A Bamberg man whose puppies were taken earlier this year by an animal shelter volunteer wants the dogs back and someone to be held accountable.
Ernest Murdaugh, who has taken his case to the state Attorney General's Office, says his three pit bull puppies -- Royal, Powder and Chi Chi -- were stolen from his North Street property and that the person who took the dogs should be arrested.
"Right now we are figuring out what possibly can be done," Murdaugh said. He says he is receiving help from the Attorney General’s Office in the matter.
"I want my dignity back. I want my morale back and I want people to know you can't keep beating down the little man. I want my puppies back,” he said.
Murdaugh claims Christina Dennis Ness should be charged with stealing his puppies. Ness is a volunteer with the non-profit Mary Ann Morris Animal Society Safe Haven Puppy Rescue, which is also known as Mama's Animal Shelter.
A warrant was drawn up accusing Ness of larceny/simple larceny of $2,000 or less by the Bamberg Police Department. It was signed by Bamberg County Chief Magistrate Craig Threatt on April 5, according to Bamberg Police Department records.
But Murdaugh and Bamberg Police Chief George Morris contend Threatt withdrew the warrant during an April hearing with Murdaugh, Bamberg Police Department Sgt. Richard Preacher and Ness' attorneys -- husband Adam Ness and father-in-law Richard Ness.
Morris was not present for the hearing but claims Richard Ness argued the warrant should be dropped, citing S.C. law and a past opinion offered by an assistant attorney general in a McCormick County case.
The warrant was thrown out and Christina Ness was not charged.
Murdaugh officially field a complaint with the Attorney General's office on April 26.
According to a Bamberg Police Department incident report and statements provided afterward by Murdaugh, witnesses and Morris, Murdaugh left his North Street residence around 10:30 a.m. Thursday, April 5, to get food for his three puppy pit bulls.
When he returned from running the errand -- he estimates it took 10 minutes -- he noticed the dogs were gone.
One of Murdaugh's neighbors told Bamberg police that a white female had called the dogs out to the road and took them to Mama's Animal Shelter.
The neighbor said the woman asked him to whom the puppies belonged and he said he did not know.
"She then took them off from the yard and all of them had a collar on them," the neighbor said in his statement.
Murdaugh says when he contacted the shelter, he was informed he would not be able to get his dogs back due to their condition and neglect. Shelter officials said the dogs were being treated for worms.
When Murdaugh attempted to retrieve his dogs, he was informed by the shelter that one dog had already been given away and that he would have to pay the veterinarian bills on the two remaining puppies, the police incident report states.
According to the incident report, Sgt. Preacher advised Mama's Director of Operations Ruthie Rish that the animals “have to go back to the owner and she stated OK, if he pays the money.”
Murdaugh said when he offered to pay the dogs' medical expenses, he was informed the shelter's board needed to be consulted. He was later advised that the board had denied his request to allow him to take his dogs, but said he would have to adopt his puppies, according to documents.
Murdaugh said he’d like to know if the dogs were so ill that he could not own the animals, how they could be cured so quickly as to allow one to be adopted out within days.
"Wouldn't it take time for them to get well?" he said.
Murdaugh challenged the allegation the puppies had mange.
"I have papers to prove that my dog was not in such bad shape," he said. "Any dog can get worms. I was about to get them worm pills, but I just figured you don't give puppies worm pills at that age. I thought they would have to wait until about six or seven months."
He said the puppies were about five months old.
Shelter defends actions
Rish defended the actions of Christina Ness and the shelter, noting the staff did not and does not enter onto properties and take dogs.
Rish said the dogs were in the roadway and in immediate danger of being struck by a car. They were very ill and that immediate action needed to be taken to keep them safe, she said.
"They were in horrible condition," she said. "They had demodectic mange and they were full of worms. I have never seen puppies with this many worms before."
Rish also said state law gave Ness the authority to take the dogs as a volunteer with the animal shelter.
