Ex-rescuer gets 6 months, prohibited from having animals for 15 years
Using a new law “that has teeth,” Judge Noel Rogers chomped down on a Jones County woman who was found guilty of 38 counts of animal cruelty.
Miranda Kittrell, 37, burst into tears and hugged her mother before being handcuffed and taken away to serve six months in the Jones County Adult Detention Center. It is believed to be the first time for an animal abuser in any local court to get sentenced to jail.
County Attorney Brad Thompson and Sheriff Joe Berlin both agreed that Kittrell appeared shocked by the sentence after the hearing in Jones County Justice Court on Thursday. In two previous trips to justice court for similar offenses, that didn’t happen. But the Legislature amended the animal cruelty law this year to increase the penalty and the change took effect July 1. She was charged in August.
“This sends a message that this sort of thing is unacceptable,” said Thompson, who served as prosecutor in the case.
He said the judge made the correct decision, as did the Legislature.
Until this year, in the eyes of the law, “one dog or 100 dogs was the same; it was one count,” Thompson said. “The Legislature made the right call.”
Past offenders were used to “getting a slap on the wrist,” Berlin said, but this sentence “sends a message to anyone doing this sort of thing that we’re not going to play if people don’t do what they’re supposed to.”
In addition to the jail time, Rogers ordered Kittrell to pay a $3,800 fine, perform 380 hours of community service and undergo a psychological evaluation and counseling at a cost of $3,500, which she’ll have to pay. He also prohibited her from owning or residing with domesticated animals for 15 years. Failure to comply with any of those orders could result in her having to serve her full 114-month sentence behind bars.
Thompson served as prosecutor while Berlin and Investigator J.D. Carter of the Jones County Sheriff’s Department testified along with Ginny Sims of Southern Pines Animal Shelter.
Before the judge began hearing testimony, Kittrell asked him for a continuance, saying she’d “had no time to get a lawyer.”
But Rogers and Thompson disputed that, noting that she had previously requested a public defender to take her case, but she failed to show up in court the day she was to meet with him.
“I was here most of the morning waiting on you,” Rogers said.
Kittrell didn’t offer an explanation for why she was a no-show.
“The state has multiple witnesses here and we’re ready to proceed,” Thompson said, and the judge agreed.
Berlin testified that he was contacted by Forrest County Sheriff Charlie Sims — the father of the Southern Pines executive director — about a “situation with dogs” in the south part of the county. So he sent Deputy Patrick Oster to the property with a body-cam and saw enough evidence to warrant a visit.
Berlin and Carter went to 10 Ball Drive — a mobile home in Jones County that has a Seminary address —on Aug. 21 and saw “malnourished dogs everywhere,” Berlin said. “It was terrible.”
Dogs were in the mobile home, feces in every room, and there was no running water, so only rain that had collected was available to the dogs, some of which were jumping in and out of windows at the residence. Several dogs were in a “metal structure” in the summer heat and another was on “a runner, and you could see every rib,” Berlin said.
Officials at SPAS were called to come assist and they showed up with vans and medical supplies after Carter got a search warrant from Judge David Lyons.
“The neighbors said, ‘Thank God y’all showed up … nobody cares for these animals,’” Berlin testified. “This is the third time for her. Something has to be done.”
Kittrell blurted out, “How is this the third time?” but had no other questions for the sheriff.
Carter testified to the same conditions, adding that there was no furniture in the trailer and empty food bags all around.
“It was obvious the dogs were not being fed,” he said.
Sims testified that she knew Kittrell through a previous animal rescue group and from working another animal rescue on her property. She said there were 38 dogs “in various states of dehydration and emaciation” on the property that were seized, along with five deceased dogs. One dog was deemed to be in good condition.
Kittrell never showed up at the home during all of the hours that officials were there, Carter said, and they were unable to make contact with her. The leasing company that owned the mobile home was also unable to get in touch with her, he said. Kittrell’s mother, Lori Pearson, told authorities her daughter was in Smith or Simpson County.
Four days after the Aug. 21 seizure of the animals, the mobile home was destroyed by fire. Kittrell was being investigated for arson, Carter said. She was arrested on the animal cruelty warrant the first week of September after being caught at a DUI checkpoint on Sandersville-Sharon Road.
“She told me she hadn’t been (at the mobile home) for two months,” Carter testified. “She said someone else was supposed to be caring for the dogs.”
Rogers told Kittrell she could call witnesses, testify or remain silent. She called her mother as a witness. Pearson said that her daughter’s children — ages 19, 16 and 13 — were supposed to be feeding and caring for the dogs.
“(Kittrell) got food from Tractor Supply and bought pens and sheds for the animals … and she re-homed some of them,” Pearson said.
Kittrell had been staying with her mother after posting $5,000 bond to get out of jail because “she was homeless,” her mother said. She said they went a few months without speaking to each other “but just started talking again four or five months ago.”
The indicted charge showed 39 counts of animal cruelty but that was amended to 38 after Sims’ testimony, Rogers said as he pronounced Kittrell guilty. He pointed out that she could be charged with six months in jail and $1,000 per count — a total of 19 years and $38,000.
“I studied the law hard, and now we have a statute with some teeth,” he said.
Kittrell was also ordered to serve another six-month sentence for a past contempt of court charge in Jones County Justice Court for failing to pay a speeding ticket (96 mph in a 65 mph zone) and a contempt charge for failing to pay. The fines for those total $997.50.
That sentence was to be served consecutively with the one for animal cruelty, meaning Kittrell will have to serve a year behind bars. A year is the maximum sentence allowed in justice court.
In 2017, as a founding member of the now-defunct Animal Rescue Team, Kittrell faced charges of animal neglect and abuse when JCSD deputies took 40 dogs and nearly 20 horses living in poor conditions at multiple properties. Kittrell was charged with 13 counts of failing to provide sustenance to the animals.
Kittrell is also accused of pocketing more than $6,000 that was raised on a GoFundMe page to pay funeral expenses for her half-sister Ashley Pearson, 28, who was killed in June in her home on Powers Drive. Her boyfriend Adam Mills, 28, has been charged with murder in that case.