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Plea bargain deal made in horse starvation case

Sentencing stirs frustration for Trout Lake residents



In an agreement reached in Superior Court on Oct. 4, Teri D. Cooley and the Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney's Office agreed to a plea bargain in a case that led to the death of nine horses in Trout Lake in February.

Cooley, a Trout Lake resident, was charged with 11 felony counts of animal abuse in February after eight horses on her property were found starved to death. A ninth horse had to be euthanized later, and two surviving animals were placed under protective care.

Cooley pleaded guilty to one count of animal cruelty in the first degree, a Class C felony, and three counts of animal cruelty in the second degree, gross misdemeanors.

The plea means there will be no trial by a jury in the case.

According to the Superior Court clerk, Cooley, 39, was sentenced as follows:

Cooley was sentenced to 60 days in jail, but with 46 of those days converted to service on a Department of Corrections work crew in the county. Cooley is to serve two weeks behind bars;

24 months of probation;

Court costs and fines in the amount of $2,528.90, with restitution amount yet to be determined. (Restitution would be provided to law enforcement or public or private entities that helped with the care or removal of the horses);

Cooley was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation from a state certified agency and follow all recommended treatment.

Cooley was also ordered not to own, care for, or have contact with animals for a period of two years. The two surviving horses will not be returned to her.

"Overall, it is a fair deal," said Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill. "The bottom line is, you never know how a jury trial will turn out. Here, she's being punished. She's serving time. If she violates her terms, we haul her back in and she can be imprisoned as a result of that, and we will watch her closely. Financially, she'll be hit very hard, extremely hard."

O'Neill pointed out that Cooley will have to pay the cost of the investigation.

"That alone is many thousands of dollars, and Cooley will also have to pay vet bills and the cost of euthanasia for one of the horses, along with other expenses," O'Neill said. "The cost of this case will be great. And the criminal judgments will be with her for 10 years."

Citizens who were heartsick about the way the horses died were angry after hearing details of Cooley's sentence.

"This is the biggest travesty against justice I've ever seen. I can't believe it. I refuse to believe it," said George Hinderliter, a Trout Lake resident. "To leave those horses out to die in the conditions they perished in, it's the most horrendous act against a living creature I can think of."

Trout Lake resident Steve Koenig, who was bitterly opposed to a plea bargain in the case, sat in on Monday's court session in Goldendale.

"I heard that the judge had the right to question the charges, but he didn't. It was just like it was a formality," Koenig said. "This is our worst fears realized for the community and the citizens of Klickitat County, in my opinion. She [Cooley] basically walked out of there, and no public comment was allowed. It was over in about 10 minutes, just like it was no big deal."

O'Neill defended the decision to agree to a plea bargain.

"I can understand why people looked at this very emotionally. But with a trial, would we have gotten more?" O'Neill questioned. "I wish we had tougher statutes for animal cruelty in the first degree. They generally don't give you a lot of teeth."

According to the Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Class C felonies are punishable by incarceration for up to five years and a $10,000 fine, although the crime generally results in no more than one year of confinement.

On Feb. 17, Cooley had entered a "not guilty" plea to the charges in Superior Court. The case was expected to go to a jury trail on May 5, but was delayed several times.

Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace said he was not advised there was going to be a settlement in the case.

"We weren't told of any plea agreement or out of court settlement in regard to this case," Mace said. "Our staff was prepared to go to court. Our deputies put a lot of time into it."

Koenig pointed out that Dr. Michael Foss did a "tremendous amount" of veterinary work to care for the surviving animals, and saw first-hand what had happened to them.

"He was ready to testify, but never got a chance," Koenig said.

According to Koenig, when Cooley came out of the courthouse, she was escorted by deputies from the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office.

Cooley's attorney, Rick Hansen of Goldendale, said he was satisfied with the way the case was handled.

"I think it's a fair agreement for both sides," Hansen said.

Hansen added that some controversy regarding the sentencing was almost inevitable.

"Given the hoopla the case caused, it doesn't surprise me," Hansen explained.

Hansen added that Cooley will begin her 14 days in jail on Monday, Oct. 11. She will serve her sentence in the Klickitat County Jail in Goldendale.

In an Oct. 4 press release, O'Neill's office issued the following statement: "Our office thanks the efforts of the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, the Health Department, and the citizens of Klickitat County for their efforts in this matter."

Hinderliter said there would be repercussions from the county's acceptance of a plea bargain in this case.

"O'Neill is coming up for re-election in a couple years, and we need to find a new prosecutor," Hinderliter said. "He's dropping the ball. What kind of respect can the law have with sentences handed down like this? It's just appalling."

The judge overseeing the case was visiting Superior Court Judge J.P. Hutton of Yakima.



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