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