Thursday, December 7, 2023

Thunder the Wonder Dog’s Rescuer and New Owner Consider Abuser’s Punishment a “Slap on the Wrist”, Banking on the Appeal for Justice

Thunder when he first emerged from the Mendocino County woods [All pictures provided by Davina Liberty]

Just over a year ago, an injured, emaciated German Shepherd imprisoned in a plastic cone emerged from the woods of Mendocino County and entered the hearts and minds of the public. The dog who later came to be known as “Thunder the Wonder Dog” grew a global network of supporters who sat in wait for justice against his former owner. Last week, Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan sentenced Thunder’s abuser to a year probation and community service. Both Davina Liberty, the woman who found Thunder and rescued him from the woods, and Sheryl, Thunder’s new owner (who requested her last name be undisclosed), characterized the punishment as a “slap on the wrist” and they are counting on the Mendocino County District Attorney to appeal the decision and achieve justice.

On December 18, 2019, Davina Liberty, a Mendocino County coast resident, was in the woods near Caspar riding her horse when she saw a German Shepherd wearing a plastic cone and clearly injured and suffering from dehydration and starvation. She and her husband loaded Thunder into the back of a pickup truck and Thunder’s road to recovery began.

The case gained international notoriety as viral images of Thunder, clearly injured, began to circulate and an alarming story of a botched euthanasia emerged. Caspar resident Katie Rhiannon Smith emerged as the accused abuser of Thunder. The tale that emerged was one of neglect, attempted euthanasia at the end of a gun, and eventual abandonment of Thunder in the woods of coastal Mendocino County. October 2020 Smith pleaded no contest to animal abuse charges. 

Thunder receiving veterinarian care

Smith’s sentencing hearing has once again launched the case of Thunder the Wonder Dog back into public consciousness after, as Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster put it, Superior Court Judge Clayton Brennan “diminish[ed] ongoing community and law enforcement efforts to hold animal abusers accountable for their crimes.” Smith was sentenced to one year of probation and 500 hours of community service for her botched euthanasia and abandonment of Thunder.

Sheryl adopted Thunder after he recovered from the bullet wounds and has given him a new life. On Sheryl’s Facebook page Thunder can be seen with a healthy lustrous coat smiling for the camera and passionately playing fetch.

Reacting to Smith’s punishment, Sheryl simply said, “Katie in my opinion was NOT punished. If anything, she was rewarded.” When Judge Brennan announced Smith’s sentencing, Sheryl said she was in “absolute shock.” She said  her “hands were shaking, my heart pounding, tears sprang out of my eyes.”

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Thunder recovering from his wounds

Sheryl said the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office did an “exemplary job” in their prosecution of Katie Rhiannon Smith for her abuse of Thunder, especially Deputy District Attorney Josh Rosenfeld and the Adult Probation Department. From the opening statement,Sheryl said she “had a positive feeling there would be a proper outcome.” Sheryl said Rosenfeld would always refer to the victim as “Thunder” and not “the dog” as Smith’s public defender did many times throughout the trial.

According to Sheryl, at the beginning of the trial Judge Brenna said he had received more letters than any other case he has been on. He characterized the letters as written by “animal rights activists” and Sheryl felt he said it “in a negative way.” Sheryl again noticed Judge Brennan’s language surrounding Thunder’s supporters later on in the proceedings when he called the supporters “Thunder’s Fan Club” which she perceived as trying to “cheapen them.” Sheryl said Judge Brennan made it point to say that  because the people who wrote the letters did not have all the information and evidence, therefore were not valid.”

Sheryl recounted Judge Brennan’s reading of Smith’s letter that described why she had attempted to euthanize Thunder. In the letter, Sheryl said Smith claimed Thunder bit her, her husband, and her children. The letter described the Smith family becoming isolated because they could no longer have friends due to Thunder. Smith wrote that Thunder would urinate and defecate in her home. 

