Who, age What Where When Last known address
William "Billy" R. Harmon, 43 Shelter Manager charged with accepting bribes, embezzlement, falsifying public records and animal cruelty

Visalia, CA

Tulare County

June 15, 2007  
Ronn C. Cookson, 38 shelter employee charged with animal cruelty

Visalia, CA

Tulare County

June 15, 2007  
Michael James Sargeant, 46 bribed shelter manager to sell him animal bodies

Visalia, CA

Tulare County

June 15, 2007 Bakersfield, CA
Type of Crime Other Crimes #/Type of animal(s) involved
Felony bribery, falsifying records

7416 cats, 15906 dogs

A former animal control supervisor was charged with participating in a scheme to kill animals held at a shelter and profit from selling their carcasses, court records show.

William Harmon , 43, a former manager of the Tulare County animal shelter in Visalia, was charged with 10 felony counts, including seeking or accepting bribes, embezzlement, falsifying public records and animal cruelty, said prosecutor Doug Rodgers.

Harmon subjected animals to "mass executions on Saturdays," as well as torture, starvation and cruel euthanization practices, and threatened his staff to prevent them from reporting the abuse, court documents show.

Michael Sargeant, 46, who owns a Bakersfield business that prepares animal carcasses for resale, bribed Harmon to sell him bodies outside the scope of his contract with the county, authorities said.

Sargeant was charged with two counts of bribery, and a former shelter employee was charged with one count of animal cruelty, Rodgers said.

Sargeant's attorney said he would enter a not guilty plea when his client is arraigned.

All three men were arrested June 15 and released on bond the following day. They were scheduled to appear in Tulare County Superior Court for a bond hearing on July 11.

Update 7/12/07: Once or twice a month in 2006, white trucks shuttled from Bakersfield to the Tulare County Animal Shelter to pick up batches of cat and dog carcasses.

The animals usually were euthanized two to three hours before the trucks arrived. But, as described in Tulare County Superior Court records, the days leading up to their deaths were spent in terror.

Animals — hundreds a day, in some cases — were antagonized, beaten, starved and denied water in the heat before being euthanized, according to a six-month Tulare County Sheriff's Department investigation. The treatment was directed by William Harmon , the former shelter manager better known as "Billy," and Ronn Cookson, a former shelter employee, investigators reported.

The carcasses were hauled away by employees from Sargeant's Wholesale Biologicals.

The owner, Michael James Sargeant, 46, of Bakersfield would pay Harmon in gift certificates to a Visalia restaurant, court records say.

The Bakersfield business, which prepares animal carcasses for resale to university researchers, had a six-month contract to buy animal carcasses from Tulare County that ended in 2002.

But Sargeant and Harmon kept doing business through 2006, according to court records, with Harmon receiving gift cards for Fugazzi's restaurant.

The three men were arrested in June.

All three were arraigned and pleaded not guilty.

Cookson pleaded not guilty to one count of animal cruelty. Harmon pleaded not guilty to 10 felony counts, including:

·Asking for or accepting bribes ·Embezzlement ·Falsifying records ·Animal cruelty.

Sargeant pleaded not guilty to bribery.

Tulare County Superior Court Judge Gerald Sevier set a Sept. 17 preliminary hearing.

After the arraignment, Sargeant's lawyer said neither his client nor the other defendants are guilty of anything.

The six-month investigation was prompted by Daniel Bailey, an animal-control officer, according to court records. Bailey, who worked at the shelter for seven years, told a sheriff's investigator he was alarmed at the number of dogs and cats being euthanized, as well as their treatment beforehand.

The investigator interviewed several shelter employees who said Harmon and Cookson abused animals by, among other things, feeding dogs incorrect food, denying them water, using bad euthanization practices and failing to euthanize sick dogs quickly, according to court records.

According to the report, one employee, Michelle Shanley of Strathmore, said Harmon threatened to fire her for putting water bowls in cages during the summer. Harmon, according to the report, ordered that dogs use "water lickers" — tubes that drain water from bottles. Not all dogs can drink from the devices, according to shelter employees.

