Abuse Charges Collapse In Court

Ruidoso Malinois Wins Civil Suit Against Local Law Enforcement And Four Other Defendants

Below please find an article published in the Ruidoso News as well as the full Civil Complaint filed with the 3rd Judicial District Court Dona Ana County, New Mexico.

Abuse Charges Against K9 Breeder Collapse In Court
Ruidoso News, Ruidoso NM

Dave Tomlin
June 23, 2016

A local breeder and trainer of security dogs whose business was shattered by charges of animal cruelty and neglect nearly five years ago has won court victories against all her accusers and appears poised at last to get her kennel, Ruidoso Malinois, fully back on track.

"This was a travesty," said attorney Freda McSwane, who won dismissals of a long list of criminal charges against kennel owner Irene Howcroft and then successfully sued Capitan Police Chief Randy Spear and several other defendants, claiming they made false abuse allegations that quickly went global.

"She has been through hell," said Aaron T. Jones, CEO of International Protective Services in Albuquerque, one of the few customers who stood by Howcroft while the rest of the K-9 security industry shunned and blacklisted her after word of the accusations hit the internet.

Jones called the criminal case against Howcroft "shoddy" and dismissed the animal advocates who helped spread the accusations as "bleeding hearts" eager to condemn any account of abuse whether true or false. He said he was personally familiar with Ruidoso Malinois at the time and considered its facilities "fantastic," then and now.

But the impact of the headlines was devastating, and the timing in November of 2011 couldn't have been worse for Howcroft.

Ruidoso Malinois was preparing at that moment to fulfill a contract with the New Mexico Department of Corrections under which Howcroft was to sell up to 160 Belgian Malinois dogs for shipment to police agencies in Mexico in a deal brokered with help from the U.S. Department of State.

The breed is widely admired for its performance in a variety of police and security tasks including drug and explosive detection, tracking, and stopping intruders. Brazil and other countries were following the Mexico sale closely in hopes of buying dogs of their own. Defense officials in Jordan and Kuwait were planning purchases too, Howcroft testified recently at a judgment hearing on her civil defamation suit.

Ruidoso Malinois was also in talks with Jones aimed at establishing a K-9 division at IPS which would include a new and larger breeding and training facility closer to Albuquerque. The plan was to pursue contracts worldwide on an even grander scale. A number of smaller deals were also pending.

"I fully expected to make a minimum of $2 million in contracts and canine sales in 2012," Howcroft told the court in the judgment hearing in April.

Deputy Warden Clarence Olivas of the state Corrections Department, who was part of the group that was dealing with Howcroft, confirmed the international opportunity she described and its disappearance after the charges of animal cruelty were filed.

When the news broke in November 2011 that Spear had searched Ruidoso Malinois west of Capitan, temporarily seized 44 dogs and accused Howcroft of failing to feed or protect them from giardia and coccydia, two common kennel diseases, all Howcroft's deals fell apart.

"They were crushed," Howcroft testified. "The plans were crushed. My dogs were seized."

Even Jones, who continued to buy dogs from Howcroft for use with IPS's own security clients, was forced to abandon any thought of trying to set up a new business selling Howcroft's dogs directly to police and security agencies.

"All these other dog places would have made it miserable for us, because they basically blacklisted her," he said.

McSwane described the impact on Howcroft's reputation in even starker terms.

"She was like the plague," her attorney said.

Howcroft's income sank to almost nothing in 2012 and the years immediately afterward. She says she borrowed from friends to buy groceries and keep up mortgage payments on her property and began the fight for her professional life that she appears finally to be winning.

She testified in April that in the first three months of this year her sales far exceeded total sales in any full year since 2011. But the victory has been hard won. Howcroft says how and why it all began remains something of a puzzle to her.

When Spear first searched Ruidoso Malinois on Nov. 16, 2011, and leveled the charges against her, she wasn't even in Lincoln County. She was conducting a two-month program at the Department of Corrections as part of the opening stages of the big sale of dogs to Mexico.

