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Pair must repay BTAA for dogs' care

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | August 6, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — A pair sentenced in the abandonment of more than 31 husky-type dogs must repay a local animal welfare organization for the cost of their care and medical treatment.

Also at the hearing, Magistrate Judge Tera Harden denied a motion by Jacob M. McCowan, 45, asking the court to reconsider his sentence.

Before ruling on the sentence request, Harden ruled at the Wednesday restitution hearing that McCowan and wife Jessica L. Smurthwaite, 31, must repay Better Together Animal Alliance the full amount of the cost to care for the dogs — $20,873 — after the animals were found in poor health throughout the region in the dead of winter.

McCowan and Smurthwaite had asked the court to allow them to only pay for the care of the dogs included in their plea deals.

Deputy prosecuting attorney Daniel L. Rodriguez asked Harden to order the pair to pay the full amount.

"Given the unique nature of the case, the community’s response, and the fact that BTAA is a non-profit which relies very heavily on donations, [I argued] they should repay the entire amount to make BTAA whole," Rodriguez told the Daily Bee. "The judge agreed and ordered the entire $20,873."

The pair were charged in January 2023 with abandoning 31 dogs in southwestern Bonner County, parts of Kootenai County, and Pend Oreille County, Wash. Plea agreements were later reached with both parties in the case, dropping the number of charges against McCowan to 10 and the number of charges against Smurthwaite to two since the extent of her involvement could not be determined.

McCowan was sentenced to 750 days — just over two years — in jail with up to 180 days per count possible — just under five years — if he fails to stay out of trouble. He was also sentenced to six years of supervised probation, a $5,000 fine, and was barred from owning any animal or being in one's presence while on probation.

Smurthwaite was sentenced to 50 days in jail, three years of supervised probation, and barred from owning or being in the presence of any animal during that time. She also faces the potential for up to 180 days per count if she fails to stay out of trouble.

The dogs cared for by the shelter and a team of volunteers and community members were in poor health and faced significant medical issues — and will likely do so for some time, Mandy Evans, BTAA executive director, testified at the pair's June 30 sentencing hearing.

The dogs showed a range of health and behavioral issues, including chronic gastrointestinal issues due to parasitic infestation and bacterial infection. All were malnourished, underweight, and undersocialized to the point of being considered feral, Evans said.

Some of the dogs required advanced treatment for life-threatening conditions, including a dog pregnant with non-viable puppies, another with a uterine infection, and another with advanced glaucoma where one of the eyes had ulcerated due to the pressure and the other eye was about to rupture.

"In my nearly 13-year tenure as BTAA’s executive director, I have never experienced a case of this magnitude and impact," Evans said at the June hearing.

Harden also rejected a request by McCowan to reconsider a sentence, despite his lawyer explaining that several items in a letter submitted to the court regarding the case had been written by him and not McCowan.

Since Rodriguez used several of the comments at sentencing, defense attorney Peter E. Cook asked to clarify the issue and reduce McCowan's sentence. However, Rodriguez told the court the main issues were McCowan's failure to pay child support or his debts.

"I argued that what mattered was that defendant doesn’t pay his obligations, not whatever wording was used in the letter," Rodriguez said.

Harden agreed with the deputy prosecutor and denied the motion under Idaho Rules of Court, Rule 35.

A Rule 35 motion allows a defendant to argue for a lesser sentence after it has been handed down by a judge. Rule 35 motions typically end in one of two ways: the defense can argue for a lesser sentence on the grounds that the conviction is "excessive or too harsh," or the sentencing can be corrected if it is found to be illegal.