The law allows the agent of an animal protection society to render emergency care to a domestic animal that is abandoned, ill, injured or in distress. The agent is not subject to any criminal or civil liability.
Rish said the shelter immediately treated the puppies. A couple of days later, Murdaugh called wanting his puppies back, she said.
"He had no proof of ownership," Rish said. "He had no vet records. He had no pictures. He had no way to clearly prove he was the owner."
Rish said she called the Bamberg Police Department and asked if she was legally required to give the puppies back. She claims she was told that if the dogs were in the condition described, the shelter was not required to give them back.
She said the shelter then proceeded with the adoption process.
One of the dogs was adopted within days of coming to the shelter.
When asked about the five-day hold period normally required by animal shelters before a dog can be adopted out, Rish said normally there is a five-day stray hold but in this case there was relative certainty as to the dog's owner.
Rish said the dogs are not sold but are adopted out.
"That is not selling the dogs," she said. "That is an adoption process and adoption requires home visit checks, vet reference checks, a knowledge of proper dog ownership. We don't sell dogs."
Richard Ness and shelter officials say Christina Ness had the right to take the puppies as a representative of a local animal shelter.
They claim the puppies were in the middle to the road and in danger.
"She did not pick up the dog in anybody's yard," Richard Ness said.
Christina Ness could not be reached for comment.
During the April hearing before Judge Threatt, Ness cited the state law that protects animal shelter workers from liability.
After the warrant was thrown out, Murdaugh filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General's Office. He claimed his constitutional rights were violated because he did not get a chance to speak or present his side of the story.
Both Murdaugh and Morris believe the withdrawal of the warrant was based on political pressure brought upon Threatt by the prominent Ness family. Adam Ness is the grandson of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Bubba Ness.
"She (Ness) got lawyers and I am a nobody to them," Murdaugh said. He believes he has been discriminated against because he is black.
"It also has a lot to do with education. These guys here are lawyers and big-time folks,” Murdaugh said.
"I know race plays a factor too," he said. "It was a white prestigious lady that stole my puppies and she has a right to do it in this city."
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Morris agrees that Murdaugh’s rights have been denied and has also contacted the AG's office.
"I feel that the judge will get more pats on the back and stay in the clique by siding with the Ness family," Morris said in a May 4 letter addressed to state Attorney General's Crime Victim's Ombudsman Lena Grant.
Morris wrote, “It is very hard to walk the streets in a small town and stand up to a prominent family.
"As for the victim, Mr. Murdaugh, I wonder how many people involved will lose sleep over him and his children losing their puppies."
Threatt declined comment on all the allegations.
Richard Ness says the information provided by Murdaugh and Morris about the events is not true.
Ness said when he met Threatt, Morris was not present. He said to his knowledge a warrant was never delivered.
Ness said when he showed Threatt the state law, Threatt determined based on the law and the fact that there was not enough evidence as provided by the Bamberg Police Department to arrest Christina Ness, the warrant was withdrawn.
"Murdaugh was standing in front of me," Ness said. "He did not say anything."
Ness denied that Murdaugh's rights were violated in this case.
"This was a straightforward hearing," Ness said. "He had a due process hearing."
When asked if the warrant was thrown out due to pressure from the Ness family, he said "I don't have any relation with Judge Threatt.”
"He is always more than courteous, but he does his job," Ness said.
Morris also claims that before the April hearing before Threatt, he received a call from state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, warning him to stay away from the case.
"I have no idea," Morris said when asked why Bamberg would call him. "I don't know why he would get involved with it."
Morris claims that’s why he didn’t attend the hearing with his officer.
"I was threatened by a public official," Morris said. "I was not physically afraid to go to the hearing but I was afraid I would make the situation worse. I stayed away to keep from stirring the waters more."
Bamberg said, "I never spoke to Chief Morris about anything. He is saying he spoke to me and that I stated to him to not get involved -- that is not true."
