The owners of a Southwest Florida animal shelter where law enforcement rescued 300 ill-treated animals have been found guilty of multiple animal abuse and fraud charges after an eight-day trial in Bradenton.
Alan Napier was found guilty Wednesday of eight counts of aggravated animal abuse, one count of scheming to defraud and one count of unlawful solicitation. He was found not guilty of two counts of aggravated animal abuse and one count of animal abuse.
His wife, Sheree Napier, was found guilty of eight counts of aggravated animal abuse and one count of scheming to defraud. She was found not guilty of one count of unlawful solicitation, two counts of aggravated animal abuse and one count of animal abuse.
The couple will be sentenced March 27.
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Alan Napier will be held in custody until sentencing, but Sheree Napier will be allowed to remain free on bond for medical reasons. She told the judge that she is already on anti-anxiety medication.
The prosecution said the verdict followed a clear case.
“I think the testimony from the veterinarians, and the description of the animals themselves, and the conditions they were in kind of spoke for itself as far as the animals,” Assistant State Attorney Garrett Franzen said. “I tried to get across, kind of be a voice for the animals since they don’t have a voice.”
Franzen said he was happy with the verdict, and grateful to the jury for its hard work.
“I think we got justice for the animals and justice for all those that donated over the years,” Franzen said.
He said the state would seek prison sentences of a length to be determined followed by probation.
Franzen, along with Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten, were thanked and cheered by dozens of animal welfare community members who packed the courtroom.
Assistant State Attorney Lisa Chittaro, who handled the case before requiring extended medical leave, was back in the courtroom for the verdict.
“Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the raid, and so we have some finality in this case, a sense of release and definitely a sense of justice,” Chittaro said Wednesday.
Outside the courthouse, Chittaro was praised for building the case. Chittaro, the prosecutor who handles all felony cases of animal cruelty and white-collar crime in Manatee County, said the verdict sent the right message to the community.
“It sends a message that if your hurt animals, if you commit fraud, that you will be prosecuted aggressively and you will be brought to justice through the legal system,” Chittaro said.
Sheree Napier was escorted out a side entrance from the courtroom following the ruling. Neither defense attorney made comments to the media.
Nancy Hot Allen with H&H Nursery of Bradenton said she felt wonderful after waiting roughly 10 years for justice.
“Unfortunately, I don't think [Alan Napier] deserves a clean bed in a jail cell. He deserves to be in one of those dog cages just like they did, starving and with dirty food,” Allen said.
Allen and Deborah Bird, president of Florida Dachshund Rescue, and Cheryl Eason, a volunteer with multiple animal rescues, provided evidence that helped trigger the investigation after trespassing onto the Napiers’ animal sanctuary.
“There was three of us that pushed the line of right and wrong by jumping the gate, but we felt that we needed to — nothing else was being done and I would do it again,” Allen said. “Animal services still needs to clean house.”
The jury deliberated less than three hours after closing arguments in the case against the owners and operators of Napier’s Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary, 20010 State Road 64 E., which was raided Feb. 5, 2014, by a coalition led by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
There was also a scheme to defraud, Franzen said during closing arguments.
More than $9,000 was deposited into the Napiers’ for-profit business account during the two years before it closed. More than $60,000 was spent from the operating account on unrelated expenses for the sanctuary, including $330 on RedBox movie rentals.
Since losing its nonprofit status in July 2013, more than $15,000 in donations and contributions were illegally collected by the Napiers.
“Who suffered the most, that was these animals,” Franzen told the jury.
The defense claimed that the state case was based on emotions. Reid reminded the jury that the Napiers live on the sanctuary property.
“They took their personal funds and basically kept the sanctuary afloat,” Reid said. “If you look at it logically, the Napiers are not guilty.”
“The vast majority of those animals would have already been euthanized,” assistant public defender Jennifer Joynt-Sanchez said in closing arguments, with the state quickly objecting that no evidence supported her claim. Dubensky sustained the objection.
All Sheree Napier’s time, energy and money went to save “those creatures,” the defense claimed.
“She did not set up the sanctuary for personal or financial gains. She set up the sanctuary so she could save animals,” Joynt-Sanchez said. “The money went to the animals. There just wasn't enough.”
The prosecution disagreed.
“Both Napiers, Alan and Sheree, are officers of their 501c3 corporation, both clearly involved at every level, and were deceiving the public,” Franzen said. “When people went on that property and saw the conditions of animals, when they didn't have control over who got to see what, these animals that they owned and had custody and control over showed obvious evidence of repeated and excessive infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering.”