Pet theft in the 21st century more often involves pit bulls under euthanasia order than laboratory supply
BULLHEAD CITY, Arizona––Rhonda Kathrine Johnson, 51, on the lam with her pit bulls Melony and Ginger, sprung on Thanksgiving 2019 from the animal shelter in Bullhead City, Arizona, is unlikely to make the FBI “Ten Most Wanted List.”
Johnson, however, has rung up an impressive list of alleged felonies for which she might potentially be charged, including allegedly hiring three other people to commit felony burglary and obstruction of justice.
Each of those alleged offenses may be compounded, and may be federally prosecuted, if Johnson has, as suspected, fled interstate into California, just minutes away; Nevada, only slightly farther; or Utah, about three hours north.
Recalls Waterville, Maine case
Johnson meanwhile might temporarily be the most famous––or infamous––alleged dog thief since Danielle Jones and Brandon Ross allegedly fled the Waterville Humane Society in Waterville, Maine, with their pit bulls Bentley and Kole in October 2017.
Like Jones and Ross, Johnson appears to have been trying to save her pit bulls from a euthanasia order.
Also like Jones and Ross, Johnson repeatedly lost in court when the severity of injuries her pit bulls had inflicted and their behavioral history were judicially found to be much worse than the owners represented in social media campaigns on the pit bulls’ behalf.
How pet theft has changed
Topping the notoriety of past perpetrators of similar offenses may, however, be increasingly difficult. Verified thefts of pit bulls from pounds in the name of rescue have become approximately as common as were verified thefts of dogs to sell to biomedical research during the last three decades of the 20th century –– with an asterisk to mention that many dogs sold to laboratories in that era were legally caught “running at large” by unscrupulous for-profit animal control contractors, who often did not make much effort to return them to their owners.
In the moral sense, those dogs were also stolen, but not in a manner that could be criminally prosecuted before the 1990 Pet Theft Act amendments to the federal Animal Welfare Act took effect in 1992.
The events leading up to Johnson’s alleged theft-by-proxy of Melony and Ginger began with the acquisition of the pit bulls, apparently in early 2018, by her son Mathew Quintana, 28, owner of the local Black Bear Diner.
Quintana, who appears to have lived with Melony and Ginger in Johnson’s trailer home, died suddenly and unexpectedly on August 31, 2018.
A Facebook posting from Johnson hinted that Quintana might in some manner have been a casualty of a local prescription opioid epidemic so severe that Bullhead City in June 2019 sued five major pharmaceutical manufacturers for allegedly allowing four local drug stores to sell as many as six million opioid tablets per year, more than were sold in either the greater Phoenix or greater Tucson metropolitan areas.
Whatever the cause of death, Johnson inherited Quintana’s two pit bulls, a mother/daughter pair. Ginger, the mother, was about 19 months old as of January 2019; Melony, the daughter, was about as big as pit bulls traditionally got, before the recent trend toward supersizing, but was still growing.
On January 11, 2019, according to dangerous dog hearing testimony, then-neighbor Dennis C. Peters, 78, walked to his mailbox, retrieved his mail, turned to return to his trailer home, and was attacked from behind by both pit bulls.
One pit bull appears to have seized either arm, pulling Peters to the ground. Blood was visible on the sidewalk afterward.
Suffering from five to seven bites altogether, Peters was hospitalized for some time in Las Vegas. Public records indicate that he resettled after discharge in Riverside County, California.
Johnson testified at the first ensuing dangerous dog hearing, of several related legal proceedings that followed over the next 11 months, that Ginger and Melony might have been agitated because they had recently been “attacked by a skunk.”
Skunks, as small insectivores, are not known to attack anything much bigger than a June bug, but dogs notoriously often attack skunks, pit bulls with particular determination, even when sprayed.
“The dogs didn’t bite him,” claims owner
According to Rhonda Johnson in a Change.org petition addressed to Bullhead City manager Toby Cotter, “The dogs didn’t bite him [Peters] its clearly a watch face and a bruise from the strap indicating a fall. One dog was home the whole time.
“On Jan 11th,” Johnson claimed, “her sons girlfriend was caring for her and the dogs and let the puppy 1 year old outside, When she realized mama dog was inside without puppy she went out to find her. She got out of the gate and jumped on an elderly man with tissue soft skin. The man put his arms up to block his fall causing skins lacerations from his watch on one arm.
“Both arms are bloody and no blood on the dogs. This indicates a fall not bites,” Johnson insisted. “The man was just released from the hospital from a stroke so he still has multiple bruises from IV etc… His skin tears so easy! They are not bites. They took both of the dogs even though one was home the whole time.”
Johnson’s claims were rebutted by dangerous dog hearing testimony.
However, continuing to insist that Ginger and Melony were innocent, Johnson filed multiple appeals, eventually representing herself, and solicited support for her campaign by repeatedly describing how the pit bulls were suffering from being kenneled together at the Bullhead City animal shelter.
The case, as it progressed or more accurately, slowly went nowhere, did demonstrate both the lack of safe alternatives to kenneling dangerous dogs through long legal proceedings, and why dangerous dogs must be kept in secure custody––ideally much more secure than was the Bullhead animal shelter.