A woman named Julie Bentley was supposed to be managing the kennel in her absence. Bentley formerly lived in South Carolina and had bought a dog from Howcroft in March of 2011. Then two months later she moved onto Howcroft's property after persuading the kennel owner she and her children and animals needed a temporary place to stay.

Howcroft said she put Bentley to work in the kennel. She said she considered Bentley a friend, or at least someone she had helped through a hard time and owed her some loyalty. She also testified that Bentley told her she had worked as a veterinary technician, so she felt no hesitation in leaving the kennel in her care, making weekend trips home to check in.

On one of those weekend trips, Howcroft recalled she found that Bentley had " become sloppy" with protocols for managing the kennel's recovery from an outbreak of giardia and coccydia at the kennel (not uncommon in kennels and prevalent in New Mexico as a whole) for which Howcroft had left instructions and medications.

The outbreaks had worsened, and Howcroft told the News she chastised Bentley sharply in a text. She believes Bentley may have been resentful enough to complain to Capitan Police Chief Spear soon afterward that Howcroft had left town without providing for what Bentley described as sick and underfed dogs. Both statements were false, Howcroft said, displaying bills for food and medicine to prove it.

Howcroft admitted she was speculating as to Bentley's motives. She said she doesn't really know why Bentley would have lodged complaints about the kennel. Bentley left the state as charges were being filed against Howcroft and is believed to be living in Colorado.

Those charges eventually included not only cruelty to animals and failure to vaccinate but also a cluster of drug, evidence tampering, identity theft and credit card abuse, 56 counts in all.

They were all dismissed on Feb. 5, 2013.

Ruidoso Malinois is located outside the village of Capitan and the court ruled that Spear had no authority to investigate or search it. None of the evidence the court found he had unlawfully gathered would have been admissible in a trial.

The following June, Howcroft launched her counterattack, the defamation suit filed in the 3rd Judicial District against Spear, Bentley, another Capitan police officer named Kevin Kennedy, Dona Ana County and the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Department, and three other individuals named Mike Bullock, Bill Creasey and Donna Carmichael.

Dona Ana County and its sheriff's department were included because Spear summoned Dona Ana deputies who specialized in animal abuse cases to help him search the kennel and seize Howcroft's dogs. Howcroft says those specialists lacked the knowledge and experience to properly assess her dogs or kennel.

She accused the other defendants of playing varying roles in spreading and embellishing the misinformation that coursed through the internet following the seizure.

With McSwane's help, Howcroft amassed a thick binder of evidence aimed at showing that she was the victim of lies and character assassination. For example, Bullock, a trainer of dog handlers, had accused her of forging his signature on one of his certificates. Howcroft obtained a handwriting expert's assessment that her certificate is genuine.

But as with the criminal charges, she never had to make her case in court.

Spear, Kennedy, and the Dona Ana County defendants all agreed to settle on confidential terms last August. Bill Creasey did the same in January.

The remaining three defendants - Bentley, Bullock and Carmichael - did not contest the lawsuit. Following the April judgment hearing in which Howcroft testified unopposed about what had happened and the harm it had caused her, the court awarded her damages against the three totaling $350,000.

Howcroft said under questioning from the court that she had not asked for more because she believed as a practical matter that she would have a hard time collecting more. She and McSwane said they were taking steps now to enforce the judgment through wage garnishments and liens on property.

Howcroft said she would have preferred court rulings on the merits of her case that forcefully exonerated her in both the criminal and civil proceedings. But she has accepted the outcome as the best she could get.

"This is what happens with a lot of civil litigation," McSwane said. "Clients want a chance to tell their story. Even though we were successful, it in no way compensated her for how much damage they did."

"She had the world by the tail," said Jones of IPS, "and it literally got pulled right out from under her."

Complaint For Damages

Ruidoso Malinois Complaint For Damages (1.8mb pdf)