territory.

After Fabre's ruling, defense attorney Manuel Reyes Davila blasted the nearly yearlong investigation into Diaz and his company, calling it "shortsighted and biased."

Nearby, a few animal activists decried the ruling.

"This is a cruelty!" shouted Mery Donate Branches, bursting into tears.

Diaz and his two employees had earlier waived their right to a jury, saying finding impartial jurors would be impossible due to the heavy publicity surrounding the case.

The contractor has blamed the municipality of Barceloneta for seizing the animals and said he didn't know who threw them from the bridge along a highway that runs between Barceloneta and San Juan. Only a half-dozen survived the 50-foot fall, some with serious injuries.

Municipal officials in Barceloneta said they hired Animal Control Solutions to remove pets from housing projects, believing that regulations banned them.

Public prosecutor Zulma Delgado told reporters she did not intend to appeal Fabre's ruling.

Reference:

The San Juan Star

The Associated Press