Facebook postings from Johnson meanwhile indicate that Peters sued for damages, but may have dropped the case, perhaps because of the expense of pursuing it.
Surveillance camera documented break-in
On Thanksgiving morning, 2019, surveillance video at the Bullhead City animal shelter caught two men and a woman in the act of breaking into the animal shelter, taking Ginger and Melony, and absconding.
“Detectives received several tips regarding the incident,” posted the Bullhead City Police Department to Facebook the following evening, “which led police to a residence in Fort Mohave,” where “suspects Amber Dawn Tourney, 36, and her boyfriend Travis Wade Ramey, 20, were both taken into custody. Tourney had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for interfering with judicial proceedings per domestic violence and Ramey was in possession of drug paraphernalia.
“After further investigation and interviews, police determined they were involved in the shelter break-in. They were arrested for felony burglary and booked into the Mohave County Jail in Kingman.
Rhonda Johnson remains at large
“Detectives also learned that the dogs’ owner, Rhonda Kathrine Johnson, 51, had reportedly paid them to break into the shelter. Police have attempted to locate Rhonda Johnson since her dogs were stolen. However, she has not been located. Charges against Johnson are pending. Police believe Johnson is in possession of her two dogs. The dogs were court-ordered by a judge to be surrendered to Animal Care & Welfare due to their aggressive behavior and a serious injury dog attack earlier this year.”
There the case stands, pending the identification and arrest of the third alleged burglar, apprehension of Melony and Ginger, and/or the arrest of Johnson herself.
No new developments in Maine case
There appear to have been no new developments reported pertaining to the charges pending against Danielle Jones and Brandon Ross in the year since they made their third attempt to suppress evidence against them obtained “through four separate search warrants,” summarized Kennebec Journal staff writer Betty Adams on December 3, 2018.
“The warrants sought to search the defendants’ residence, business and person for cellphones and other electronic devices, plus information from Verizon and Facebook regarding those devices. The results of those search warrants were impounded by court order,” Adams wrote.
Jones and Ross were charged with failing to comply with a court order.
Shelter director resigned
Bentley and Kole, the pit bulls in question, were last seen when former Humane Society Waterville Area executive director Lisa Smith on October 24, 2017 allowed Jones to walk them, just minutes after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld a Kennebec District Court order that the pit bulls, named Bentley and Kole, should be euthanized for repeatedly injuring humans and other dogs.
Bentley and Kole had twice injured other dogs, in separate incidents. Bentley and Kole in August 2016 killed a Boston terrier, Fergie Rose, who belonged to Sharron Carey, 60; seriously injured Carey; and bit both Jones and Ross.
Lisa Smith resigned as Humane Society Waterville Area executive director two days later. The organization, which provides shelter services to 24 Maine communities, was already in crisis due to a feline distemper outbreak, and in August 2018 announced that it was within three months of running out of money. Lisa Oakes, however, a former board member who succeeded Smith as executive director, announced that a fundraising drive to save the shelter had raised enough to avert the threat.
Before the 1990 Pet Theft Act
Thefts of impounded dogs from animal shelters to save them from euthanasia were exceedingly rare in the two decades before the passage of the 1990 Pet Theft Act, which required dealers who sold “random source” animals to laboratories to maintain a paper trail documenting the animals’ origin.
ANIMALS 24-7 during the 13 years preceding implementation of the 1990 Pet Theft Act collected particulars of 349 dog thefts in which the alleged thieves and their motives could be identified.
Of those thefts, 267 dogs (77%) were stolen for sale to laboratories or dealers who supplied laboratories. Only seven (3%) were stolen to save the dogs from euthanasia.
The remaining 75 were stolen for a variety of other reasons, including resale of purebred puppies, use of dogs by dogfighters, and in connection with individual acts of cruelty.
Balance of the 20th century
After the Pet Theft Action came into effect in 1992, ANIMALS 24-7 logged the particulars of 412 dog thefts through 2000, including 77 thefts for sale to laboratories or laboratory suppliers (19%) and 69 thefts in the name of rescue (17%).
The time frame from 1992 to 2000 also coincides with the rise of both no-kill advocacy and pit bull advocacy, and with increasingly frequent “rescuer” thefts of dogs left chronically tethered.
The data kept by ANIMALS 24-7 during this time frame––or the surviving data, anyhow––unfortunately does not distinguish thefts from shelters, or thefts of pit bulls, from other thefts in the name of rescue.
21st century: pit bull theft explodes
From 2001 to present, ANIMALS 24-7 has logged 567 dog thefts, representing a 36% decline in thefts per year from the last 22 years of the 20th century through the first 19 years of the 21st century. Thefts for sale to laboratories and dealers supplying laboratories, while still occasionally occurring, have dropped to less than 1% of the total.
Thefts of pit bulls however, for all motives combined, have increased from approximately 10% of all dog thefts in the 20th century, to 47% in the 2001-2013 time frame, and 57% in 2014-2019.
Of the pit bull thefts, 28% have explicitly been of pit bulls from animal shelters.