Bodega couple and their poodle win expensive legal victory in dead-cat whodunit

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Before we examine the events that led a Sonoma County Superior Court judge to dismiss the charges against a 10-pound poodle earlier this month, let us observe a moment of silence for Bandit.

A beloved calico cat owned by Linda and Michael Parish, Bandit was found in the front yard of their Bodega home on Jan. 6, 2018, soaking wet and clinging to life. The cat died later in the day. A witness who happened to be jogging past heard a feline in distress and looked over the fence. As the jogger later stated in court, she saw “the back ends” of two dogs, one a “small gray dog,” the other a “tan, mid-sized dog with a nub tail.”

Fred Johnson and Anna Kovina are the Parishes’ neighbors. In addition to sheep, goats and other animals on their small farm, they owned a pair of dogs: Ollie, the poodle, is brown, not gray. Cash, not exactly “mid-sized” at 80 pounds, is “very much a brown, or caramel color,” said Johnson, an accountant. “I wouldn’t call him tan.”

Johnson and Kovina also point out that, while the cat had suffered crushing injuries, it had no bite marks or puncture wounds. Nor was Bandit bloodied. “None of this is consistent with a dog bite attack,” said Kovina, a corporate attorney who has stepped aside from practicing law while she raises the couple’s three young children.

None of those discrepancies altered the conclusion of Michael Parish, who happens to be Cotati’s police chief. As he told Johnson in a phone conversation the day after the incident, “Fred, your dogs killed my cat.”

“Are you sure it was my dogs?” said Johnson.

“I’m absolutely sure,” replied Parish, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Thus began Johnson and Kovina’s 15-month odyssey through Sonoma County’s court system, which cost over $10,000 in legal fees and ended up “in a Monty Python movie,” wisecracked county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. After hearing from Kovina on the eve of the second trial involving Ollie and Cash, Hopkins reached out to the County Counsel’s Office to ask, “Why are we prosecuting a miniature poodle?”

They were pursuing Ollie because Kim Adragna, the Animal Health Services officer who conducted the investigation, was convinced of the poodle’s guilt.

In a phone conversation two weeks after the cat’s death, Adragna had given Kovina an ultimatum: voluntarily have the dogs declared “potentially dangerous” over the phone, or she would see them in court.

Dogs deemed potentially dangerous by the state spend the next three years on a kind of canine probation. They can then be designated “vicious,” if another incident is reported. “Once that happens, things escalate, and they can seize your dogs,” said Kovina.

Feeling railroaded, surprised by what they viewed as a lack of due process, and incredulous that Adragna hadn’t interviewed them or seen and assessed their dogs, Johnson and Kovina decided to fight the charges.

Jeff Berk, deputy county counsel, defended the investigation, describing it in an email as “appropriate given the relatively minor conditions sought by the petition, and eyewitness statements identifying the two dogs, one boxer and one poodle, standing over the dying cat.”

As Johnson and Kovina’s lawyer pointed out in the first hearing, there was just a single eyewitness, the jogger, who never positively identified Cash and Ollie, and never spoke the words “boxer” or “poodle.” Indeed, her description of the dogs she saw was an imprecise match for them.

Adragna, however, testified the dogs were a threat to public safety, citing witness testimony — the Parishes’ cat-sitter stated that Cash and Ollie had escaped from their yard “numerous times” — and various exhibits. Those included a pushed-in fence board under which Ollie and Cash had allegedly burrowed to gain access to the property, and a “muddy paw print” near a window the cat used to get into the house.

Unmoved by the defense’s pointing out that the fence plank in question borders another neighbor’s property, not the dog owners’, the judge ruled against the defendants following a three-hour hearing. Ollie and Cash would be designated potentially dangerous animals.

Johnson and Kovina felt bullied by the process. They suspected that Parish’s status as a police chief exerted undue influence on the case, noting that he’d sent Adragna an email three weeks after Bandit’s death from his official city of Cotati account, informing her, among other things, that Fred had tried to talk him into dropping the case, that Anna “is a lawyer” and that “they will be fighting this.”

On the witness stand, Adragna was asked if she knew that Parish was a local police chief. “No, sir,” she said. Both Berk and Parish, in separate emails, flatly denied the case was swayed by his connection to the police department.

Kovina filed papers to obtain a trial de novo, in which all the evidence would be considered anew.

Harboring serious doubts about the impartiality of the county’s Animal Control office, Johnson and Kovina worried that if Cash was involved in another incident — real or made up — it would be “almost like a death warrant,” she said.

With heavy hearts, they decided to send the boxer to safety outside California. One March afternoon, Anna loaded Cash and her three kids, aged 11, 8 and 4, into the car. They drove 30 minutes to meet a woman who would take Cash to his new home with a family in Bellingham, Washington. “I had to sit in that car with all three kids bawling their eyes out because they were losing their dog,” said Anna.

Once opposing counsel was informed that Cash was out of the picture, Johnson and Kovina hoped the county’s lawyers would drop their case against Ollie, the 10-pound poodle. “It’s not just that he’s small,” said Kovina. “It’s that he’s grown up with lots of young children, cats, bunnies, and has zero history of biting or even the slightest aggression.”

Too bad, came the county’s reply. We’re prosecuting the poodle.

Shortly after being informed of that decision, Supervisor Hopkins contacted the County Counsel’s Office, questioning whether “this was a sensible use of taxpayer dollars.”

The county made a settlement offer. It would drop all charges should Kovina and Johnson agreed to voluntarily designate Ollie as a dangerous dog if, at any point over the next two years, he were to be involved in another incident.

No deal, said Ollie’s owners. The county countered: How about if, instead of two years, we make it 120 days?

Not happening, came the reply.

At the second trial, the county brought just a single witness, Adragna. Its other witnesses were no-shows, so Adragna’s statements were “insufficient on their own to uphold the charge,” said Berk. Judge Arthur A. Wick halted the proceedings and dismissed the charges against both dogs before the defense had called a single witness.

Asked if he was disappointed by the verdict, and if he believes the miniature poodle remains a threat, Parish responded by email, “We respect the court’s decision to dismiss the case.”

Kovina and Johnson now seek an independent investigation of the county’s office of Animal Health Services, which they describe as an unaccountable, “black box” operation.

Meanwhile, their children still ask when Cash is coming back. He’s not. But, according to Kovina, he is settling in nicely with his new family, which includes a cat.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88

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