by Charles McGuigan
No one really knew much about him, where he came from, the date of his birth, the circumstances of his life. He was handsome, cute, his disposition sweet even after the cruelty and the indescribable suffering. Despite the extreme pain purposefully inflicted on him, he managed to remain kind. Heroic is how you might describe him.
Everyone knew he had a mother who’d nursed him at birth and swaddled him in unconditional love. But he was separated from her at an extremely young age, and may have never have seen her again.
It was uncertain who had adopted him, and what the first full year of his life was like, which would turn out to be the only year of his life.
Here’s the thing, too: no one even knew his name. That changed, though, after the horrific incident. Now, he’s known the wide world over as Tommie, the pit bull.
Every Richmonder remembers that night in February when someone tied a brindle pit bull to a chain link fence in Jackson Ward’s Abner Clay Park. After tethering the dog to the fence, the assailant sprayed the animal with some kind of accelerant—gasoline, perhaps. The smell might have been unfamiliar to the dog, but he probably sensed fear, and an anxiety that caused him to yelp. Then a match was struck, or a lighter flicked, and flames immediately began devouring the pit bull, who could not escape. It swiftly burnt away his fur, and then began burrowing into his flesh.
The killer, clad in in multiple layers of pants, ran from the park toward Brook Road. He disappeared into the night.
Just across the street from the park, four fighters from Richmond Fire Station No. 5 had just finished their Sunday dinner when a call came over the scanner. Someone had lit a dog on fire. From the open bays they could see the dog. They ran to the park. By then the tether had burned away, and the pit bull was rolling in the damp grass trying to extinguish the flames. All the pit bull wore was a camo collar. There were no tags. No way of ever knowing his name.
Not far from the park, over on Chamberlayne Avenue, Richmond Animal Care and Control (RACC) responded immediately, and took the pit bull to the emergency vet clinic where he was promptly treated. It appeared 40 percent of his body was covered with burns, but for a while there it looked like he might pull through. On Valentine’s Day, Tommie stood up, and wagged his tail. Early the next morning, after staff at RACC freshly dressed his wounds, Tommie the pit bull laid down and died. He wasn’t much more than a year old.
On a cold February night, a few days after Tommie’s death, my son, Charles, and I went to one of a number of open houses held at RACC in lieu of a memorial service there. There were twenty to thirty people there at any one time, and throughout the evening people drifted in an out to pay homage to Tommie. There were paintings and drawings of the pit bull, and hundreds of cards and loving valentines pinned and taped to walls and bulletin boards.
Christie Chipps Peters, RACC director, was hunkered down on the floor with a black pit bull, who had once found refuge here, but has since been adopted.
“It’s like a giant world of emotion,” said Christie, as she stood up. “It started out really, really sad, and we hoped that we could possibly save him, and when he passed away our hearts were broken.”
She remembered how the local community, and folks from halfway around the world, had rallied round Tommie, hoping for his recovery. “This incredible support has just restored our faith in humanity to a level that we never expected,” she told me.
Initially, staff at the emergency vet clinic suspected that about forty percent of Tommie’s body was marred with burns. “But burns don’t show their true colors until day two, or three,” Christie explained. “They just kept coming forward on his skin until at the end, probably eighty percent of his body was covered in burns.”
The flood of support was unprecedented. Along with the cards and letters, and thousands of posts on social media, financial donations flowed in, to help RCCA continue its work for the welfare of animals.
And, of course, there were the healthcare providers. “Tommie had incredible round-the-clock care,” said Christie. “We brought in nurses and physicians from the VCU’s Evans Haynes Burn Center who came down and gave us some wonderful advice, and some of them actually volunteered their own time to do his burn scrubs for us. It’s been an outpouring of community help in every capacity. People just showed up and said, ‘What can we do?’”
Christie pointed to an acrylic painting of a dog that could be Tommie. It was created by an artist from Japan. “The love and the compassion that has come forth from the community is unsurpassed,” she said. “The support has come from across the country, and literally from around the globe.” She paused, and then added, “If every person, in every county and every town, who has focused on this story or made a donation, would go to their local municipal shelter and foster, and adopt, and donate, think of how great animal welfare could be from this point forward.”
On the opposite side of the room, seated in a folding chair was Rob Leinberger, animal control supervisor for RACC and a director with the National Animal Care and Control Association. He has been working in the field of animal protection for nearly three decades.
