February 2019 marks the sixth anniversary of “The Goose Creek 45.” We celebrate 45 dog survivors and honor 200+ deceased dogs who perished due to cruelty and neglect as a part of the largest documented case of animal cruelty in the history of South Carolina. When the news broke of this tragedy and the amazing rescue in February 2013, South Carolina was shocked to see the images of the suffering, emaciated and wounded survivors and to hear of the hundreds of dog remains found at the property’s crime scene.
The rescue and cruelty case was a result of a long term investigation by Valiant Animal Rescue & Relief (VARR). Valiant, a nonprofit 501c(3) run by local animal forensics expert Michelle Reid, works to stop animal cruelty at the source by consulting on and often managing difficult cases of animal abuse and neglect throughout the Carolinas. Michelle has extensive training, certifications and experience that make her a highly sought after and invaluable resource to law enforcement agencies. Her broad range of expertise including collecting and processing animal evidence, forensics photography, and preparing abuse cases for trial would come in handy for this case, where Reid would have to play each one of those roles. Because the offender’s property was located in Goose Creek, Reid worked hand-in-hand with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s office.
The 45 hound dogs that were removed from the property were found living in some of the most deplorable conditions imaginable, including in filthy and mangled cages with feces build up, rat infestation, and surrounded by carcasses in various stages of decomposition. Dogs were in cramped conditions with little to no protection from the elements and many cages were covered with tarps and provided little to no air flow to the desperate dogs inside. This was made worse by the fact that some animals were so starved that they literally tried to eat themselves out of their confinements.
WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW
Assessing a crime of scene of this magnitude is never easy, but Reid thankfully has the ability to deploy a team of veterinarians, animal behaviorists and other professionals that regularly work in tandem with her on large cases and particularly when animals are being seized. The team on this particular rainy and gloomy day in February spent countless hours onsite at the property triaging and medically evaluating each animal, as well as properly documenting them as evidence for later use in court.
Many of the 45 hounds that were removed that day would go to emergency care where they would be treated prior to extensive rehabilitation. Some of the hounds suffered from trauma, many were emaciated, and all were treated for a range of conditions including dehydration, open wounds, ear mites, mange, internal parasites, rat bites, tick borne diseases, and even neurological issues. Reid and her veterinarians continued to monitor and document the health and recovery of the hounds over a three month period.
While 45 hound dogs were successfully removed, the remains of hundreds more were found scattered around the property on that day. These remains were collected by Reid and her team and to this day continue to be under their chain of custody. More than 141 canine skulls, 9 full canine carcasses, 1 cat skull, 1 deer skull, and a substantial number of other remains were collected and processed. Reid found troubling signs of trauma, gunshot wounds, and healed fractures during her inspection of the bones, and she sent some remains off to D.N.A. laboratories to be further analyzed as well as to one of the nation’s foremost forensic scientists. The analysis by Reid and her colleagues would later be packaged for court and become instrumental during the case.
Soon, word of the cruelty case spread throughout the nation and was watched closely by animal advocates. During trial, people from all over the Lowcountry showed up inside and outside of court with an outpouring of support to express their hope for justice.
The offender, Loney Garrett, was charged with 43 felony counts of animal cruelty and plead to 10 counts. Though the case was delayed for trial by almost a year, the dogs finally had their day and found justice on January 7, 2015 – the day of the sentencing hearing.
Garrett was sentenced to 5 years in prison suspended to 2 years, 5 years of probation, and a no-animal order – a historic sentencing in South Carolina for a historic animal crime.
The case shined a light on the dire needs for stronger animal welfare legislation and more stringent enforcement of existing animal cruelty laws in South Carolina. The case also set a legal and forensic precedent in the state and became a model for other states as it captured worldwide attention.