A year ago Willie Gardner, 30, was charged with four felony counts of cruelty to animals after an animal control officer found four pitbulls in poor conditions on an abandoned property in Bunnell. Gardner owned the dogs, and had been warned repeatedly previously, by animal control, to take better care of the dogs. (See: “Willie Gardner, 28, Faces 4 Counts of Aggravated Animal Cruelty in Case of Wounded, Neglected Pit Bulls.”)
In fact, it wasn’t his first criminal charge for animal negligence or cruelty: he’d faced a misdemeanor charge in September 2021, and was still on probation for that case when the pitbull matter emerged.
Just before Thanksgiving Gardner was in court to tender a plea deal on the felony counts. The plea had been negotiated between Assistant Public Defender Bill Bookhammer and Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby. It called for reducing the felonies to four misdemeanors, and for four years’ probation.
Circuit Judge Terence Perkins rejected it. “I’m not willing to take the plea,” he said. It doesn’t happen very often. You’ve been in court, you’ve seen me numerous times take a plea. But this one is very disturbing.”
“Based on what I’m reading in the 707,” the judge told Bookhammer, referring to the arrest affidavit that details the negligence, “four years on probation, that’s not something I’m willing to do. I’m willing to do that as a preventative measure going forward. But it’s not the sole sentence that I would be in favor of.” He wanted 90 days in jail. It was a very rare rebuke by Perkins of a negotiated plea: he almost always accepts those deals.
Bookhammer was at a disadvantage: Libby was not in the courtroom. Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis was standing in for her, and he wasn’t as familiar with the case, though Lewis noted that even Annie Conrad, the detective who investigated the case, had signed off on the deal. And Bookhammer did not have the depositions by veterinarians that added more details about the dogs’ conditions, and described the dogs in less dire terms than the 707.
“I’m going to argue with you Mr. Bookhammer. I read the 707 a few times. And to say that those dogs were in good shape is not even close,” the judge said. Gardner and Bookhammer stood before him at the lectern. “I think these dogs were severely neglected. And I just find that reprehensible. I find it really difficult in that regard. And we haven’t talked at all about punishment, all we’ve talked about is how to keep it from happening in the future, which is part of what we should do. So I’m thinking 90 days.”
Bookhammer did not argue with what the judge was reading, but said that the 707 was not the full record.
“The reason why we do depositions is to flesh out additional details on which would not be discovered through just a reading of a 707,” Bookhammer said. “I’m testifying as an officer of the court. I know what the veterinarian said, is that these dogs when they came in, their body conditions were good. On a scale of 1 to 5, they were 4 or 5. The dogs were healthy animals.”
Bookhammer was pressing the case because he did not want Gardner to loose his job: he’d been holding a steady job with full benefits for several years. The job would be lost if he went to jail. Bookhammer did not note this, but Gardner also owed court costs and restitution exceeding $4,000–an amount he could not pay without a job.
The judge was willing to delay taking the plea until that evidence was submitted. But Bookhammer and Gardner were at a further disadvantage because of Gardner’s past.
County Judge Andrea Totten signed an order on Jan. 31, 2022, relating to an unrelated case that started the previous September (2021) at 156 Knox Jones Road in Bunnell. A Flagler County animal control officer had responded to the home of Sean Giddens, where they found nine dogs–eight of them belonging to Gardner, one to Giddens. Two of the dogs were running at large. The rest were tethered with heavy chains.
“The dogs’ area was littered with debris including broken glass and overgrown vegetation,” the judge wrote. “Many of the dogs did not have access to water, and the other dogs only had access to dirty, algae ridden water. Many of the dogs had untreated dog bite wounds in various stages of healing, including one dog with a large open laceration on her cheek. Eight of the dogs lacked adequate shelter.” Those were Gardner’s dogs. A veterinarian found the dogs to “filthy and ungroomed.”
Gardner, who was keeping the dogs to breed them, was ordered to keep no more than two dogs at Giddens’s property, and to ensure that they were maintained in humane and healthy conditions, and to keep his dogs untethered a set number of hours each day. He was sentenced to six months’ probation in May 2023 with regards to the negligence involving one of the dogs.
Then came the felony case involving the pitbulls at an abandoned property at 508 South Railroad Street in Bunnell. The dogs were poorly sheltered, several had dog bite wounds, were tethered continuously and exhibited what an animal control officer described in court as the effects of “solitary confinement.”
Totten signed a new order on Nov. 9, 2022, banning Gardner from keeping or owning dogs for five years. Gardner was also found in violation of his misdemeanor case. But Totten did not address the felony case: that went before Perkins, and that’s the case Bookhammer was attempting to resolve just before Thanksgiving.
The previous case made Perkins pause, too: “So why would I believe he was going to follow probation in this case? He won’t listen to that word. Why would I expect them to listen to my word?” the judge said.
Part of the answer is that Gardner may not own or care for dogs anymore–at least not for at least five years. (The attorneys before Perkins repeatedly said that the prohibition would last nine years, though it’s not clear based on what document. Totten’s order specifies five years.) But Perkins was looking for a penalty for his previous conduct with dogs in addition to the probationary measure.
The case was left unresolved pending more evidence. Meanwhile, Gardner has been sitting in jail on his probation violation, and accumulating days there. By the time he’d appeared before the judge, he’d accumulated 19 days. He’s accumulated 10 more days since, for a total of 29, or almost a third of the time Perkins wants him to serve. By the time the case is resolved, it may have gone up to half.