When I asked him about Tommie, Rob shook his head. “This ranks up there in the top five when it comes to horrific acts done to animals,” he said. “It was something that was deliberate, something that was callous and cruel.”
Along with representatives from other city departments, Rob’s working on the investigation into Tommie’s brutal killing.
“We’re getting a lot of good information from the public,” Rob said. “We’ve got information that we’re processing. And the punishment should be severe for something like this.”
Rob told me that Tommie’s killing struck a particularly strident cord with everyone. “It was a deliberate act,” he said. “There was pain, terror, confusion. Most American households have a pet, so this was as if their own pet had been set on fire. That’s why it shocked the conscience of a lot of people so deeply.”
During his years in animal control, Rob has witnessed significant changes. “I’ve watched the evolution of animal welfare and care,” he said. “The laws that we have now weren’t even in existence when I started.”
A few days after that memorial service, I spoke with a woman who has probably done more for animal protection than anyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Northsider Michelle Welch, a senior assistant attorney general in the Attorney General’s office, is the director of the Animal Law Unit. “Four years ago, Attorney General Mark Herring institutionalized what I’ve been doing for about twelve years in the attorney general’s office,” she said.
Before that, Michelle had been the animal abuse prosecutor for the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. “I was probably the second animal abuse prosecutor in Virginia at that point,” she said. “So when I went to the AG’s office, I had a lot of experience, and so people started calling me and wanting to get advice from me about their animal cases. Over those twelve years, it started evolving where they would ask me to come and special prosecute either an animal abuse or an animal fighting case.”
Along with her prosecutorial duties, Michelle Welch has also become one of the state’s leading authorities on animal abuse law. She frequently conducts training sessions for animal control officers, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors. “It’s all directed at people who are first responders,” said Michelle. “The people who can actually be boots on the ground, and do the animal abuse investigation.”
When she had first entered the field of animal abuse investigation, jurists across the state did not seem to take animal abuse and cruelty very seriously. That has all change. In the near future Michelle will be adding another litigator, and an investigator to her team.
This is a trend gaining traction all across the country. The FBI has begun tracking animal crime, and compiling it in their data base, the National Incident Base Reporting System. “They’re now tracking simple and gross neglect, intentional torture and intentional abuse, organized abuse (things like cock, or dog fighting), and sexual abuse of animals,” Michelle said. “The bottom line is that in a couple years we will know just how prevalent those crimes are.”
Having worked in the trenches for years now, Michelle has witnessed for herself some of the worst behaviors in human beings, the willful torturing and killing defenseless animals. “I will tell you anecdotally that intentional abuse is rarer than simple neglect, but it’s still pretty prevalent,” she said. “And what I teach a lot about is that there’s always a link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence, or human abuse.”
Serial killers, for instance, sometimes begin their acts of sadism with animals, graduating later to human victims. Consider Jeffrey Dahmer. He started out his career of terror buy carving up cats and dogs in his family’s garage. What’s more, his father actually condoned, and encouraged this behavior. “His dad thought he (Jeffrey) was going to become a doctor,” said Michelle. “That broke down barriers, so that any empathy he might have had was kind of destroyed, and he started moving on to killing people.”
Ted Bundy’s proclivity for murder might have had its origins with his family’s pet. ”Either his grandfather killed the family dog in front of him, or his grandfather made him kill it,” Michelle told me. “Not everyone that hurts an animal is going to become a serial killer, but the hurting of an animal should raise a red flag with law enforcement, animal control, and prosecutors, because someone that would hurt an animal is more likely to be a violent person.”
Which brought Michelle to school shooters. “One of the things we see in school shooters’ backgrounds is animal abuse,” she said. “The Columbine kids shot up dogs before they went and shot up the school. What the FBI has tracked with school shooters is they usually go after neighborhood dogs, they don’t usually kill their own dogs. They’re out there kind of target practicing, or doing other things to animals, breaking down those barriers, and then going and shooting up the school.”
There are exceptions to this. Michelle mentions a young man from Pennsylvania. “He killed his own dog, and he journaled about it,” she said. “Then he killed his mother, and then he went to the school and he shot four kids.”
There’s a bottom line here. “If a child is doing anything to an animal that is abusive, that should raise a red flag” said Michelle. “And the worst thing that can happen to a child is that if he kills an animal or abuses an animal and he gets away with it. Because that sets him up for a lifetime of offending.”
