Hodge and HSUS pay Sennes $5,000, dismiss criminal charges, disclose fate of 5 pets
Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge and the Humane Society of the United States will pay a $5,000 settlement to Col. David and Mary Ellen Senne and all criminal charges against the couple will be dismissed, according to court orders that were filed Tuesday.
“It’s total vindication” for the Sennes, their attorney J. Ronald Parrish said. “It’s a great victory for justice.”
County prosecutor Brad Thompson stood before Judge Billie Graham and said he was “declining to prosecute” the aggravated animal cruelty charges against the Sennes. The request for dismissal of the case was based on “higher court rulings regarding the constitutionality of the search warrant,” he said. “I believe this is in the best interests of the state.”
Parrish and the Sennes’ other attorney Scott Schwartz told the judge that they were in agreement.
“I disagree,” said Lt. David Ward, who handled the high-profile case for the Jones County Sheriff’s Department. “I just want that on the record.”
Graham said she would be “hard-pressed” to go forward with the case after Williamson’s rulings on the case and with the prosecutor petitioning the court to dismiss the charges. She concluded the short hearing by saying, “I’m dismissing both cases.”
Ward, holding a three-ring binder with the case files, shook hands with the attorneys before leaving the courtroom.
Fifteen months earlier, Hodge and Maj. Jamie Tedford, along with other members of the JCSD, stood in the same courtroom after the Sennes had been strip-searched, jailed, handcuffed and paraded in front of TV cameras for the misdemeanor charges. Several members of the local animal rescue group Southern Cross Animal Rescue and HSUS, local media and other spectators packed the courtroom for that initial court appearance. A Leader-Call reporter was the only spectator at Tuesday’s proceeding, which lasted less than 10 minutes.
Dozens of volunteers from across the nation and multiple agencies descended on the Sennes’ property on Lyon Ranch Road back in July 2018 after a “three-month investigation” by the JCSD, Hodge said at the time. A total of 89 live animals — 55 dogs and 34 cats — were seized after a search warrant was executed there. There were also 17 dead animals found in a freezer that were being prepared for burial in a special cemetery beside a chapel Mrs. Senne had constructed for pets that had “passed over the Rainbow Bridge.”
Many of the animals that the Sennes were housing in various outbuildings on their 170-plus-acre property had been deemed “unadoptable,” so they were “dumped on them by SCAR,” Parrish said. SCAR is a “no-kill” shelter, meaning it has a policy against euthanizing animals.
Five dogs that had been the household pets of the Sennes became the focus of legal proceedings in Jones County Circuit Court in the weeks and months following their arrest. A signed agreement between the Sennes and HSUS and a cellphone video taken by the wife of Leader-Call Managing Editor Sean Murphy showed that those pets were not to be taken from the property. Those turned out to be “key pieces of evidence” in the case, Parrish said.
Parrish, who was hired to defend the Sennes against the criminal charges, began to investigate the case and discovered that those animals had been illegally seized. That’s when he took the case to Jones County Circuit Court and filed a complaint of replevin, which is a request for the return of property that was wrongfully taken. He had the written and video documentation that all animals on the property were to be seized “with the exception of” Miss Poo, Loco, Sister Angel, Precious and Abby. Those were five dogs, between the ages of 12 and 20 with various medical problems, that the Sennes kept in their home.
When neither Hodge nor HSUS were able to produce the pets or tell their whereabouts, Parrish openly speculated that they may have been killed. Hodge and HSUS officials repeatedly said they didn’t know what happened to the animals.
As part of the settlement, Parrish required HSUS to disclose what happened to them. A statement signed by HSUS Acting Chief Operating Officer G. Thomas Waite III admits that the Sennes five dogs “were not voluntarily relinquished,” but they were seized from the property on July 11, 2018, then transported to a temporary shelter in Ellisville, where they received care. On July 19, the dogs were forfeited to the sheriff’s department and the sheriff’s department transferred its ownership to HSUS. On July 21, HSUS transported the dogs by plane to Manassas, Va., where they were picked up by Angels of Assisi, an organization that operates an animal shelter in Roanoke, Va. All of the dogs were “adopted into forever homes” by Sept. 5, 2018, “and the HSUS believes, to the best of its knowledge, that to be accurate.” Waite is serving as COO after longtime HSUS leader Wayne Pacelle was forced to resign last year after allegations of sexual harassment.