Shanley also said that as she was preparing to go on maternity leave, Harmon confronted her.  "You better save [the animals] now or they're all gonna be dead," the report quotes Harmon as saying.

The day after she left, according to the report, a co-worker told Shanley that 240 animals had been euthanized. She said she was told there were no animals left at the kennel and that Sargeant had picked up most of the carcasses.

David Torres, Sargeant's attorney, said "There is a lot of evidence that will be exculpatory to my client,". "My client is not guilty of any of the charges, nor is anybody else.

Update 7/15/07:  Once or twice, it could have been a mistake. But then kennel cards listing information about dogs at the Tulare County Animal Control office started regularly disappearing.

Animals were euthanized the same day of impoundment -- despite a four- to six-day holding requirement by law. Stray dogs designated for adoption were euthanized before employees could find them a home. It seemed the office was euthanizing more animals than in previous years.

All the while, trucks from Sargeant's Wholesale Biologicals in Bakersfield were arriving to collect dozens of cat and dog cadavers a month, even though the company's expired contract related only to cats, according to court records.  

That's when animal-control employees notified authorities.  Prosecutors say they had stumbled upon a scheme by one top shelter official to provide hundreds of dead dogs and cats -- bound for veterinary experiments -- and discount the bill owed the county while receiving gift and restaurant certificates.

Sargeant's Wholesale Biologicals has had problems in other cities, but nothing compared to what the Tulare County Sheriff's Department says it turned up in a five-month investigation.  The 30-page report details employee accounts of suspicious activity and animal abuse.

Employees alleged Harmon ordered water bowls replaced with "bottle lickers" and told staff to give animals minimal amounts of food. One employee saw Harmon drop kennel doors on dogs' heads and necks.

Court records show an increase in the number of cats euthanized between 2004 and 2005 -- from 2,018 to 2,727. But that number dropped to 2,671 in 2006.

Dog euthanization's dropped from 4,247 in 2003 to 3,959 the following year. The number hovered around 3,850 in 2005 and 2006.

Still, other employees and volunteers corroborated Bailey's statements about increases in euthanization's. One volunteer said 240 animals were put down in one day.

Several employees also said Harmon allowed improper euthanization procedures, including having Cookson give animals shots on his own.

The process requires two people -- one to calm the animal and the other to administer the shot.

Cookson told authorities he knew the proper procedure but was told by Harmon to euthanize animals on his own because the shelter was short-staffed.

Cookson also said Harmon told him to put the bodies of certain dogs -- including pregnant dogs -- in a freezer for Sargeant.

Volunteer coordinator Michelle Shanley, who oversees adoptions, told authorities she also was told Sargeant preferred pregnant dogs. Harmon told her not to allow pregnant, unsterilized or medium-sized dogs to be adopted because Sargeant requested those animals.

Tulare County's relationship with Sargeant's Wholesale Biologicals started in January 2002, when the county entered into a five-month contract. The company agreed to pay the county $3 per euthanized cat.

The contract ended in late June 2002. But court records show Sargeant's picked up nearly 1,800 euthanized cats and dogs for about a year starting in December 2005.

Rates per cadaver ranged from $1.50 to $4.  In the nearly one-year period, Sargeant's picked up more than $4,000 in cadavers, according to court records.

Don Gallian, Tulare County assistant district attorney, said investigators believe Sargeant got behind on payments for cadavers and Harmon accepted gift certificates in exchange for reducing the bill.

Investigators allege Harmon received 10 $100 gift certificates and a $1,000 gift certificate for Fugazzi's, a Visalia restaurant.

During a search of Harmon's office, investigators found receipts for meals purchased at Fugazzi's, gift certificates for Wal-Mart and PetSmart and an e-mail from Harmon to Sargeant asking about gift certificates.

Gallian said investigators still are calculating how much Harmon allegedly accepted in bribes.  The figure is expected to reach at least $2,000, he said.