Michelle then talks about animal abuse, and how it relates to domestic violence. “There was a case just a year ago in Alexandria where a man kicked a kitten, broke its legs, took a video of that, and sent it to his girlfriend, the owner of the kitten,” she says. “He also threw her ferrets out the window. Animal control responded, and took care of the animal part.”
Unfortunately, the man’s rage and violence would not be curbed. “Twenty-four hours later the girlfriend was stabbed to death by the man,” Michelle recalled.
Animal violence and cruelty are used as a method of control and asserting power. “Sometimes they do it because the domestic violence victim is paying too much attention to the animal,” Michelle explained. “They do it as a way to have power and control over her. We also see intentional animal abuse used to keep children, who are being sexually abused, silent.”
She remembered one case that occurred in Richmond. A three-year old girl was sexually abused for ten years by a predator. “That particular man, who was the little girl’s stepfather, killed a kitten to keep her silent,” said Michelle. “Then he took a cross bow and he shot her dog.” That action, which occurred when the girl was thirteen, was also meant to keep the child silent about the sexual abuse. “But it had the opposite effect,” Michelle added. “The girl finally came forward. We see that over and over again. Our child advocacy centers have given me anecdotal stories where they’re doing something to the dog to keep the child silent, so they don’t come forward.”
And whenever a child abuses an animal, this is a probably a good indicator that something bad is going on at home. “It should signal for people to take a closer look because a child doesn’t usually hurt an animal,” said Michelle. “If they’re doing something to an animal, it means that there’s something larger going on in that particular household.”
She fleshed out a recent case that involved two boys—one four, the other five years old—who beat kittens to death with drapery rods. “We’re worried that maybe the father is beating the mother and they’re witnessing that,” Michelle said. “Or maybe he’s doing something to them, and they’re basically emulating what they’re seeing.
A new law, which will be effective July 1, makes intentional abuse to cause serious bodily injury to a pet a Class 6 felony, which carries a prison sentence of one to five years. “It took us three years to get that law passed,” Michelle said.
She then told me about a case in Richmond where someone had thrown acid in a German shepherd’s face. “His name was Elton, he was blinded by the acid, and he was the sweetest German shepherd you’ve ever seen,” Michelle remembered. “We never did find who did that, but it was a very deliberate act of violence.”
“Every Halloween there’s some animal that someone has ritually hurt or killed,” said Michelle. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten calls where someone finds the head of a dog, or the head of a goat, or a cat that is skinned alive. Intentional abuse does happen and it’s important to treat it very, very seriously.”
Aside from being warning signs of violent behavior that could escalate into acts of human violence, animals simply deserve protection under the law.
“They feel pain, they grieve,” Michelle said. “They deserve protection in and of themselves. They’re just like children, and we protect our children. There’s no reason not to protect our animals. Someone who is violent to an animal rarely stops there. They’re violent in all of their dealings. Animal fighting is very violent. Someone who would fight a dog, or a rooster, are violent people, and so therefore we need to treat them very seriously, and make sure we punish them accordingly.”
“I think what’s important to keep in perspective is that most people are fundamentally good,” Michelle Welch concluded. “They love their animals, they take very good care of their animals. But there are a percentage of people who are violent.”
Thirty years ago, an incident occurred that would never leave my thoughts, and almost killed my desire to do something I had loved doing since I was a child. My three brothers and I were down on the Outer Banks for a long weekend. We fished in the surf some days, and other days off the catwalk of the Bonner Bridge, or from one of the piers that spear the Atlantic along that section of the coast.
Late one afternoon, just as the tide began coming in, we carried our gear out to Jeanette’s Pier. We stripped out squid, and baited hooks, weaving the barbed ends through the white flesh like needles through sailcloth. And then we worked our way along the length of the pier from the first line breakers out to the broad tip, all the while jigging for summer flounder. We each caught a keeper, almost doormat-size, and laid them out on the ice discs in the cooler, after we had gutted them.
We were going to call it a day, when a group of seven men, probably around our age, lugged offshore gear out to the tip of the pier. They had a veritable train of wheeled-coolers, the size of small caskets, that followed them. When they reached the tip, they set up a small camp there. They were loud, and they were drunk. One of the men held a stout offshore trolling rod with a massive Penn reel, the sort of gear you might use on a Sportfisherman out of Pirate’s Cove heading for the Gulf Stream.