Liberty remembered that Smith and the Public Defender claimed that Thunder was prone to bite her, her family, and guests to their home. Liberty saw those claims as dubious because there was no evidence of scars or medical interventions that would have resulted from the violent dog they claimed Thunder to be. From rescuers’ experience with Thunder, Liberty said he was a “loving and cuddly dog.”

Sheryl said the entirety of Smith’s letter to the court read as if she  “just didn’t want [Thunder] anymore.” She also added that he has not once had an accident in the many months since Thunder has been rescued.

Thunder’s scars from where a bullet grazed his head are obvious in this photograph

Sheryl said one of the most “sickening” statements she heard during the court proceedings was from the public defender who said, “If Thunder hadn’t lived, we would not be here today. She is guilty of being a lousy shot.” Recognizing the legality of a dog owner to euthanize their animal, Sheryl argued that the morality of euthanizing a pet is bound by “times of emergency when there is no way to get vet care,” saying that “none of that applies to Thunder’s situation.”

Liberty, a passionate horse rider, said she is not blind to the harsh realities of life with animals and understands the need to euthanize an animal during an emergency medical situation when an owner cannot access a veterinarian or in cases of a terminal illness. Liberty made clear that Thunder’s medical issues he was suffering from while in the hands of Smith were treatable with “medication you could get at a vet for $200.” She also emphasized the close proximity of veterinarians on the Mendocino County coast. Ultimately, she said, “this was definitely not a case where euthanasia was appropriate.”

Thunder looking happy and smiling

Sheryl recounted what she said was a glaring hypocrisy in Smith’s plea for a light sentence when she requested from Judge Brennan that she not have to surrender her other dogs because she would be “devastated.” Judge Brennan complied with that request, and Sheryl fears that now Smith “can abuse as many animals as she wants.” The hypocrisy was once again on display for Sheryl when Judge Brennan suggested Smith serve her 500 hours of community service in an animal shelter where Judge Brennan argued Smith “could learn empathy.” Sheryl said she was sickened at this suggestion and questioned whether it was safe to have Smith around animals. 

Sheryl described Judge Brennan suggesting that the Public Defender file a motion to reduce the defendant’s charges to a misdemeanor. Sheryl remembered the District Attorney objecting to the reduction of the charges, which was overruled. This act proved to Sheryl that Judge Brennan was not acting “fair or impartial.”  

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Sheryl emphasized that her criticism of Judge Brennan is “not because the sentence was not what we hoped. It was the absolute lack of impartiality, more than not being impartial, he sided and assisted the Defense.” 

Thunder cozy with his ball

In the end, Sheryl thinks that Smith will serve “one year of informal, unsupervised probation.” She characterized Smith’s punishment as a “slap to Thunder and all the other abused animals that will not get justice.”

Liberty expressed concern that Smith’s probation and community punishment sets a bad precedent for Mendocino County, communicating that harsh penalties will not result for “neglecting, abusing, and abandoning an animal.”

After surviving three bullet wounds and abandonment in the Mendocino wilderness, Thunder is a “healthy, happy, and sweet boy,” said Sheryl. She characterized Thunder as loving and described him as her best buddy. At this point, she said he had gained 25 pounds by eating an organic diet. During cold weather, Sheryl said Thunder’s injuries can flare up, but he never wants to stop playing.

As Sheryl reflected on the last year, the adoption of Thunder, and the dramatic conclusion of the trial, she said, “Right now, my sweet boy is curled up by the fire. He doesn’t know the injustice that was done to him. I’m so glad he doesn’t know. Sheryl vowed that the story of Thunder “is not over. The County of Mendocino is fighting for Thunder. It means the world that they are not just accepting this, and are pursuing justice, not only for Thunder but to hold this judge accountable.”

Thunder with is thick and lustrous coat
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  1. IF it were a human instead of a dog nobody would care, just chock it up to another puff on the meth pipe. how many times are you gonna charge miss meany for shooting her dog. Ever hear of double jeopardy? The dog lovers would dig this woman up out of her grave to charge her with more crimes, let her pay for the dogs vet bill an care until it dies naturally. you arent helping the dog by puting her in jail.

