Counties differ on animal abusers

WINNSBORO  – A man convicted of setting a dog on fire is serving a five-year prison sentence, the maximum allowed under state law.

Another man who dragged a dog with a truck more than a mile didn’t spend one day in prison.

So what makes these cases different?

One was prosecuted in Richland County; the other in Fairfield County.

Hykeem Dontavious Jabar Golson, 23, of Columbia, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000 after a Richland County jury convicted him in December 2017 of one count of felony ill treatment of animals, according to Richland County court records.

Golson is one of only two South Carolina defendants to receive the maximum sentence, according to media reports.

Billy Ray Huskey, 51, of Great Falls, pleaded guilty in July 2016 to dragging a nine-month-old dog with his Dodge Ram pickup truck in Fairfield County.

Two other dogs were later found emaciated and had to be euthanized.

Huskey had been charged with ill treatment of animals, torture – also a felony.

But instead of going to prison, Huskey was allowed to plead to the misdemeanor charge of ill treatment of animals and sentenced to 90 days in prison, suspended to three years of probation.

Richland throws book at abusers

The disparity between the Richland and Fairfield cases is representative of how both counties traditionally handle animal abuse cases.

A recent investigation by The Voice found that of 14 ill treatment of animals cases prosecuted since 2016 in the 6th Judicial Circuit, which includes Fairfield County, very few resulted in actual jail time.

Often times, defendants either received probation or the cases were nolle prossed, meaning the cases weren’t prosecuted.

Richland County, however, has quickly developed a reputation for a no-nonsense approach to animal cruelty.

“Our pets need to be properly cared for and treated with love because they are a part of our families,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lett said in a news release announcing Golson’s arrest.

A lot of Richland County’s assertiveness appears to be in allocating resources to combat animal cruelty.

In 2015, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office founded an animal cruelty task force.

That year, its founder, senior investigator Holly Wagner, also investigated at least four dog fighting rings, according to a sheriff’s office news release, landing her honors from the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Humane Society of the United States.

Judicial discretion

Often times, how defendants are prosecuted hinges on the presiding judge, a point raised during a recent Winnsboro Town Council meeting.

In June, Police Chief John Seibles told council members that officers have charged several people with cruelty to animals, with some facing felony counts.

Penalties, however, are set “at the discretion of the court,” Seibles said. Katera Alexander, however, was arrested by a police officer in Seibles jurisdiction and charged with only a misdemeanor after it was discovered that she had tied a pit bull to her porch and starved it to the point that it had to be euthanized by the County’s Animal Control. Seibles’ comments were part of a larger discussion council members were having about proposed revisions to the Fairfield County animal control laws.

While some Winnsboro town leaders were reluctant to follow the county’s lead, others were open to tougher penalties in more severe cases.

Councilman Clyde Sanders, for example, said he thinks the town should mirror the county’s $500 fine for cruelty cases.

“I can’t stand seeing dogs chained in the yard without anything to eat,” Sanders said. “If we catch someone doing that, the fine ought to be high enough to prevent them from doing it again.”

In the Huskey case, Assistant Sixth Circuit Solicitor Melissa Heimbaugh, who prosecuted, told the Court she thought the state would not win a felony case with the available evidence.

The presiding judge grudgingly agreed.

“The State (solicitor) is right, they would have had a high burden to prove your guilt,” Gibbons said. “We have no evidence of intent, so I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, which I have to do under the law.”

Huskey faced up to five years in prison, but escaped prison by pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge. He was also ordered to perform 30 hours of community service and banned from owning a dog.

“I want to sentence you to the maximum jail time that I can under the guidelines,” Gibbons said. “I’m going to give you not two years of probation but three.”

Lax laws

Prosecutorial leniency is one reason most Fairfield defendants have escaped accountability in animal abuse cases, but not the only reason.

One S.C. House member says South Carolina lags when it comes to meaningful protections for pets.

“The laws need to be strengthened,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken. “It’s common knowledge that people who torture and abuse other animals are one step away from torturing or harming human beings.”

In 2014, Taylor introduced a bill that would’ve toughened penalties for animal abusers, making most cases felonies. The measure, however, failed to gain traction.

That year, though the General Assembly did revise animal abuse laws that cases are now heard in general sessions court versus magistrate or municipal court, where penalties tend to be lighter.

But it’s not enough, Taylor says.

“There’s a myriad of bills filed every session about this,” he said. “Very few of them ever get passed.”

As recently as February, the S.C. Senate introduced a bill, which among other things, tightened anti-tethering laws. The Senate passed the bill, but it died in the House.

Penalties for violating the tethering law would’ve included up to 90 days in prison and a $1,000 fine.

The law also required magistrates to receive animal cruelty training and improving shelter standards, but the anti-tethering provisions drew opposition.

“Serial killers over the years tortured animals at some point,” Taylor said. “These are serious crimes that can lead to other crimes, we need to be serious about this.”


  1. Sandra singer says

    This is deplorable.

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