Case of the Hurricane Hoodwink

A dog, separated from its family in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina,
was found and adopted, but it turns out the new owners weren’t such good samaritans. And caused a family immeasurable emotional agony over the next three years.

 

 

Jazz was a coal black American Cocker Spaniel.  She was eight years old and had been owned and cared for by the Augillard family since puppyhood.

Her primary owner, Shalandra, a young woman in her mid-20’s, worked for FedEx and on the days preceding the hurricane was part of the team preparing the FedEx facilities and aircraft for the coming catastrophe. She had left Jazz in the care of her 80 year old grandmother.

When evacuation became necessary, the grandmother gathered Jazz into her arms and waited. But when the boat arrived, she was told to leave him in the house, and the rescuers assured them it would only be for a day or two.

She locked Jazz in the house with food and water. The utter devastation prevented quick return, and the 1 to 2 days turned into more than a week before residents were allowed back into New Orleans. On their return, the family found their door broken down and Jazz missing.

It is unknown whether she was rescued from the house by a samaritan or let loose by looters, but she was not listed on the website used to locate rescued New Orleans pets. So the family continued to search.

Jazz Found

Several months after the disaster, word of mouth led Shalandra to find Jazz living with a young Texas couple who had adopted him.  They gave him a new name, “Hope.”

Shalandra was shocked when the Texas couple refused to return her.   Jazz had the skin and ear problems typical of Cocker Spaniels, especially after a hot New Orleans summer and she had suffered further in the damp and humidity after the hurricane.

The Texas couple hired an attorney who convinced them that she had been neglected and found a veterinarian willing to testify to that neglect despite the records of years of care from the family’s New Orleans veterinarian.

The judge said that in order to have Jazz returned Shalandra would have to prove that she was her property by proving her identity.

Shalandra’s house was looted, but not flooded. Many non-valuable items were left undisturbed. Shalandra found several dog sweaters and a dog brush. Although I found a few hairs on the sweaters, none produced a DNA profile.

Meanwhile, the legal battle had already begun.

DNA to the Rescue?

Shalandra’s attorney Susan Phillips, contacted me.  I explained that if objects with biological material from Jazz’s past could be obtained, it could be possible to match them with a sample from the disputed dog.

Then I looked at the dog brush. It was old but was clean of obvious hair, though it had the fine fuzz at the base of the bristles that never quite come off a used brush.

Under a low-power microscope, the fuzz revealed some small dark, shiny crystals. The brush had probably been used on Jazz when her skin was inflamed and the crystals were the remnants of a diffuse exudative rash.

They were excellent sources of DNA and I was rewarded with perfect DNA profile. Jazz/Hope was taken to a local veterinarian for a comparison sample; the DNA from the disputed dog matched the DNA from the dog brush.

In the intervening months the case had been transferred to another judge and the verbal assurance that proving identity would be enough to have Jazz returned was in doubt. The first judge had ordered that Jazz/Hope stay in a boarding facility until the issue was resolved. I flew to Austin for the first hearing of the DNA evidence.

Everything was further complicated with the case being transferred to a judge who seemed hostile to scheduling a hearing. When we arrived in the makeshift courtroom in a strip mall, I was surprised there was no security, and many individuals of dubious character waiting to go before the judge. Susan explained that in Texas, civil cases are scheduled alongside low-level criminal cases like traffic violations. We waited for our turn only to have the rest of the morning’s cases postponed for the judge’s dental appointment. Back home again.

Justice ~ Texas StyleSusan filed for a hearing on a petition that the dog be released to the family until the official trial. As part of that hearing the DNA evidence would be heard in court. I flew to Austin again.

I began my testimony and was stunned by how disinterested the judge was in the DNA results. Since there was no jury, I would turn toward the judge and direct some of my answers to him, trying to gauge his reaction and understanding of what I was saying. He seldom made eye contact, and when he did, he made me feel like a lower life form.

When the attorney for the Texas couple began his cross examination, it was quickly evident that his strategy was to assert that the DNA evidence was invalid because the brush had been recently purchased and used on Jazz/Hope during a visit by Shalandra at the boarding facility.

He not only questioned Shalandra on this point, but also her 80 year old grandmother, suggesting with a sneer that they were lying.

I went back to the stand, and Susan asked my opinion on the appearance of the brush. I testified that there was no appearance of planted evidence; someone brushing a dog with the intention of getting hairs for DNA testing would have made sure there was a lot of hair on the brush, not a fine mat that requiring a microscope to find. Furthermore, the rubber gasket at the base of the bristles was stiff and cracked, as would be expected for an old brush.

When the judge was ready, he was dismissive of the family’s claim, and ruled that Jazz/Hope remain with the Texas couple until the official trial. I was stunned along with everyone else; the family and their legal team had pinned their hopes on the legal system, and the power of scientific evidence and both had failed them.

Susan and I were all so stunned that we sat in the courtroom like plums while the others exited. Perhaps we should have been expected trouble and been more careful. The emotions were too raw for Shalandra. As she exited the courtroom she assaulted Tiffany, and was arrested on the spot. There was little doubt that charges would be pressed.

Back to the Lab

As the drama played out in the corridors of the courthouse, I was thinking about this red herring of planted evidence. I realized there was a way to test the identity of Jazz/Hope with absolutely no question of sample authenticity. Since mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to offspring, all maternal relatives of Jazz would have the same mitochondrial type. I told Susan that if they could track down one of these maternal relatives, we could confirm her identity another way.

Luckily, Jazz was registered with the American Kennel Club. Susan went into action and petitioned the AKC for Jazz’s pedigree records to locate relatives and contact information of their owners. The owner of Madison, Jazz’s sister from the same litter, was contacted. She not only agreed to take Madison to her veterinarian for sample collection but was willing to testify at the trial.

A month later, I flew back to Austin once again for the official trial.  Back to the strip mall for another day in court with the same bored and disgruntled judge. Now the opposing attorney focuses on how lots of dogs have the same mitochondrial type because a dog has puppies, then they have puppies, and after a while we are all tripping over dogs with the same mitochondrial type.

Hmmm, except, that’s not the way it works.

I received the cheek swab directly from Madison’s veterinarian. I had instructed them to send it by the U.S. Postal Service so there could be no question of tampering due to Shalandra’s ties to FedEx. The whole enterprise was a bit risky; there was always a very small chance of the AKC’s records not being correct. There was also the chance that the mitochondrial type would be a fairly common one and not very convincing. But Madison’s type matched Jazz/Hope Floats. And the type was not very common, so there was no way to fake it – Hope was, in fact, Jazz.

Despite our satisfaction with our convincing case, The judge ruled once again that Jazz would stay with the Texas couple.

Jazz Comes Home to Rest in Peace

Months later, the case was reviewed by a three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals, who finally decided the case in favor of the family. Susan sent me a copy of the ruling and I was relieved for everyone.

I had only charged them a fraction of the lab costs, but was happy that they had finally received some form of justice. I was embarrassed for their ridiculous ordeal, and thought about how angry I would have been if I was denied one of my dogs for no fault of my own.

Jazz was returned to Shalandra more than three years after Katrina. By now over 11 years old, she died in her New Orleans home less than a year later.