By Mike Weland
A Moyie Springs woman is mourning the loss of her companion of nearly 15 years, a crusty old gentleman who prefers being outside rather than inside with her. By all accounts, her gent can be a cantankerous sort, but with her, he is ever loving. Ever there. Until a day in August when, on the basis of a stranger’s allegations, her dedicated companion was taken from her while she was miles away, shopping for, among other things, a pair of clippers with which to tame the old gent’s unruly locks, having noticed the need while giving him a bath that very morning.
Juanita Vasquez, a longtime Boundary County resident, 74 and disabled, acquired Topo when he was but a pup, a tiny white Shih Tzu mix. Over the ensuing years Juanita was his whole life. All he knew, she contends, until a stranger came into her Moyie Springs yard on the morning of August 12 while she was away and took him. Convincing a sheriff’s deputy and a local veterinarian that Topo was victim of cruel abuse at her hands, they subsequently convinced a judge that Topo was better off in a shelter than with her.
It may not be so.
Topo grumbled a lot, barked a good bit and complained about most everything, Juanita said, but he was a loving and faithful companion. They are, Juanita said, devoted to one another, and knowing the anguish she feels at his absence convinces her that Topo is as distraught as she is, scared and alone. Wanting only to be home after too many months away.
On the morning of August 12, she said, she gave Topo a bath and let him dry as she got ready for her grandchildren to arrive for a trip to Coeur d’Alene they’d been planning. As time neared, she let Topo out into the kennel run in her yard where Topo spent most of his time, his doghouse tucked next to her house in the corner off the back of the front porch. As had become a long-practiced routine repeated many times on just such days, she took him food and water, plenty to last for the time she’d be away.
She was in Coeur d’Alene when her phone rang and Boundary County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Reynolds explained to her that he was taking her dog, though she couldn’t quite grasp the gravity of what she was hearing.
“Vasquez told me she was in Coeur d’Alene and that she could have someone come get the dog,” Reynolds wrote in his affidavit of probable cause. “I advised her the dog was being taken to the vet and then the shelter and I was just notifying her.”
With no mention of the time of occurrence, Reynolds wrote that he had been hailed by a resident, later identified as Richard Dalton Clark Jr. who said he’d just removed a dog from “the front porch of the residence at …” which turned out to be Juanita and Topo’s home. “He said the owner, later identified as Juanita Vasquez, had put the dog in a cage on the front porch the previous day and he could still hear it barking. When he went to check on it today, he found it in the same spot and it appeared dehydrated, unable to move and covered in flies and feces. Clark showed me the dog and I confirmed his observations.”
A neighbor, not then knowing who he was, also saw Clark that morning and became suspicious as he appeared to be casing both her home and Juanita’s, that he had stopped and asked her if she had a cage only adding to her unease.
When she saw him enter Juanita’s yard, she hurriedly grabbed her cell phone and shot a grainy 13-second video of him taking Topo.
It does not match the narrative Reynolds described in his sworn affidavit.
Instead of him going onto the porch and to a cage, he goes around the porch to the corner where Topo’s doghouse sits. He can be seen kneeling, back to camera, then standing. Topo, swaddled in a blanket, is in his arms. As Clark moves toward a nearby pet carrier on the ground, Topo can be seen looking around, his white head and face unblemished.
“I got worried by the way this guy was acting,” Juanita’s neighbor said. “Topo was in the yard where he always was and this guy was walking around our houses acting weird. I never seen him before.”
In all the time she’s known Juanita, she said, she’s never seen any indication that Topo had been abused, malnourished or filthy.
“He barked, but that was just his way,” she said.
“Based upon the dog’s presentation and appearance,” Reynolds wrote, “I formed the opinion it was in the best interest of the animal to take it to a veterinarian and then have it placed at the animal shelter in Bonners Ferry.”
He dropped Topo off at the Bonners Ferry Veterinary Clinic in the care of Dr. Lauren Gentle, DVM.