According to court records, Sargeant initially denied giving gift certificates but later said they were thank-you gifts, "no different than taking in a box of donuts or a fruit basket."

Asked whether he had an updated contract with the county, Sargeant said a new contract was in the works and he needed to provide proof of insurance. He said a county employee -- who he didn't name -- gave him "verbal approval" to continue business despite the expired contract.

Public records show Sargeant's Wholesale Biological has had contracts with at least two major U.S. cities -- Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Problems came up in both places.

Kristy Yager, Oklahoma City spokeswoman, said the City Council there signed a contract in March with Sargeant, but no money has been exchanged. That's because Sargeant said he was going to open a site in the city but never did.

In San Antonio, Sargeant had a contract dating back to 1996, according to a San Antonio Express-News story. City officials said the contract was most recently approved in 2003 for a two-year period.

While the city reported no problems, Sargeant's business was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to obtain a proper permit before opening an animal-embalming plant in Bexar County -- home to San Antonio.

The commission also found Sargeant violated air-quality regulations, according to an October 2006 commission document. Sargeant denied the allegations but was fined $6,630.

Torres said his client has good relationships with customers and universities -- which he sells cadavers to for educational purposes -- across the country.

Sargeant, Harmon and Cookson are scheduled to appear in court Sept. 17 for a preliminary hearing, when a judge will determine whether there is enough evidence for a trial.

Update 9/18/07:  Attorneys wrangled over witnesses and evidence as a judge prepares to decide whether three men will stand trial in an alleged bribery and animal-abuse scandal at the Tulare County Animal Shelter.

The hearing before Tulare County Superior Court Judge Gerald Sevier to determine whether there is enough evidence to order animal-control manager William Harmon , Bakersfield businessman Michael Sargeant and shelter dog handler Ronn Cookson to trial.

Much of the testimony by Tulare County sheriff's detectives involved the alleged relationship between Sargeant's company, which collects the remains of dead dogs and cats for veterinary education and experiments, and Harmon.

Under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Douglas Rodgers, detective Larry Camacho said he spoke in April with Marilyn Steinbeck, a former employee of Sargeant's, and Sargeant's ex-wife, Lynn Sargeant, about e-mail messages detailing the purchase of restaurant gift certificates given by the company to Harmon. Prosecutors allege the certificates -- including at least one $1,000 certificate from Fugazzi's in Visalia -- represent improper bribes from Sargeant to Harmon.

Harmon's attorney, Joe Altschule of Visalia, and Bakersfield attorney David Torres, representing Sargeant, voiced strong objections to using the e-mails as evidence in the case.

Altschule noted that Steinbeck had been fired by Sargeant only days before she spoke to Camacho. "I believe this is untrustworthy evidence," he said, arguing that because Steinbeck had apparently "purloined them from the office," the e-mail messages represented "illegally seized documents."

Sevier overruled Altschule's objection and ordered the e-mails into evidence.

Camacho said both Steinbeck and Lynn Sargeant told him that Michael Sargeant had personally authorized the purchase of the gift certificates to be given to Harmon.

As the hearing continues today, Altschule, Torres and Christopher Caine, representing Cookson, are expected to question Camacho in an effort to counter the prosecution's allegations.

Earlier Tulare County sheriff's detective Ronna Martin recounted her interview with Daniel Bailey, a shelter employee who, among other things, alleged that Harmon had neglected or abused animals and ordered dogs euthanized before the required waiting period.

Outside the courtroom, Altschule discounted Bailey's allegations as those of a disgruntled employee who had been disciplined by Harmon for poor performance, and expressed hope that the abuse charges may be dropped.

Update 9/20/07: Judge Gerald Sevier ruled there is sufficient evidence against animal-control manager William Harmon and Bakersfield businessman Michael Sargeant to merit a trial.

A single charge of animal cruelty was dropped against Ronn Cookson

Harmon and Sargeant were ordered to return to court for another hearing Oct. 4.