From a distance, my brothers and I watched the man with the offshore rod tie a long steel leader to the end of his line. We noticed that he threaded the line through a small white disc no larger than a dime. He then secured the rig, and baited the hook with either a large Spanish mackerel, or a small skipjack. We couldn’t tell from that distance. He buried the hook deep within the fish, then did something we had never seen before. He inflated a large plastic leaf bag with air, secured the mouth with a twist tie, and then attached this massive black balloon to the small white disc on his line. Turned out to be a single peppermint Lifesaver. He then lowered the rig to the water, and as the lead weight sunk as far down as it could, the black bag spread out like a dome, and slowly bobbed on the surface as the tide shifted outward, toward the horizon.
He explained to us that they were deep water fishing; that by the time the Lifesaver had melted, the rig would be a half-mile offshore.
“Ingenious,” my brother Marty said, and the man looked at him as if he were bewildered by the word itself.
Within the hour, the fisherman had a strike, and the pole bent, and the line sang out, and the fisherman secured a gimbal around his waist, and put his back into landing whatever was on the other side of the line.
“Shark?” one of his friends asked.
But the fisherman shook his head. “No way. This is dead weight.”
It took him a full hour to drag the fish to the pier, and as it neared the pilings below us we could see it thrashing in the water. Two of the fisherman’s friends lowered a pair of grappling hooks secured to thick, yellow nylon line over the rail. Each managed to lodge a fluke into the broad mouth of what turned out to be a giant ray, and then began hoisting the catch upward.
It was enormous, and hit the deck of the pier like a barrel, and then its fins began slapping at the planks, thunderously. It was a ray, all right, kite-shaped, the biggest I’d ever seen with a six-foot wing span, seven feet long from mouth to tail tip, fully ten-inches thick, easily a hundred pounds.
My brothers and I expected the group of men to cut the leader, and slip the ray under the rail, and let it slide back into its watery world. But these men had other plans. They flipped the ray (to this day I don’t know if it was a cownose or a manta) onto its back. Its solid white belly seemed almost luminescent in the dwindling light. Now, the sun was halved by the horizon, and the shadows grew long. The two men who had brought the ray up to pier, stood on either side of body, then knelt beside it. The ray was no longer slapping the deck frantically. It seemed to realize that something bad was about to happen. That’s when we saw the men pull their fillet knives from the tan sheaths that swung from their belts. They raised the knives in unison.
“Hold on,” my brother Chris yelled, and we all stepped forward.
And the fisherman turned to us, and screamed, “Mind your own ****ing business.” That fisherman wore a John Deere nylon mesh cap backward on his balding head, and his eyes were the palest blue, almost white.
By then, four of the men blocked our view of the ray, but we could see shadows of the fillet knives come down, and we could hear the blades cutting through the skin of the enormous animal. There was no other sound.
Not long after that, the seven men left the pier, staggering drunkenly toward the shore, and their trucks and cars. My brothers and I returned to the ray and surrounded her. Almost all the light had seeped out of the world, the sun sucking it down below the horizon. Colors changed, and we could see black pools of liquid near the angry gash that ran across the ray’s belly. I put my finger into one of those pools, and brought it up to my squinting eyes: it was deep red. Near the whip-like tail there was a small mound of something that looked slimy. There were four unborn rays, stacked one on top of the other, each an exact replica of its mother. They were no more than eight or nine inches long, and still bore part of their yolk sacks. We held up the young rays, but they were limp and lifeless. So each of us dropped one back into the ocean. And then we lifted the mother up and dropped her over to join her young—a fitting burial at sea.
It would be ten years before I ever fished again. But eventually I would, and I have since instructed my son and my daughter in the art of angling, and both have become skilled at it. If we don’t plan on eating what we catch, we always release it, gently removing the hook, then kissing the fish on its forehead before lowering it to the soothing ocean currents. When we do kill a fish for consumption—blues, stripers, speckled trout, puppy drum, croaker—we do it reverentially, silently begging forgiveness, and thanking the founder of the seafood feast.
To this day, every time I sever the head of a fish from its body, flake the scales away with the edge of my knife, then cut into its body and scrape away the entrails, I feel a deep queasiness and grow light-headed as an unconscious acknowledgement of the frightful deed I have just performed. May that always be the case.