“Dr. Lauren Gentle provided me with a copy of her findings and treatment when I returned to pick up the dog and transport it to 2nd Chance Animal Shelter. The main items of significance Dr. Gentle noted:
• The dog was covered in millions of maggots that would have eventually eaten the dog alive
• The dog’s hair was soaked in urine and fecal matter.”
Calls to Dr. Gentle were not returned and a request for a copy of her findings went unanswered. But …
The average housefly larva, or maggot, weighs .199 grams. For the sake of simplicity, let’s round it to an even .2 grams, the equivalent of .00044th of a pound. Multiply that out and just one million maggots would weigh 440 pounds. And maggot species that eat living flesh are relatively rare, primarily the botfly, which lay a limited number of eggs to avoid killing their host. (Correction/Author’s note: In the initial version of the article, I misplaced the decimal in the average weight of a housefly maggot, rounding from 1.9 grams to 2, leading to a result of 4,400 pounds … over two tons. I regret the error, now corrected. ~ mw)
Most maggots eat only dead or dying flesh, and some are even used medically to clean wounds. And one other point of relative importance — flies are not prone to waste energy laying eggs on what their larva can’t eat, which is why you seldom, if ever, see maggots on healthy flesh. Unless Topo had serious injury and resultant areas of dead or decaying flesh, it is highly unlikely he’d be maggot infested. And if he did have such wounds, it is highly unlikely that he would have been released to or accepted at a shelter.
On August 21, Vasquez was charged with committing cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. In addition, a conviction can result in forfeiture of the abused animal.
“That the Defendant, JUANITA VASQUEZ, on or about the 12th day of August 2023, in the County of Boundary, State of Idaho, did cruelly treat an animal, to-wit: a 14 year old dog, by subjecting the animal to needless suffering by allowing the dog to become covered in millions of maggots, and by confining the dog in unsanitary conditions without food or water …” the complaint reads.
As the days turned into weeks, then months, Juanita tried many times, she said, to get word of her Topo, to hear if he was okay, but each time she reached someone at Second Chance she was told they had no dogs matching Topo’s description, sorry.
On December 22, a hearing was held before Judge Justin Julian to consider a petition to forfeit Topo. Juanita listened as Dr. Gentle went over her findings and deputy Reynolds testified that he hadn’t actually gone onto the Vasquez property, but based his decisions on what he was told by Clark and by looking at the dog. He said he did see the porch, and flies around it.
Juanita maintained her innocence, testifying of her life with Topo, the routines. How she gave him that last bath, telling him he needed a haircut, having to leave before she could comb him out. Topo is her baby she said. She misses him.
Her attorney, a public defender appointed to represent her, called no one to speak on Juanita’s behalf … not the neighbor who took the video nor the grandchildren who drove her to Coeur d’Alene and had also seen Topo that morning. Inexplicably, he didn’t submit the 13-second video as evidence on her behalf. Instead, he argued without evidence of a conspiracy between the deputy and the vet to steal Topo, a conjecture the judge dismissed out of hand.
Judge Julian found fault with the state’s case, noting that they had no photographic evidence, only the observations of those who testified, but he concluded the state had met its burden, agreeing with prosecutor Andrakay Pluid that the abuse wasn’t intentional, that Juanita Vasquez was simply no longer able to care for Topo properly. He asked what would happens to the dog.
“Adopted out,” the hearing minutes read Pluid said. “Have someone who wants to take him,”
On December 26, the day after Christmas, Judge Julian formalized it, issuing an order to forfeit animal on the same day Andrakay filed motion to dismiss the criminal charge against Vasquez. She’ll have to pay Second Chance a 30-day boarding fee of $600.
Still Juanita can’t accept that she’ll never again see her Topo.
“I know Topo,” she said. “There were no maggots on him. Ever. No urine or feces. I saw some minor skin irritation and I was doing something about it. I don’t know why they lied, why they won’t listen. But I won’t give up.”