Animal Services’ Humane Law Enforcement Team Working to ID Cat Shooters

Two county departments, a state agency and six local nonprofits are on the hunt for those responsible for the shootings of 10 domestic cats—five fatal—since April.

The Loudoun County Department of Animal Services Dec. 2 reported the latest shooting, of a cat named Sweetie, who was euthanized because of his “catastrophic injuries” inflicted by a pellet gun.

In May, an Ashburn cat named Hope was shot in the back right leg with a pellet gun, suffering a shattered femur and requiring a more-than-$5,000 surgery to remove the bullet and reconstruct the bone.

Another shooting left a cat named Mr. Binkzy paralyzed. His owners now have to manually express his bladder at least three times daily, keep him on medications and take him to see the feline neurologist. Because Mr. Binkzy can’t walk, his owners push him around in a stroller.

Other cats were even less fortunate than Hope and Mr. Binkzy.

Those shootings have occurred predominantly in eastern Loudoun. There, six cats have been shot. Humane Law Enforcement Chief Chris Brosan said a few of those shootings occurred within a quarter mile of each other.

Another cat was shot near Hamilton and three more were found dead in a bag with clean gunshot wounds through their bodies in the parking lot of the McKimmey Boat Ramp along the Potomac River under the Point of Rocks Bridge in late September.

Brosan said there has been an uptick in shootings in the past six weeks.

Animal Services has stepped up its efforts to bring the perpetrators of those shootings to justice. Brosan said his 11-member Humane Law Enforcement team is running down different leads, patrolling the areas where the cats have been shot and knocking on doors to obtain information and raise awareness of the problem. He said the department has received a significant number of calls and social media posts with tips as to who might be perpetrating the shootings, with an influx of tips coming in recent days.

“People are actually seeing the stories, seeing some of the flyers that have been posted … and they are calling us,” he said.

Animal Services Community Relations Manager Talia Czapski said many community members also have come forward to help hang flyers. Aside from the department’s usual 30 volunteers, Czapski said another 30-40 new volunteers have come forward to raise awareness of the crimes.

An $8,000 reward is being offered for tips leading to the arrest of the those responsible for one or more of the feline shootings.

That reward will be paid through donations from individuals, Friends of Loudoun County Animal Services, the Loudoun Community Cat Coalition, the Humane Society of Loudoun County, 4Paws Rescue Team, PetConnect Rescue, and Friends of Homeless Animals.

The Humane Law Enforcement team isn’t handling the investigations on its own. Team members are also consulting with the Sheriff’s Office to process evidence and cross reference cases, such as when residents report hearing gun shots fired to the Sheriff’s Office. It’s also using K9 units from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Under Virginia law, any person suspected of cruelly and unnecessarily beating, maiming or mutilating any dog or cat that is a companion animal—and as a direct result causes serious bodily injury or death, even via euthanasia, to the dog or cat—can be charged with a Class 6 felony, punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

As for determining who Animal Services will eventually slap with those felony charges, its team is considering multiple factors.

The spree of shootings began about a month into COVID-19-related closures, meaning thousands of residents have been working from home since then. Thousands of children have been going to school from home since then, too. Pellet guns, which kids can get their hands on more readily than real guns, have also been used in many of the shootings, which is why Animal Services is considering the possibility that juveniles may have committed some of the shootings.

But Brosan said his team has no definitive evidence to suggest that yet. He said that if they do charge a juvenile with one or more Class 6 felonies, they would work with juvenile intake and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to determine the appropriate way forward. Under Virginia law, a suspect as young as 14 year old may be tried as adult if they are charged with a felony.

Brosan also noted that many people, regardless of age, might be getting frustrated or angry in their personal lives while being stuck at home amid the pandemic, which could be leading to some of the shootings.

“At the end of the day, we are looking to bring whoever this is to justice,” Brosan said. “This is a felony. This is no laughing matter. … We will move forward with prosecution to the fullest extent.”

Overall, Brosan said the Humane Law Enforcement team is treating each shooting as an independent situation, and not as a serial-shooting scenario.

He emphasized that the shootings aren’t just concerning in terms of animal welfare, but they’re also public safety risks because most are happening in heavily populated areas.

Brosan said the shootings also are concerning because they could lead to future crimes that could hurt or kill people. Brosan noted that animal abuse has often been connected to domestic and child abuse.

He backed that correlation by pointing to the case of Michael Bowles, the Lucketts-area man who was sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences for the first-degree murder of his father after he shot his dad with a sawed-off shotgun and then burned down his parents’ home in July 2017. Less than three years prior to that incident, Bowles was charged with cruelty to animals for slitting his dog’s throat. He was convicted of that charge in 2015.

In addition to the recent feline shootings, Animal Services, along with the Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Police, investigated the posting of videos and photographs portraying “graphic and disturbing acts of animal torture on Instagram.” In that case, the individual posting the videos demanded viewers send money to prevent future acts of cruelty. 

The IP addresses associated with the videos indicated that the incidents occurred in and around Ashburn, although the investigation later determined, through search warrants on Facebook and Instagram, that the videos had originated in the Middle East.

Brosan said his team visited every Ashburn address associated with the posts and found them all to be fraudulent.

“Unfortunately, with all of the data centers in Ashburn these types of situation are becoming more common place,” he said. “A lot of the videos that were posted were duplicates in a number of complaints, so we believe the individual is just pulling them off the dark web and then posting them.”

Those who have seen or heard of anyone shooting cats should call Animal Services at 703-777-0406. Those calling may remain anonymous.

X-rays of cats’ injuries show devastating injuries inflicted by pellet-gun wounds. [LCAS]

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