Editor's Note: More information has been added to this story.
The much publicized lawsuit between Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge and an elderly Ellisville couple over the seizure of their five household pets from their property on Lyon Ranch Road is over. An order of dismissal signed by Circuit Judge Dal Williamson and filed on Tuesday, October 8 ended the litigation that captured its share of print and TV headlines in the Pine Belt for over a year. At the center of the case was how the Sennes lost their five household pets.
As part of the agreement to end the case, the aggravated animal cruelty charges against David and Mary Ellen Senne were dropped. Those charges had initiated in Justice Court and were dismissed with an order signed by Justice Court Judge Billie J. Graham as part of the settlement. The Sennes also received $5,000.00 in compensation, per a court document. The agreement releases Hodge and HSUS from “all claims, losses, damages or injuries” sustained by the plaintiffs that were related to the July 11, 2018, search and seizure.
According to a statement dated September 20 and signed by G. Thomas Waite II, acting chief operating officer of the Humane Society of the United States (a joint defendant with Hodge in the case), the five dogs that were not voluntarily relinquished by the Sennes on July 11, 2018, were immediately taken to a temporary shelter in Ellisville. They were cared for at the shelter before being turned over by court order to the Sheriff’s Department on July 19, 2018. The Sheriff’s Department then transferred ownership of the five dogs to HSUS. Two days later, according to the HSUS statement, the pets were flown to Manassas, Virginia, and handed over to Angels of Assisi, an animal welfare organization that operates an animal shelter in Roanoke, Virginia. The five dogs were then adopted out to “forever homes” by September 5, 2018.
That aligns with some information conveyed by HSUS back in the summer in a motion for summary judgment. In that motion HSUS presented the affidavit of Sara Varsa, who was reportedly the vice president of the HSUS Animal Rescue Team, to show that they no longer had possession of the animals. According to Varsa’s understanding, the five animals were transferred to the Washington, D.C., area “on or about July 21, 2018.” The animals were then supposedly transferred “to another animal rescue organization to provide veterinary care and to find the animals permanent homes.” Manassas is about 30 miles from Washington, D.C.
The September 20 written statement from HSUS was part of the settlement that J. Ronald Parrish, one of the Sennes’ attorneys, thought imperative to get on record.
“It was important to me that this Humane Society had to file under oath what supposedly happened to those five animals.”
He considers it odd that the organization would fly five older dogs nearly a 1,000 miles to find them a home, and he thinks HSUS “hijacks people in their sympathy for pets to try and fund their nefarious political activities.” The former Jones County assistant district attorney’s opinion of HSUS is that they are a “total fraud,” an organization he says gives very little funding to local humane shelters that actually try to help animals.
“They are the ones who in effect actually stole the five dogs from these people,” he added. Parrish believes that it’s in the best interest of the five older animals to not be flown back to Mississippi, if the Manassas area is indeed where they were taken, and that interest is one of the reasons that the Sennes agreed to the settlement.
HSUS’s website notes that the organization is an accredited charity by the Better Business Bureau and states its mission as follows: “The Humane Society of the United States is the nation’s largest and most effective animal protection organization. We and our affiliates provide hands-on care and services to more than 100,000 animals each year, and we professionalize the field through education and training for local organizations. We are the leading animal advocacy organization, seeking a humane world for people and animals alike. We are driving transformational change in the U.S. and around the world by combating large-scale cruelties such as puppy mills, animal fighting, factory farming, seal slaughter, horse cruelty, captive hunts and the wildlife trade.”
In an earlier interview this summer, Hodge said that the financial assistance granted by HSUS was an enormous help to Jones County as related to the care of the big group of animals seized from the Sennes’ property.
In addition to the five dogs that were not voluntarily surrendered by the Sennes, 50 live dogs and 34 live cats were voluntarily surrendered that day to HSUS. Seventeen dead animals were removed from the Sennes’ property at the time the search and seizure warrant was executed.
The five household dogs and not the larger group of animals taken were the core of the lawsuit by the Sennes against the sheriff and HSUS.
The Sennes had argued in court over the past months that a deal was in place for them to keep the five household pets. According to court documents, there was a video taken at the scene and some hand-written words on an HSUS animal surrender form that lent some support to their assertion.
Later, as the matter escalated into circuit court, Williamson cited concerns regarding violations of the Sennes’ 4th Amendment rights, and he ruled in July of this year that the plaintiffs 14th Amendment rights were violated. The 4th Amendment protects citizens from unlawful search and seizures, and the 14th Amendment ensures as one of its protections “due process” of law. The judge cited numerous higher court cases to support his determinations, including case precedents from both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Hodge and HSUS had filed an interlocutory appeal to the Supreme Court after Williamson’s July rulings, but a recent decision from the higher court rejected that appeal. A bench trial had been set for October 15 in Ellisville, before the parties reached the agreement to settle the case.
Parrish pointed out that none of the rulings by Williamson were invalidated by the decision to settle the case.
“They (Williamson’s rulings) have not been reversed by any court. We chose to resolve it this way. We got everything we could have gotten had we went to a trial,” stated Parrish.
“This was a suit about five dogs, and a lot of judges would not have paid attention to it, but we are very fortunate that we have a circuit judge who was interested in actual justice of the matter rather than just the value of it,” added Parrish. “I appreciate him spending a great deal of time on this. I hope everyone can move on from this. I think it’s a total vindication; the justice system prevailed in this case, thanks to the circuit judge and the attention he gave this matter.”
One person who wanted the case to get more attention, specifically in the form of a trial, is Lt. David Ward of the Sheriff’s Department. Ward was the lead officer in the investigation involving the allegations against the Sennes. He says he has no ill will toward the Sennes and he very much respects the military service given by Lt. Col. David Senne, but he stated that “I one hundred percent believe everything was handled right. Everything that was put in the civil order I believe that I could rebut with the best lawyer out there, and I’m not even an attorney. “
Ward, who launched the investigation in 2018 after getting four signed sworn statements from Southern Cross Animal Rescue volunteers about the pitiful condition of the animals at the Sennes’ property, said he spent a tremendous amount of his time over the past year on the case and is very dissatisfied that it concluded as it did. Ward, who has handled big felony cases during his time working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and also large cases in circuit court, explained that the Sennes’ case file (which involved misdemeanor charges) was larger than a $10 million drug case involving 159 kilos of cocaine he once worked. The complete file is hundreds of pages thick. When asked how he wanted the case to end, Ward answered quickly.
“I would have definitely took it to trial. I stand firm that no violation of the 4th Amendment occurred. I’ve researched it and had numerous lawyers look over it. There’s no way, according to the statute, that I violated the 4th Amendment.”
Ward did not know that a settlement was coming on Tuesday, October 8, until just a short time before the 11:00 a.m. meeting in Justice Court. He immediately drove over to the courtroom.
“I interrupted the proceedings respectfully,” he recollected. “I said ‘Your honor, may I speak?’ She (Justice Court Judge Billie Graham) said yes. I told them that I wanted it on record that I disagreed with everything being done today.”
Ward was then dismissed from the courtroom, he said. The veteran law enforcement officer knows he must accept the conclusion, and there is one thing about the entire episode that he gleans satisfaction from.
“The thing I can go home about is that the animals are taken care of now,” he commented. “The Humane Society does post pictures of them. And the fact that maybe, just maybe, the Sennes are saying to themselves that ‘we can’t get overwhelmed again. We need to scale it back.’ If they even acknowledge that, then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job pretty good.”
Hodge and HSUS maintained throughout the judicial process that they followed legal guidelines in seizing the animals.