The Sennes collected $1,000 each for the dogs that were taken, $5,000 total. It was not clear if insurance carriers for Hodge or HSUS paid or if they divided the expense.
Parrish said it’s the best possible outcome in the case, for his clients and their dogs.
“They were paid maximum value for these animals,” Parrish said, adding that “you can’t get compensation for emotional damages.”
For example, “if a burglar took your grandmother’s ring that was worth $50, but you wouldn’t take $50,000 for it because of the sentimental value, the insurance company is only going to give you $50.”
If the dogs could be located, local and state courts “can’t make people in Virginia give the dogs back to the Humane Society,” Parrish said. Uprooting the old dogs from their new homes and bringing them back on a plane would be traumatic, he added. “In an unselfish way, this is in the best interests of the animals, too. They’re old, and they should live out the rest of their days in the homes they were adopted to.
“Judge Williamson was limited in what he can do … The (circuit) court can only award damages, and (the Sennes) got the maximum amount.”
Parrish said that he “appreciates the professional manner” in which Thompson and Graham handled the criminal case in justice court, and he also had kind words for Williamson.
“Jones County is fortunate to have a circuit court judge like Dal Williamson,” he said. “It would have been easy for him to just blow it off because it’s ‘just dogs,’ but he took it very seriously and made every effort to make sure he got it right.
“It’s not always about money. It’s about individual rights and treating people fairly.”
Agents of SCAR visited the Sennes’ property on May 18, 2018, and made photographs that “revealed what appeared to be widespread crimes involving cruelty to animals,” and they contacted HSUS. Ward obtained a search warrant and forfeiture warrant from Chancery Court Judge Frank McKenzie on July 10 based upon the affidavits of SCAR members. Longtime law enforcement and court officials couldn’t remember another case in which McKenzie signed a search warrant in a criminal case, though by law, he is authorized to do so.
In an earlier ruling, Williamson wrote that there appeared to be no “special need for very prompt action,” as required by Mississippi Code for the seizure of animals, “as evidenced by the 7-1/2-week delay between the onsite inspection by the SCAR representatives and the obtainment and execution of a seizure warrant.”
Parrish accused Hodge of orchestrating a “publicity stunt” with the Sennes. Col. Senne suffers from dementia and is a Purple Heart recipient for injuries he suffered in Vietnam.
The publicity Hodge received after the case backfired, though. In August, voters elected political newcomer Macon Davis over Hodge as the nominee in the Republican primary. Davis will face Independent Joe Berlin in the General Election in November.
Hodge, who was seeking his fourth term as sheriff, received only 42 percent of the vote. Four years earlier, he received 75 percent of the vote and he publicly predicted that he would get 70 percent in this election. Many voters cited his handling of the Sennes’ case for not supporting him in his bid for a fourth term. But in the three weeks leading to the runoff with Davis, Hodge took to Facebook and continued to defend his actions and the actions of his department in the case while criticizing the Leader-Call, calling the paper “biased” and “liars.”
After he was defeated in the election and the Supreme Court denied his request to appeal Williamson’s ruling, Hodge and HSUS made the decision to stop fighting the case “for economic reasons,” according to the agreement. Hodge was represented by William Allen, Robert O. Allen and Christina Smith of Allen, Allen, Breeland & Allen in Brookhaven and HSUS was represented by James G. Wyly III, Scott T. Ellzey and Autumn Breeden of Phelps Dunbar, LLP in Gulfport.
“The Humane Society is not the same as your local animal shelter,” Parrish said. “They’re a left-wing political organization. Local animal shelters do a lot of good work. Go to them and give to them, not this bunch of freaks in Washington, D.C.”