"I never used my position or my name to influence other people and their ability to conduct their duties," Bamberg said.
Attorney General's Office provides opinion
In two May letters to the S.C. Attorney General, Morris said Mama's does not have the authority to come into the City of Bamberg and pick up dogs. That is the responsibility and jurisdiction of the city's animal control officer and the Bamberg Police Department.
He said picking up the dogs violated the city's dog control ordinance and that the city has had a number of complaints -- about four or five -- about Mama's volunteers going into people's yards and getting dogs off chains.
"The shelter makes their own rules to suit them," Morris wrote. "They feel they are doing good, but we are afraid someone is going to get hurt stealing the dogs out of yards."
Mama's denied its people go into yards and steal dogs.
Morris says that the shelter, which is located outside the city limits, receives about $36,000 in funding from the county.
In a July 5 letter, State Attorney General Deputy Director Crime Victim Ombudsman Veronica Kunz told Threatt her office concluded that Murdaugh's constitutional rights have been violated.
She recommended Threatt “should reinstate the warrant, recuse yourself and have this case heard by another judge.”
"It is reasonable for Mr. Murdaugh to expect that his allegation of criminal conduct, which you initially agreed rises to the level of probable cause, to be heard in court for a proper and just disposition," Kunz wrote.
Murdaugh contends the case is a perfect example of him being the victim of the state's "good ole boy” system that African Americans have experienced “in our state throughout his lifetime and through generations before him,” Kunz wrote.
According to Kunz's letter, Threatt withdrew the warrant based on the fact that it had not yet been served, but pointed out that Threatt himself later agreed Murdaugh should have been heard in the matter.
Kunz also claims that Morris “received a call from a legislator. He was warned to stay away from this case. The chief decided not to attend the hearing and sent the investigating officer to handle the matter.”
"We believe you acted inappropriately and bowed to pressure from those in power and did not exercise ethical and judicial standards in this case," wrote Kunz. "We also sense your dedication and service to the people of Bamberg County, and that you sincerely regret the situation in its entirety."
Kunz noted the letter is an opinion and a recommendation with no binding legal force requiring action.
Morris said nothing has been done in the case since.
"Everybody is running and hiding," Morris said. "Nobody will stand up to their responsibility."
Morris believes city officials should take some action to ensure city ordinances are being enforced.
Morris, who is retiring at the end of August, says he’s at a loss at to how to proceed.
"I am ready to throw up my hands and run," he said. "We don't know what we are going to do."
Morris says he has asked Bamberg City Council not to renew Threatt's contract and has also reached out to the S.C. Court Administration in Columbia and was informed the matter needed to be handled on the local level with city officials.
"I understand why the state does not want to get into it," Murdaugh said. "They know it is wrong and they understand this man’s got prestige and he can stop the state from doing it. So maybe I need to go to another state to get lawyers to deal with this state. They really treated me wrong in the courtroom, they treated me wrong now."
The city of Bamberg contracts with Bamberg County for Threatt’s services.
Bamberg Mayor Nancy Foster said the city is standing behind Threatt and just recently renewed his contract.
"The problem was the warrants were never served," Foster said, noting it was Threatt's determination that the case did not have proper standing.
Foster said the fact that someone picked up the dogs and took them to a shelter is concerning. She says she has concerns regardless of whether the dogs were in the street or on someone's property.
"Any animal that is picked up needs to be called into the police department and city hall,” she said. “No other entities are supposed to be picking up animals in the city limits. We try very hard to get them back to their owner. We don't want to see anything happen to them."
Foster said it is her hope that justice will be served in the case, noting however there are “two sides to every story.”
In the interim, Murdaugh says the entire situation has been hard on his family.
"It is kind of hard on us to not be able to get our puppies back and they are saying there is no way we will probably get our puppies back," Murdaugh said. "It has been very stressful. My children loved the puppies."