  2. Sure, maybe putting her in jail doesn’t help Thunder. I don’t think that’s the point here. The point is, the defendant pled GUILTY to a felony, which means, in the eyes of the law, she was GUILTY of said felony. If she wasn’t, she was free to plead not guilty and let a jury decide. So then the judge decides to arbitrarily throw out an offer to the public defender to reduce her charge to a misdo. WTF? In all my years of working in the court system, NEVER did I see a judge do this. There is clearly bias here, and that judge needs to be held accountable for his actions. I knew the defendant wouldn’t get jail time, but also, the judge failed to hold her accountable for restitution, why? Restitution and making the victim whole is required in EVERY sentencing. Why was she exempt? And, despite her pretty substantial income, she availed herself of a public defender, none of which she has to pay back. The whole thing stinks of bias and partiality. No one wants to charge her with more crimes, where are you getting that from? An appeal will right the crappy sentence the judge imposed, not charge her with more crimes. So yeah, we’ve thought about it. Maybe research the legal system before you spew out nonsense about things you don’t understand.

  3. But that is the point! You ask why she was exempt? sounds like sumbody got a xmas card with a donation to their favorite charity.
    You may have worked in the legal system for a life tyme, but a donation will change court proceedings ,every time and thats a known fact!
    need i say more.

  4. This is the most disgusting lack of justice in an animal abuse case. Katie Rhiannon Smith admitted to a monthly income of $11,000 so why did she get public assistance ? She also could clearly afford vet meds for Thunder. Both the judge and public defender were nothing but condescending. I remember the day the poor dog came out of the forest. Katie Rhiannon Smith neglected her dog and didn’t want Thunder and tried to get rid of him. If he was as aggressive as she claims I would think in over a year he would have shown that by now. He has not. Every single person that has come into contact with him for over a year has stated that he is a cuddly dog. Perhaps abusing your dog may eventually lead him to snap at you in self defense !! How many other cases has this judge presided over and botched ??? To do this to your dog and say she’s only guilty of being a bad shot is absolutely appalling.

    • > How many other cases has this judge presided over and botched ???

      Brennan has an entire portfolio of bad judgment. Want to get mad all over again? Read the article at https://www.theava.com/archives/1157

      Why the voters on the Mendocino coast and in Willits tolerate Brennan and his judicial lunacy continues to be a mystery. Let’s stop complaining and actually do something. #RecallJudgeBrennan

    • Dont get me wrong im 100% pro dog, having a few large rare breeds, i had one pass an to this day it still shakes a tear from a dry eye. more so than any human passing. to put down my dog the vet wanted close to 400 dollars then wanted to charge for a medical exam.
      needless to say a fool an his money are soon parted. the worst part no funeral no headstone, for that price. they would take the body an put it in their freezer!
      When you are on ss there isnt 400 left in the budjet at the end of the month. As most we live beyond our means.
      Maybe katie felt the same way an would not spend the money with the vet..

      • First, this creepy, undeserving woman makes $11,000 per month. Money should not have been an issue so it shouldn’t really be a part of the discussion. Besides her own money, rumor has it that her parents have plenty of $$ and could have stepped up to the plate and helped their wayward daughter do the right thing. They have also failed. Second, money aside, you don’t euthanize an animal outside of exigent circumstances or as an act of mercy for a dying animal. As the pictures and the testaments make oh so clear, this was not a dying dog that needed to be put down. The unreported act of splattering Thunder with bullets and letting him run off into the forest was not an act of mercy. This is an animal who could have been turned over to the humane society for adoption versus a botched attempt to dump his body out in the forest at the side of a road for somebody else to pick up or the wild animals to chew on, or both. But please don’t miss the real point. We have a crazy man masquerading as a judge in Fort Bragg. When will the People say enough is enough? #RecallJudgeBrennan.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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