Harmon's attorney, Joe Altschule, said there was no evidence that what Harmon did amounted to cruelty because there was no evidence Cookson was not euthanizing the animals properly or according to county procedures.

Sevier pointed out that while people may not like pet euthanasia, there's nothing inherently cruel about it because it happens to thousands of animals every day at shelters.

Update 9/25/08:  Harmon was found guilty of accepting a bribe -- a $1,000 gift certificate for a local restaurant -- from a company that dealt in animal carcasses for scientific use.

William Harmon nervously pressed his hand against his face as the jury verdict was read aloud in Tulare County Superior Court. He remains free on $50,000 bail.

Besides accepting one bribe, Harmon was found guilty of soliciting another bribe and embezzling public funds -- all felonies. The solicitation involved seeking $850 in gift certificates for two local restaurants in exchange for animal carcasses to the company. The embezzlement charge was for selling wooden pallets owned by the county and pocketing between $50 and $80.

The three felony convictions could send Harmon to state prison for up to 12 years, said prosecutor Douglas Rodgers.

Harmon also was found guilty of accepting an unlawful gratuity, a misdemeanor, which could send him to county jail for six months. This involved receiving 10 gift certificates of $100 each for a local restaurant.

"It was a difficult case," said Assistant District Attorney Don Gallian. "The jury took their time and came to the appropriate verdict."

The jury deliberated for three days.  Jurors found Harmon not guilty of one count of felony bribery involving the 10 gift certificates, and of falsifying public documents involving kennel cards.

Judge Gerald Sevier set sentencing for Nov. 6.

Defense attorney Joe Altschule said he was disappointed.  "The irony is that the bribery count that they found him guilty on was for a gift certificate that was never produced and has never turned up. It was never used," Altschule said. An empty envelope in his desk was used as evidence, Altschule said.

Harmon also faces a second trial on one charge of animal cruelty.

No trial date has been set for Sargeant's case.

Update 11/7/08:  Tulare County Superior Court Judge Gerald Sevier postponed the sentencing of William " Billy " Harmon.

A probation report recommended no more than a one-year jail term or, as an alternative, home detention with an ankle monitor, according to Harmon 's attorney, Joe Altschule.

Harmon 's sentencing was postponed to allow for a separate trial on an animal-cruelty charge, which was separated from the main bribery and embezzlement trial. Sensitive material involved in that charge could have unfairly influenced the jury, according to Deputy District Attorney Doug Rodgers.

The sentencing postponement is a standard practice in split cases such as Harmon 's, Rodgers said.

Harmon will return to court Nov. 13, when a date for the animal-cruelty trial will be set.

Outside the courtroom after the postponement, Altschule questioned the district attorney's decision to pursue a separate trial, saying the charges revolved around harmless modifications to feeding and watering practices.

Altschule said it's his understanding that prosecutors — even if they prevail in the trial — will not seek further jail time for Harmon.

Rodgers, however, said later that prosecutors could request additional time. In a separate matter, Sevier pushed the trial-setting date for Sargeant to Jan. 8.

Update 4/2/09:  The former director of the Tulare County Animal Shelter was found not guilty of animal abuse.

While the verdict means William "Billy" Harmon will not face a possible eight-month jail sentence for felony animal abuse, he still faces up to eight years in prison from his September conviction on bribery and embezzlement charges.

Assistant Tulare County District Attorney Don Gallian said that charge stemmed from several acts Harmon was accused of, including:

# Kicking a dog that had tried to escape.

# Allowing vertically-sliding doors to fall on some dogs.

# Denying some dogs sufficient food and water.

# Putting a euthanizing drug in dog food.

After lawyers for both sides made closing arguments, the jury came back in less than 45 minutes.

Harmon's sentencing on the bribery charges is set for May 12.

Update 3/19/09:  Sargeant bribery charges trial date is currently scheduled for April 1, 2009.

Reference:

Animal Legal Defense Fund

Visalia Times-Delta

The Fresno Bee

Madera Tribune

Ventura County Star