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Animal rights advocates seek penalties in dog abuse case

After seven months of bail hearings and postponed court dates, a Gloucester man accused of slicing open the body of his dead pit bull to retrieve heroin the dog had ingested was arraigned in Essex Superior Court in Salem last Wednesday.

As eight local animal rights advocates looked on, John Dugan, 27, pleaded not guilty to four counts of animal cruelty and one count of drug possession with intent to distribute. Bail was set at $20,000 and a pretrial hearing set for July 10.

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Dugan’s court-appointed attorney, John Morris, declared his intention to ask that all charges be dismissed, a plan that concerns animal advocates who have been pushing for harsh punishment in the case.

“The fact that you’d do that to your own pet is horrific,” said Mary Lou Maraganis, a Gloucester resident who attended the hearing. “Who does that to a dog?”

Animal advocates have organized silent protests outside the courthouse whenever hearings were scheduled. Last week they held signs demanding “Justice for Xena” and displaying pictures of the steel-gray pit bull.

Protest organizer Lisa Casavant of Andover also has created an online petition calling for the “full prosecution and punishment” of Dugan. To date, more than 100,000 people from around the world have signed the petition.

“Historically, these offenders get a slap on the wrist,” Casavant said before last week’s hearing. “If we can really publicize this case and pressure the DA’s office to go for maximum prosecution and sentencing, maybe we can make a difference.”

The case, along with three other notable instances of dog abuse in the area during the past year, drove Gloucester resident Christina Russo to organize a community forum in May to discuss and raise awareness of the issue.

“There needed to be some kind of conversation,” said Russo.

The case against Dugan began in December when a woman walking her dog in Gloucester told police she had made a grisly discovery: the mutilated body of a pit bull, stuffed into a duffel bag and discarded over an embankment. The dog’s entrails were found in a plastic bag nearby. Police investigated and soon determined that the dog, Xena, was owned by Dugan, a Gloucester resident who had served jail time in a 2003 vehicular homicide case and had previously been accused of mistreating animals.

When questioned by police, Dugan admitted that before Xena died, she had ingested some heroin he had left on the counter, according to a Gloucester police report. Dugan contended that he gutted his dog in his bathtub in an effort to relieve bloating that occurred after her death.

Upon searching Dugan’s apartment, police allegedly found an electronic scale and plastic bags such as those used for packaging drugs for sale, the report said. Police concluded that Dugan had likely disemboweled Xena in an attempt to recover bags of heroin the dog swallowed before she died.

Police also learned that Dugan owned a second pit bull, Damian, which has since been taken by animal control for placement in a new home.

During the investigation, police discovered previous accusations of animal cruelty against Dugan that they are now including in the charges, according to the most recent court filings.

Police questioned Dugan’s ex-girlfriend, who said that he habitually abused his dogs, punching them in the head and body when he was upset with them. In one incident, she said, Dugan allegedly let Xena become so tangled in her leash that she stopped breathing.

“She essentially hung herself and choked and lost consciousness,” said assistant district attorney Karen Hopwood during last week’s arraignment.

In 2007, another ex-girlfriend said Dugan had broken her dog’s leg during a fight, though that incident is not part of the current charges.

The case was initially filed in district court, but a series of postponements kept delaying action on the case.

Last week’s arraignment officially transferred Dugan’s case to superior court, where harsher penalties could be imposed, said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for the Essex district attorney’s office. In the higher court, she said, each charge of animal cruelty has a maximum sentence of five years, rather than the 2½-year top sentence in district court.

The drug possession count, which was added when the case moved to superior court, has a maximum sentence of 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

At the arraignment, Morris, Dugan’s attorney, said there was not enough evidence to support any of the charges. A necropsy ordered by the prosecution determined that Xena was dead at the time she was cut open. Therefore, animal cruelty laws do not apply, Morris said.

The other counts of animal cruelty are based on behavior allegedly witnessed by an ex-girlfriend and are not backed up by any additional evidence, he said.

As for the charge of possession with intent to distribute: “We don’t have any drugs, nobody ever seized any drugs . . . there are no drugs,” Morris said during Wednesday’s hearing.

These arguments caused concern among the animal advocates who attended the hearing.

“It just seems like he’s getting away with being abusive to animals,” said Sharon Ivey of Gloucester. “Hopefully, he does not get out.”

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.

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