The woman who broke into the All About Animals rescue shelter last year and released more than 20 dogs pleaded guilty Friday to theft and criminal trespass.
Crystal Gale Fessler apologized moments before she was sentenced as part of a negotiated plea bargain.
Fessler must serve one year in jail followed by four years on probation. She will receive credit for time she already has served at the Bibb County jail since Nov. 14.
She also must undergo substance abuse evaluation and counseling, pay a $500 fine and complete 200 hours of community service.
On Oct. 16, an intoxicated Fessler jumped the fence at the shelter, located at 101 Riverside Drive, and opened cages, prosecutor Villy Stolper said.
She released the dogs because she wrongfully believed the facility was a “kill shelter.” Some of the released dogs began fighting each other and three died. Several others were injured, he said.
The theft charge stems from the shelter losing the $150 adoption fee they ordinarily would have charged for the released dogs, Stolper said.
Fessler’s lawyer, Andrew Jenkins, said his client has taken responsibility for her actions.
She confessed when there wasn’t much evidence against her, he said.
She is “embarrassed” and “humiliated,” Jenkins said. “Ms. Fessler didn’t intend for any harm to come to the animals.”
He said Fessler tried to break up the fights between the dogs and received a bite that required her to be hospitalized.
There’s no evidence that Fessler “acted maliciously toward the dogs” or that she has shown “malice” toward animals in the past, Stolper said.
She has no criminal history other than a past DUI, he said.
Two shelter volunteers spoke during the hearing held in Bibb County Superior Court.
Lacey Templeton placed a box on the witness stand facing Chief Judge Tripp Self. The box held the ashes of Jake, a bulldog mix, killed in the incident. A photo of the dog was affixed to the side of the box.
Jake came to the shelter with several shotgun wounds and was mistrusting of humans, Templeton said.
Prior to his death, volunteers had worked with Jake for months to rehabilitate him in preparation for adoption, she said.
Templeton cried as she talked about how other dogs were “forever altered” by what transpired after Fessler opened the kennels.
Kyle Gossett, a veterinary technician who volunteers at the shelter, carried a box containing ashes for Flap Jack, a hound mix.
“This day was the worst I think I’ve ever seen,” Gossett said. “All it takes is one act like this, and it shatters completely and totally everything we try to do.”
Gossett said volunteers have had to start over from scratch rehabilitating some of the animals who witnessed the incident, even those who were not physically injured.
Before announcing Fessler’s sentence, Self said, “I appreciate what the folks do over there. They do some good work. I appreciate that. I guess I was listening to the (assistant) district attorney saying that it’s devastating to our community ... I wish we could get devastated about four humans being killed.”
Nine people have been killed in seven homicide investigations in Bibb County this year.
“I appreciate your passion,” Self went on to say. “I just wish the community as a whole would get worried about humans killing each other instead of, or as much as we get worked up about animals killing each other. I certainly want to live in a community where we care about animals. I just want to live in a community where we care about people more.”
After the hearing, Templeton commented about what the judge said.
“I think that it would be great if people were as passionate about saving other people as they are dogs, but we all have our own thing that we do. There are lots of people that are passionate about saving children or working with the homeless,” she said. “What we choose to do is work with dogs because they don’t have their own voice. They can’t speak for themselves.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.