Case still in legal limbo
Retired U.S. Army Col. Dave Senne said he was guilty as charged.
He was ticketed many years go for speeding in the Mississippi Delta in a Ford F-350 pickup on his way home from Memphis. He paid his fine and continued a life of service that began during the most tumultuous days of the Vietnam War.
Until July 16, 2018, the speeding ticket was the only blemish on his criminal record. On that day, though, he and his wife of 49 years were handcuffed and taken by two deputies and a lieutenant to the Jones County Adult Detention Center. The former director of the Pine Belt Regional Airport, respected professor at Southern Miss and head of the USM ROTC program was strip-searched, then paraded in front of television cameras in jail stripes for a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge.
His arrest came five days following a raid launched by the Jones County Sheriff’s Department and local and national animal rescue organizations .
“Besides war, it was the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” Col. Senne said in a brief interview in June.
And Senne should know.
While he is hesitant to talk about his service, his wife Mary Ellen, who also faced animal cruelty charges in a case that is still tangled up in the court system, knows those scars — both physical and mental.
“When Lt. (David) Ward knocked on the door that morning, Mr. Dave started pacing,” Mary Ellen said. “David kept saying to Lt. Ward, ‘Where is your search warrant, where is your search warrant?’ (Ward) said, ‘We don’t have it yet but it is coming.’ David (Senne) began the pacing around like he was back in Vietnam.
“He said, ‘They told me in Vietnam help was coming. So how do I know the search warrant is coming?”
“He was having a flashback to Vietnam,” Mary Ellen recalled.
“During his first tour in Vietnam, his group was pretty shot up,” she continued, “The medic was dying — the one who was supposed to help. (David) was only 19 — a first lieutenant — and he got the radioman in his arms and was able to bring him to the shade of some trees. The radioman died in his arms.”
He returned home from Vietnam before completing a second tour in Vietnam. It was there where he was injured and earned the Purple Heart for valor, one of myriad decorations he received in his military career.
Decades after that war ended, another military-tale raid was unfolding on his Lyon Ranch Road property.
Before leaving the house boat where the couple lived to go to the pool house, where they would be under the watchful eye of a deputy, she said she and Ward walked from the front of the boat.
“There was a woman from HSUA or whatever it is — a brunette lady with a white shirt with a patch — and (Ward) said to her, ‘Are you sure? Do we really want to do this to them?’
“And all she said was — and I occasionally swear myself — ‘G-- damnit, you didn’t get us all the way down here (for nothing). We are going to see some results.’”
About 12 hours later, law enforcement and rescue organizations left the property with 89 dogs and cats loaded onto trailers and eventually flown to Virginia.
One year later
Now, exactly one year after the raid that has been dubbed “The Misdemeanor of the Century,” the case is still in legal limbo, while Col. Senne continues to suffer from the mental scars of those days one year ago, his wife said.
The criminal case on animal cruelty charges — which included language of “torture” — was first set to be heard in August 2018. But it was delayed when J. Ronald Parrish, attorney for the Sennes, filed suit against Sheriff Alex Hodge and the Humane Society of the United States seeking the return of five house pets that officials promised wouldn’t be scooped up in the raid, but were taken anyway.
In court papers and in a video, references to the five house pets (in the video, a representative of the HSUS continually says four) that were not be included in the seizure of more than 80 dogs and cats living in the Sennes’ care.
Southern Cross Animal Rescue in mid-May 2018 visited the property and, according to court documents, were “horrified” at the conditions the animals were living in. Many of those animals were formerly housed at SCAR.
Nearly nine weeks later, SCAR signed affidavits attesting to the conditions they reported. The affidavits came two days before the raid was launched.
The case is moving slowly through Jones County Circuit Court, with Judge Dal Williamson asking for an Attorney General’s opinion as to the legality of the search and seizure at the Sennes’ property that day.
Once a resolution is reached in that civil case, it is likely the criminal case will proceed. The civil case has been ongoing since last August, though, and there’s no timetable on when a decision will be made.
The Sennes continue to live a quiet life. Mary Ellen has said she has woken up looking for her husband only to find him wandering the property with a flashlight looking for the animals.
He spends his days now mostly inside, with an occasional trip to a store in Ellisville. He also is in charge of feeding the animals that were not seized during the raid.
There are three of them — Scat Cat, Caboose Kitty and Rafter Cat. When authorities swooped in, those feral cats did what they always do — took off and hid. Scat Cat lives under the train station on the property that contained about 500 pounds of dry dog food, cases of specially formulated canned food and boxes upon boxes of Milkbone treats. Caboose Kitty hangs around at the real caboose next to the train station.
Once per day, Col. Senne will drive to the train station to pour some dry food. Occasionally, he will see a pair of eyes staring back at him. Trying to get close is a fool’s errand. The feral cats are too fast, he said.
The colonel will then go back home and walk past the bag he has packed in anticipation of the JCSD coming for him again — this time to take him away to jail for a long time — and watch old comedy shows on TV.
“As much as this has affected me,” Mary Ellen said, “it has been much worse on him.”
Mary Ellen continues to run a rental-house business and said she still tries to understand the happenings of that day one year ago.
“This was a perfect storm that involved a toxic mix of people who were seeking fame and fortune in a very destructive and cruel way,” Mary Ellen said. “That is all I can make out of this. It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night.
“Shame on all of them for thinking that is the way you become a winner. That is not the way you become a winner.”